They sobbed and burned jerseys and screamed into TV cameras. Some blamed him for ruining the Fourth of July holiday. A few called him a coward. There was such a fuss that the popular restaurant bearing his initials had to be closed and rebranded.
During those moments of white-hot emotions, the good times, and there were many, were overrun by fury. Memories don’t resonate when the pain is raw, when the sense of loss is palpable, when the anger is real and right now.
The general reaction was rage, and it was directed at Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City basketball superstar whose stunning departure crushed the hopes of the region.
Except Durant didn’t leave Oklahoma. He left the Thunder. There is a massive distinction between the two.
It is seven months later and Saturday, when Durant returns to Chesapeake Energy Arena in downtown Oklahoma City, he’ll be wearing enemy colors. He left OKC to sign with the Warriors in July -- barely a month after the Warriors had wiped out a 3-1 deficit to the Thunder to win the Western Conference Finals in seven games.
Durant deliberated for months and upon becoming a free agent, he listened to offers. He chose what he thought was best for him. He had spent eight years, the formative seasons of his NBA career in OKC. He won four scoring titles. Upon winning the 2014 MVP award, he followed it with an unforgettable acceptance speech.
He also had become a pillar of the region, devoting time and money and to projects. The restaurant “KD’s” was as popular as any in town. You don’t put your initials on a business if you don’t feel a part of the community. If there were a civic quilt, Durant would be at the center.
How could he simply walk away?
Except Durant did not walk away. Don’t they understand that in the heartland? He doesn’t owe Oklahoma a darned thing, not another minute or cent, yet he’s still paying up. From half a country away, he’s still an important member of the OKC community, giving of himself, even as some there cling to the grudge that formed when he left in July.
“We were not certain what was going to happen, and I hated that there were people so upset about it,” says Thunder fan Susan Agel, “because I knew there was more to Kevin than basketball.”
Agel knows Durant fairly well. She is the president and principal of Positive Tomorrows, a private elementary school dedicated to homeless children. There is no tuition. The school provides tuition-free education but also free meals, clothing, shoes and toiletries. The staff arranges health care and dental checkups.
Durant, through his eponymous foundation, was the major donor to Positive Tomorrows. He still is, even as a Warrior, the major donor, most recently writing a $57,000 check to aid in an expansion that will allow the school to grow from its current 74 students to at least 140.
He wrote that check a week before Christmas, two months after making his debut with the Warriors -- and roughly a year after a $35,000 donation as a member of the Thunder funded the renovation of the cafeteria.
“He helps us grow as much, if not more, as he did before,” says Rachel Durham, the development officer at Positive Tomorrows.
“We’d been trying to figure out what things were going to look like as we moved ahead,” Agel says. “Fortunately, we found out that Kevin still wants to have a relationship with us. He still feels that our mission is important and significant. And he still identifies with it.”
Durant’s most sizable monetary contribution came in 2013, when he donated $1 million to the American Red Cross as relief aid after a tornado struck the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, Durant not only opened his wallet for Moore, he visited. He saw for himself the kind of devastation that shredded the community. His community.
These moments reveal Durant’s commitment to the Oklahoma City region.
These moments explain why the state of Oklahoma fell in love with Durant while also providing context for the depth of the initial anguish and the abiding discontent.
“In Oklahoma City, we’re pretty young when it comes to NBA teams,” Agel says. “And he was kind of like our first love and jilted us.
“We’ve had other players that left. James Harden was one, but he didn’t quite get involved in the community the way Kevin did. Kevin really was part of us and then when he made the decision to move on, that was really new to us.”
Anger is a frequent response to sudden rejection. It’s not uncommon for fresh divorce to leave at least one party embittered.
But must it last, maybe forever, despite the real-life circumstances?
Agel says she has no clue what kind of reception Durant will get on Saturday. She knows some folks remain unhappy with him, as do their children. Others, however, can take a broader view and appreciate what he did and continues to do.
Durant by most accounts gives more of his time and money to the OKC region than any other pro athlete, including members of the current Thunder team. The attachment is real. He spent nearly a third of his life representing OKC.
Leaving doesn’t take that away. It only makes it tough to leave.
Durant announced his departure in The Players Tribune. There is no indication that he celebrated his announcement. It was clear through his words, though, that he was dealing with his own emotions.
“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,” Durant wrote on July 4, 2016. “I will miss Oklahoma City, and the role I have had in building this remarkable team.
“I will forever cherish the relationships within the organization — the friends and teammates that I went to war with on the court for nine years, and all the fans and people of the community. They have always had my back unconditionally, and I cannot be more grateful for what they have meant to my family and to me.”
Like greater Washington D.C., where Durant was born and raised, Oklahoma City will always run through his blood. That won’t go away because he decided it was time to move. He moved only because he felt he had grown enough to so.
Durant says he’s looking forward to his trip to Oklahoma City, to see the familiar faces of those who know him well enough to wish him the best, no matter who signs his paycheck.
“I had some great times there,” he says of OKC. “Never going to forget them.”
“I put everything into that place. So it’ll be great to see some people I haven’t seen in a while. So I’m looking forward to that.”
Durant is good with OKC. OKC ought to be good with Durant.
As for former Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook, with whom Durant shared so many battles, well, that’s another matter.