By Jason Keidel
During the interminable, snow-coated NBA season, it’s hard to keep the media and masses awake for 82 games. People don’t really pay attention until the fourth quarter of games and the fourth quarter of the season — the playoffs.
But this season has been rife with soap operatic entertainment. Will LeBron James, on the wrong side of 30, endure the incessant pounding and endless minutes on his epic frame? Will Carmelo Anthony finish his wholly unfulfilled season (and career) in New York, or be traded to a contender before Feb 23?
Then there’s the kaleidoscopic friendship that has morphed into the feud du jour: the tete-a-tete between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. And there’s no middle ground.
You’re either with Westbrook, the gifted guard who fills the box score like Oscar Robertson, who has become the emblem of loyalty and fidelity, who didn’t leave OKC burning like his former brethren. (Westbrook is like the last solider defending the fort, despite the impossible odds of winning.)
Or you’re in Camp Durant, all about upward mobility, about taking the better gig with the bigger group. The all-world forward joined a team that won 73 games last season, leaving former players and pundits calling an aesthetic, technical foul.
Of course, it’s more than one thing with Durant. There are almost too many layers to his treasonous move to Golden State. Not only did he leave Westbrook and OKC in the lurch, he joined the team OKC should have beaten in last year’s conference title series.
While Thunder fans would have had a lingering dissatisfaction no matter where Durant went, they could have metabolized any destination except Oakland. The whole thing jarred our old-school sensibilities. You’re allowed to switch teams for more money, for warm weather, even for a few more wins. But you don’t cross the symbolic line and join your archenemies. It’s no different from Bird joining the Lakers, from Jordan joining the Pistons or Magic joining the Celtics. Just this week Johnson told ESPN that there’s no way on earth he would have welcomed Larry Bird to Los Angeles. Likewise, Jordan has expressed a similar allergy toward snuggling with the enemy.
To his critics, Durant didn’t embrace the natural progression of building your roster, and yourself, until you huff your way up to that final rung. Even if Durant and the obscenely good Warriors win the title this year, it could not possibly fill him with the same glowing satisfaction that would have come with doing it in Oklahoma City. Instead of leading a team to a title, it feels like Durant hopped on the Teflon bandwagon, already on its way to the top, to poach a ring, rather than earn it.
On some level you have to feel some sympathy for Westbrook, who has become the leading scorer, passer and rebounder for the Thunder. He does everything but perform surgery and sell peanuts.
And there’s more to this feud than two uber-competitive guys playing ball. It’s as if they shared a room with a slow gas leak, and Durant jumping ship was the spark that blew up the room. They had a grudging respect and faux friendship of forced smiles and chest bumps. But there’s clearly a simmering resentment that started long before Durant bolted for California.
If Oklahomans didn’t already have a sporting complex, they surely do now. Despite the fact that they stuff their NBA arena and show frothing support every night, they still aren’t regarded highly enough to land an MLB or NFL team. Before the Supersonics moved to Oklahoma City, you could argue that the only city sports fans knew was Norman, where Barry Switzer lorded over the only game in town. And even Switzer left his Sooners empire to scratch a professional itch. (Not to mention the Thunder once had three of the five best players on the planet — Westbrook, Durant and James Harden — all of whom are MVP candidates this year.)
On the court, their play has assumed predictable arcs. Durant, always known for his humble, low-key regularity, has fit into the Warriors like a thread through his jersey. Their selfless play matches his humble demeanor and hungry game. While most of the Warriors have a ring from two years ago, adding a guy like Durant makes for perfect hardwood alchemy. If any of the veteran players loaf into the land of apathy, Durant will remind them of his ringless fingers.
Westbrook has morphed into a triple-double machine, with almost every game nudging his name up the record books. Westbrook critics see this as the more perfect microcosm — a me-first diva who finally has the stage all to himself, his name the only one beaming from the team marquee.
On the court, the Warriors (47-9) have lapped the field, as predicted. Meanwhile, the Thunder (32-25) are hanging in, scrappy and frantic, like their eclectic and electric guard. It wouldn’t be that way had Durant stayed in OKC. But then this season wouldn’t be so much fun.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.