Kevin Durant had the NBA in the literal reaches of his fingertips three years ago.
Sitting in a rented East Hampton, N.Y., mansion on the Fourth of July in 2016, Durant was days removed from free-agency pitch meetings with the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and, the only franchise he’d ever known at that point, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Durant was ready to announce his decision, but not in a leak to a reporter or in a press release. Instead, he opted to post a Players Tribune link with the three-word phrase "My next chapter" on Twitter, directly announcing his move to the Warriors.
Durant will be a free agent again this summer, and no matter how he decides to announce his decision, one thing is certain: He, not the media, will deliver the message, and in his own words.
“They need me,” Durant recently told NBC Sports Bay Area. “If I wasn’t a free agent, none of this s--t would go on, right? None of this speculation about who I am, what’s wrong with my mental, why I’m miserable, why I ain’t happy with life. Nothing.”
It signifies the step for Durant -- and many other athletes around the world -- to curate their own messages through digital production houses while circumventing traditional journalism outlets.
The 2016 tweet wasn’t Durant’s first foray into the news-breaking business. On July 7, 2010 -- one day before LeBron James chose the Miami Heat on national television -- Durant announced on the still-infant Twitter platform that he’d signed a five-year contract extension with the Thunder.
Perhaps the two announcements were prophetic.
Five years later, James founded Uninterrupted, a Warner Bros-backed media organization designed to give athletes a direct-to-fan platform. The company, which launched in 2015, is a part of a James media empire that also includes SpringHill Entertainment, a television and movie studio with plans to release "Space Jam 2" in 2021. Last year, Durant partnered with ESPN+ for "The Boardroom" series, giving athletes the opportunity to interview each other about the business of sports.
Durant believes those athlete-focused companies started more as a reaction to the media landscape than as a means to partner.
“It didn’t start with Uninterrupted or anybody else’s own media company,” Durant said. “It started with The Score, Bleacher Report, House of Highlights, all of these platforms that aggregate stories from big media companies like NBC and ESPN. It’s so easy now to put your own spin, ’cause you have your own platform. So, after a while, players are starting to see how so many random people want to run with their messages and spin it around.”
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Durant isn’t the only Warrior to branch out of the norm to deliver his message.
Last year, Stephen Curry signed a deal with Sony to form Unanimous Media, with a “focus on faith and family-friendly content” and “sports-themed projects.” In May, he’s set to release a Facebook series titled “Stephen vs. The Game.” In addition, his partnership with Players Tribune, an athlete-backed site founded by former New York Yankees star Derek Jeter, has produced a platform for the guard to promote equality for women and veterans, and he even interviewed international soccer star Neymar. Draymond Green -- also a proponent of the practice -- has partnered with Uninterrupted over the years for myriad content launches.
“I think that’s important, because for years, your story has been told by everybody else and it’s not always in your words,” Green said. “I think it’s important that whatever that message is, you want it to be told. It’s your message at the end of the day. It’s not a foreward by everyone else, and that’s kind of been the thing for years."
Athletes -- or any entity for that matter -- inherently bring a conflict. An athlete-backed story almost assuredly risks being one-sided, just as a one-source story from a writer could reflect bias. The structure forces a special responsibility for those tasked with producing the content.
“I always tell them, ‘If the goal is to go here and tell a great story, so much of that from a story perspective is the willingness to go there,’ ” said documentarian Gotham Chopra, who produced Curry's latest doc, and also has worked with Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady on film projects.
"You want to do it the right way, do it your way and stay authentic to who you are," Curry added. "But everything that I do or touch off the court in terms of business ventures, or people that you partner with, sponsors and all that type of stuff, you want to be able to be inherently you in my personality."
Despite the drive for authenticity, Durant believes the athlete-driven media revolution has ruffled feathers.
“I think a lot of media companies are sad about that,” Durant said. “Which is causing a strain between the players and the media because obviously they all want to keep their jobs. They all want to tell their stories, but the players are telling it better. ...
“I’ve never been a traditional-way type of dude. I never did anything [the] traditional way in my life. I don’t even know what that means. That’s just a program that people before us kind of had a template on how they live life and expect us to do the same thing. I never really had a traditional way of anything.”
Traditionally, most players had to find other means of communicating to their fan base. Most sought out a reporter they trusted, while others sent a message through a commercial or long-form interview. Each instance required a middle man of sorts.
"Somebody else had to do it for you," said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played in the NBA for 15 years in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s. "You'd do a commercial. Like [Charles] Barkley had the ‘I Am Not A Role Model’ ad."
Even in an era when players are taking control of their own storylines, the pure definition of journalism is getting all sides of a story into a common narrative -- something Durant and others believe still can happen under the current climate.
“Fans want to see an overall perspective for the game, so they listen to everybody who’s involved. And who says they’re close with sources,” Durant said. “So just to get to close as they can now to the game. You know, they’re getting the players’ perspective and they’re getting the fly-on-the-wall perspective. So, I think there’s space for all of us to succeed.”
Added Chopra: “I think there’s room for both. Like what I do is not a substitute for reporting.”
Kevin Durant, shown addressing the media at the 2016 NBA All-Star Game, realizes the immense scrutiny around his impending NBA free-agency decision (Photo by USA TODAY Sports Images)
In a few months, the NBA world will watch as Durant makes his decision. Beginning July 1, he will test the free-agent market in earnest for the first time since he signed with the Warriors.
Durant believes this landscape is much different than the one he inhabited in 2016, when every one of his words, actions and play weren’t seen by pundits and even former teammates as a sign if he’ll stay or if he’ll go.
“I never had this before,” Durant said. “This is a totally new experience. I never had so many people that come to me and ask about where I should play. And there’s nothing wrong with it. But don’t get mad when I talk about it. Don’t get mad when you’re speculating, when you’re in your own head about something that I had said nothing about.”
A big part of this circus has been caused by Durant himself. Instead of squashing any rumor of his departure during the Warriors’ first media availability of the season, he said he’d exercise his collectively bargained right to test the market. But with that came intense scrutiny from TV personalities and writers alike, some of whom Durant has called out by name.
“That’s a hot topic,” Durant acknowledged of his free agency. “But you don’t have to talk about it. And then you don't have to get mad when I don’t want to talk about it. And then you don’t have to get mad when your little brain is roaming around, but you can’t find the correct answers. That’s bad journalism. That's not doing your job well.”
These days, most reports have cast Durant as a goner from the Bay Area, expected to take his show to the New York Knicks. Some say the Clippers also have a shot, and others believe the Brooklyn Nets are an intriguing possibility.
Durant remains noncommittal.
“I don’t know. I never know,” Durant said. “Nothing. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I don’t think about the future, bro. Like that. Of course, I think about it, but not like, let me make these [plans], let me go ahead and go through the logistics and the details. I don’t go through details on s--t like this.
“My whole thing is, I don’t even want the business to get in the way of basketball,” Durant continued. “So, in the beginning of the season, my whole thing was like, let that s--t ... that s--t has nothing to do with me during the season. That has nothing to do with what we’re doing on the court.”
As the season -- which might be Durant's last in Golden State -- wears on, so too will the scrutiny surrounding him. The early season on-court verbal spat with Green didn’t cool rumors, but it did open the door for observers to analyze Durant’s every move. That includes his recent practice of walking to the basket stanchion during timeouts, far away from team huddles, which Durant says is a customary routine.
“I'm in a basketball game.. Usually I start doing that around ... after a bad game, actually. So when I go right here,” Durant said, pointing to a nearby stanchion. “Just lock it in. Looking at the game. Focusing on the game.”
Durant continued: “ ‘KD is not smiling right now. Something must be going on about him leaving. His foot must be out the door. He not smiling on the bench; he just chilling on the bench.’ ”
For now, the Warriors, the NBA and their fans will have their phones out, waiting for Durant’s fingers to tell us his intentions through his own medium, providing the latest evidence that no matter how his decision comes, he’ll again have the world at his fingertips.