Kevin Durant: Contending with Life’s Fragility

Kevin Durant announced his decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors on July 4th, 2016.
Kevin Durant announced his decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors on July 4th, 2016.

Star forward Kevin Durant has moved on to an already star-studded team, the Golden State Warriors, and the sports world is up in arms. While Warriors fans are certainly ecstatic, other fans and NBA personnel hardly share the same enthusiasm. The objections range from complaints of the elite teams further consolidating in a tale of the “rich getting richer” to the betrayal of a small market team with good people and great fans.

Even Durant knew he would receive criticism, as he preemptively wrote in The Players’ Tribune: “It really pains me to know that I will disappoint so many people with this choice, but I believe I am doing what I feel is the right thing at this point in my life and my playing career.”

For those who do understand that the 27-year-old, who helped shape a franchise in its infancy for 9 incredible years, has earned the right to make his own decision, there are always others less forgiving. Members of the media, namely ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, argue that his move was “weak” because it devalued the fundamental basis of competition.

Perhaps Kevin Durant does deserve the criticism because he is well aware it comes with the territory of celebrity. While I personally disagree with this notion since he should be entitled to make his own personal and fiscal decisions without receiving public backlash like the rest of us, this will never change.

What should change, however, is how we approach the professional athlete who has gained new perspective, specifically after sustaining a career-threatening injury. Many people may forget that Kevin Durant went through the most difficult patch of his basketball career during the 2014-15 season, playing just 27 games and undergoing three surgeries of his right foot. Prior to this, Durant had not experienced an injury of this magnitude in his athletic career.

It was only until May 24 of this year in an article by Sports Illustrated did Durant open up. “I was scared, I was worried,” Durant said. “Will I be back again? Will I be who I am? A year ago people were telling me my career might be over and I listened to that stuff, not because I’m sensitive but because I used it for fuel.”

Kevin Durant’s reflection on the vulnerability of his athletic career from the other side of an injury over a year ago is reminiscent of a man who has survived natural disaster and lived to tell about it. In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande said it best when he penned “perspective was all that mattered,” as he summarized the chasm Leo Tolstoy characterized between those who have to contend with life’s fragility and those who do not. Unlike many of the other young superstars in the league, Durant has had to contend with the fragility of his athletic career.

Many individuals under the age of 30 are guilty as it is for ignoring their own mortality, let alone gifted ones who have channeled their talents into a professional livelihood. For most people, the timeline for healing from foot fracture is not a matter of life or death, but for the professional athlete whose career depends on it, the distinction is not as clear.

Time and time again, we have seen athletes’ careers be hampered or halted entirely due to orthopaedic injuries that prevent players from returning to sport. We saw it with Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Brandon Roy, Andrew Bynum, Greg Oden, Tracy McGrady, Derrick Rose, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Yao Ming. While these athletes experienced different injuries with different outcomes, such injuries take a toll on the confidence of elite athletes. A 2013 study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine supports this notion by suggesting physical recovery to pre-injury status among 187 athletes recovering from ACL tears was also significantly affected by psychological status.

While the recent career-threatening injury may in fact have had no immediate impact on his decision to sign with a team primed to reap him multiple championships, we must at the minimum respect the role injury and recovery plays in shaping the athlete’s perspective. There will always be those who call into question the validity of any championship by evaluating the supporting cast of teammates, giving and retracting “credit” to a superstar based on the quality of his supporting cast (“Where would Jordan be without Pippen, and where would Kobe be without Shaq?”). At the end of the day, the championships are still one of the heaviest metrics in determining the value of an NBA player’s legacy, and Durant knows it.

It’s easy to slip into comparisons, contrasting Kevin’s exodus with Lebron’s infamous Miami decision. It’s easy to criticize through the screens of our televisions the professional athlete who appears less human and more supernatural because of the surreal performances he delivers every night. It’s difficult, however, to remember that even superstars get hurt and their perspectives can change.

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