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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Epic Athletes: Kevin Durant

Epic Athletes (Volume 8)

Dan Wetzel; illustrations by Marcelo Baez

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1

The Shot


IT WAS THE FINAL MINUTE of the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the 2017 National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals and a single basket—or rebound, steal, missed shot, or turnover—by either team could swing not just this neck-and-neck contest, but potentially the entire championship. The Cleveland Cavaliers led the Golden State Warriors, 113–111 in a matchup that was about as close and tense as basketball can get.

Golden State had jumped to a 2–0 lead in the best-of-seven Finals, but heading into this contest, the Warriors knew better than to get overconfident. Just a year prior they’d won seventy-three regular season games and led these same Cavs 3–1 in The Finals. They’d looked like one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Then LeBron James led a historic comeback that saw Cleveland win Games 5, 6, and 7 and take the NBA championship.

Now a year later, late in Game 3, every single Warriors player, coach, and fan had to wonder if LeBron might do enough to win this game and steal another championship from Golden State.

That’s when Kevin Durant reached up high with his long, long right arm and snatched a missed Cleveland shot out of the air. Suddenly Golden State was on the offensive with a chance to tie—or take the lead.

Moments like this were exactly why the Warriors had brought Kevin to the team. And this was exactly the type of moment Kevin had hoped would come when he’d signed with Golden State. He hadn’t played for the Warriors in 2015–16 when they’d fallen short of winning The Finals. In the offseason that followed, Golden State signed Kevin as a free agent because the team felt it lacked one more player who could come up big in the sport’s loneliest of moments—when the pressure of roaring fans and high stakes cause nerves to fray. They felt they needed someone who could close out games, like tonight, and thus would ensure that another LeBron-style comeback never happened again.

Officially Kevin is listed at six foot nine, but he’s admitted that in his signature Nikes, he stands seven feet tall. He said he likes being listed as shorter than his true height as a joke, part of his fun, free-spirited personality.

He’d always been the tallest anyway—the tallest in his class in kindergarten, fourth grade, and middle school. He was this skinny kid who kept growing and growing and growing while being raised in Prince George’s County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. As much as his height helped him become a talented basketball player, it was his arms that set him apart even in the NBA, where almost everyone is tall.

With his arms stretched out, Kevin’s wingspan measured seven foot five end to end, and somehow he was still coordinated. He could shoot and dribble like someone a foot shorter. Yet he could rebound and block shots in a way no six-foot guard could even dream of doing.

So snagging that rebound was the easy part. What to do next was the tougher decision.

There were about fifty-one seconds remaining in the game. Golden State needed a basket. It needed a hero.

Kevin had always felt he was built for these kinds of make-or-break scenarios. His combination of size and skill made him nearly impossible to defend. He felt that when his team needed to score, he was the one capable of doing it, especially in big games.

Yet getting to the ultimate pressure-filled stage, The Finals, had proven difficult for him throughout his career. He’d spent eight years playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder (and one year prior when the team had been based in Seattle and was called the SuperSonics). He’d reached one NBA Finals in 2012, but lost to LeBron, who was playing for Miami then.

Kevin was twenty-two years old at the time and thought he’d return regularly to The Finals.

He didn’t. Oklahoma City always fell short. Sometimes it was in the Western Conference Finals. Sometimes it was due to injury. Whatever it was, Kevin couldn’t get the NBA championship that he coveted.

He noted that he’d spent his entire basketball life in second place. He’d been ranked the number two high school player in the country. He was the number two pick in the 2007 NBA draft. He finished, for years, at number two in the NBA’s MVP voting (although he eventually won the award in 2014). He was always the runner-up, and never the champion. After ten years in the league, he’d made millions of dollars and acquired millions of fans, he’d starred in movies and television commercials, he was huge on social media, and he had become active in charitable giving.

The one thing he didn’t have, however, was an NBA title.

He wanted one so desperately that he left Oklahoma City, where he was a beloved fan favorite and life was comfortable, to join the powerhouse Warriors in Oakland, where he needed to adjust his game and mentality to fit in with other established players. At Golden State, he wouldn’t be the most popular player (that was Steph Curry), but he thrived on being part of a true team that could win it all.

So now he had not just the ball in his hand but destiny as well. Over twenty thousand Cavaliers fans were beginning to shout inside of the Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland, screaming to distract Kevin as he took the ball and began dribbling it up the court. “De-fense!” they chanted. “De-fense!”

That Kevin was able to masterfully handle the ball, at such a height, was a wonder that had become commonplace. He made it look easy, but in the rich history of basketball, there may never have been a player this tall who could dribble so well. There may never have been a seven-footer who could so effortlessly take over the role of point guard in an instant.

It had begun back in Prince George’s County, at a simple city recreational building in his hometown of Seat Pleasant. It was in Seat Pleasant that Kevin grew up with his older brother, Tony, raised mostly by his mother and grandmother (his father would reenter his life later). It was there that he met a couple of youth basketball coaches, Taras Brown and Charles Craig.

While they saw a kid who was taller than the other players, they didn’t teach him the game in the traditional way. They didn’t want Kevin to just play down low and grab rebounds, or learn only to score around the basket, as is the case for most power forwards and centers. He was too athletically gifted for that and his coaches saw that the sport of basketball was changing.

They taught Kevin how to play all the positions, including schooling him on dribbling, passing, and shooting from a distance by putting him through endless, repetitive drills. Dribbling through cones. Dribbling with both hands. Dribbling two balls at once. Dribbling, dribbling, dribbling.

Then they’d move on to shooting practice. Shot after shot, day after day, year after year. It was a basketball science project, like they were creating the perfect player in a lab. And Kevin was all for it, a tireless worker who understood that there were no shortcuts to becoming truly great.

Each repetition slowly caused his muscles to memorize the kind of form and touch that would never abandon him—even when his team needed a basket and he knew it wasn’t just all those Cleveland fans watching him, but the entire basketball world.

As Kevin pulled that rebound out of the air and brought it down to his body, he spun his head and saw open space in front of him. The Cavaliers were charging back to play defense, to guard against the Warriors whipsaw offense that called for players to dart in all directions until someone got open. It might be Steph Curry, the two-time MVP. It might be Klay Thompson, the clutch three-point specialist. It might go down low to Draymond Green, who could power home a bucket.

No one knew at the moment that Kevin Durant, who had worked and waited his entire life for this chance, wasn’t going to pass it to anyone. He thought back to his earliest days in the game, playing as a kid on a local Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, and knew what was expected of him.

“Every team I’m on, in order for us to go to the next level, I have to assert myself,” Kevin said. “Since I was playing for the [Prince George’s] Jaguars when I was ten years old, I felt like if I didn’t assert myself, we weren’t as good as we should be.”

Which was just fine with his teammates.

“We know in that situation to get that man the rock,” Klay Thompson said. “He’s seven foot, can shoot over almost anybody, and has amazing shooting touch.”

With a single focus in mind, Kevin started up the court, his long strides covering huge swaths of hardwood. One dribble. Two dribbles. No one from Cleveland rushed up to stop him. A third dribble and he was now past the half-court line.

LeBron was waiting at the three-point line, but was slowly retreating, giving Kevin more room. Clearly LeBron thought Kevin, with his team down two points, would drive to the hoop and try to tie the game. Kevin had other ideas.

“I [saw] him backing up and I just wanted to take that shot,” Kevin said.

He took a fourth dribble and casually slowed his run, as if he were about to stop and set up the offense. It was enough for LeBron to relax, ever so slightly. Yet when Kevin approached the three-point line, he didn’t stop and look to pass, he just set his size eighteen Nikes down twenty-six feet from the basket and pulled up to shoot.

LeBron, a beat too late, tried to react and leaped at Kevin with an outstretched arm that sought to at least harass Kevin into a miss. Kevin didn’t even notice. His jumper was so smooth, so textbook, he just rose and fired.

“I just tried to stay disciplined in my shot, hold my follow-through,” Kevin said.

The ball soared toward the hoop in a perfect arc.

Swish.

It was the shot of a lifetime after a lifetime of making shots.

“Durant from three!” said the announcer on ESPN. “It’s good. Kevin Durant from downtown as Golden State takes the lead.”

Warriors 114. Cavaliers 113.

“KD said, ‘I’ve been working on that shot my entire life,’” Steph Curry said after. “Literally that’s his mindset—‘I’m ready to take this shot because I haven’t cheated the game. I put the time in every year to get better … and to be ready for those kind of moments.’”

Seconds later Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving would miss a shot. Then Kevin would get fouled and sent to the line, where he made both free throws to extend the Warriors’ lead. Cleveland missed again and then Steph salted away the game when he hit two more free throws.

Golden State celebrated a 118–113 victory and a commanding 3–0 lead in the NBA Finals.

Two games later, they closed the series out and Kevin Durant became a champion, at last. He was named NBA Finals MVP. He was no longer second best at anything.

“It feels,” Kevin said after, “so great.”


Text copyright © 2020 by Dan Wetzel

Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Marcelo Baez