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Basketball’s new American Idol

Kevin Durant leads Team USA to surprising gold medal

Sports Editor

Published: Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 13:09


While Shaq danced with Justin Bieber and LeBron James tweeted from college football games, Kevin Durant spent the last month representing his country on the basketball court. Unlike many of his peers, Durant is a basketball first and a basketball player second. It’s been a formula that’s worked well in the NBA and now for Team USA.

Durant scored 28 points to lead Team USA to a world championship gold medal Sunday against Turkey. The team quieted the Istanbul crowd early in the game and pulled away late to win 81-64.

It was the United State’s first title since 1994. The previous three teams the United States sent to the world championships included All-Stars such as Paul Pierce, James, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony. This year, all of those stars opted out of the world championships, including the rest of USA’s 2008 gold-medal Olympics team.

With Durant and Chauncey Billups leading a young, undersized roster, the 2010 Team USA was supposed to struggle. The team had only two of the NBA’s top 15 scores and more troubling, none of the top 15 rebounders. Six players on the roster were under the age of 22 and only one player on the team, Tyson Chandler, was a true center. American critics and fans began to call them the “B-Team”.

Two things happened to change the initial cynicism. First of all, many of the world’s top players also opted out of international play. Spain’s Pau Gasol, Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, Russia’s Andrei Kirilenko and China’s Yao Ming all did not play for their respective countries. An injured Manu Ginobli did not play for Argentina while his Spurs teammate Tony Parker and Bulls forward Joakim Noah opted out of France’s squad. Suddenly the United States weren’t the only country having to play left-handed.

The second part of Team USA’s dominating undefeated run through the world championships was the other-worldly performance of Durant. The 21-year-old averaged 22.8 points per game and broke two significant scoring records in the process. His 38 points against Lithuania broke the US single-game record of 35 held by Carmelo Anthony and his 205 total points broke Luther Burden’s 182 for most points in a tournament.

Usually known for his quite demeanor, Durant was the outspoken leader of the team. Throughout the tournament, he put his entire arsenal on display: an improved outside shot, the ability to get to the line and explosiveness around the rim. At one point in the final, he hit back-to-back three pointers and reportedly celebrated by pounding his chest and shouting at Turkish fans sitting courtside.

Beyond improving his own image, Durant understood he was playing for something bigger than himself. Saturday, before the semifinal match with Lituania, Durant wrote on his Twitter page: “May God bless those who were effected by the events on Sept 11, 2001….9-11-01 on my shoes guys will watch over us.”

Durant’s unique form of loyalty first became evident when he came into the league and signed a seven-year, $60 million endorsement with Nike. With that deal, the then-rookie had reportedly turned down a $70 million endorsement from Adidas because he had worn Nike his whole life. He won the 2009 and 2010 H-O-R-S-E contest during the All-Star game, a competition most All-Stars would scoff at. This year he also coached the rookies at the Rookie Challenge.

Durant won the NBA scoring title last season, beating out LeBron James with an average of 30.1 points per game. He also set the record for most games in a row of at least 25 points with 29 straight. Durant’s first three seasons in the league have quietly been one of the best in the history of the NBA. No other Rookie of the Year winner averaged at least 20 points a game as a rookie and improved at least 4.8 points the next two years.

The young star will tell you, just as he expressed in the world championship, stats mean a whole lot less than his team’s performance. As a rookie, Durant’s Seattle Supersonics won a measly 20 games. The next year they won 23 and last year, the Thunder made it to the playoffs with 50 wins. It was the sixth biggest turnaround in NBA history and Oklahoma City took the eventual champs, Los Angeles, to six games in the opening round of the playoffs.

The future is bright for Durant, who seems to have taken the baton from Tim Duncan as the league’s silent upstanding citizen. While LeBron made the loudest off-season signing in NBA history, Durant made the quietest. On July 7, he announced via Twitter that he had signed a 5-year extension to stay with the Thunder. It went relatively unnoticed by the press, just as Durant had intended.

You can count on one hand the number of NBA players that are impossible to root against. There are certain players who come to your favorite team’s home court and you instinctually clap for when they make great plays. For the last half-decade, we all viewed LeBron James as the archetypical example of this. In the span of a few short days, he takes his talents to south beach and America is left without that great, unconditionally appreciative basketball star.

Larry Bird. Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan. LeBron James. Every decade has one. Ready or not, the next ten years belong to Kevin Durant.

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