It’s a thin line between love and hate. If you don’t believe me, ask Kevin Durant.
On the morning of July 4, KD declared his independence from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Explaining his decision in the Players Tribune, Durant said:
The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player—as that has always steered me in the right direction. But I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth. With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.
Durant signed a two-year, $54 million deal with a player option in the second year.
I live in Oklahoma City, and the impact of this decision cannot be overstated. Durant was treated like royalty prior to announcing that he was leaving. This is no small feat for a man who attended the hated University of Texas and unapologetically bragged about that fact. His restaurant, KD’s, became a destination for folks who wanted high-end soul food. On any given day, thousands of black and white kids in the city wore his shoes or jersey. He was one of us. Now he is gone. The response was swift and vicious.
Fans burned his jersey.
Barbers clowned his hair.
He was called a coward.
They even did this:
I understand the outrage. I know where it is coming from—but I deeply disagree.
We have a complicated understanding of sports and race in this country. If you’re a black athlete, white folks will cheer for you, they will attend your games, they will even buy your jersey—just make sure you display endless amounts of meekness and gratitude. They want entertainment, but they don’t want the help acting too uppity.
Durant decided to veer away from the path a humble, “just happy to play” athlete would follow. He decided to exercise agency, and this angered many. Words like “loyalty” and “faithfulness” were thrown around in the wake of his decision. Yet the Chicago Bulls with Derrick Rose and the Oklahoma City Thunder with Serge Ibaka show the level of loyalty among the owners and general managers. And the way fans turned on LeBron James when he left Cleveland, and now Durant as he leaves OKC, shows us just how loyal the fans are to the players. Everywhere else in life, one is permitted to change employment as one sees fit, but not athletes. They are expected to be loyal to those who are not loyal to them.
Listen, Oklahoma is one of the most conservative states in the nation. We have the highest number of fatal police shootings in the nation. The Legislature recently pushed to pursue the impeachment of President Barack Obama. In the wake of the shootings in Charleston, S.C., protesters lined the route of the presidential motorcade waving the Confederate flag.
Just last year, members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma made national headlines when their racist chants were made public. Put bluntly, Oklahoma is no place for a young, male, black millionaire. His may be a basketball decision—but Oklahomans did themselves no favors acting a fool in the year leading up to his decision.
Young, socially mobile black folks have been leaving Oklahoma for years. Many feel suffocated by Oklahoma’s oppressive, white supremacist culture. Young black men are treated like gods if they are athletically gifted but are largely vilified in almost every other way if they are not. Oklahoma ranks 48th in the nation in education, and due, in part, to Gov. Mary Fallin’s idiotic decision to refuse money from the federal government, the state now faces an unprecedented budgetary disaster. Durant’s leaving is among the least of the state’s problems—but they’re mad about Durant and cannot believe he wouldn’t want to stay.
NBA players are people, too. They have hopes, desires and fears like the rest of us. Kevin Durant is too thoughtful not to have felt the oppressive nature of this state. I don’t fault him for leaving—I love that a young black man is courageous enough to step outside his comfort zone.
In light of the fact that the Golden State Warriors will have an all-time great lineup in the 2016-2017 season, I propose a new rule: No playing with the Warriors on “NBA 2K17.” If you do, you’re a buster. It’d be like playing with Bo Jackson in “Tecmo Super Bowl”—and doing that is just a sucker move.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.