When Kevin Durant decided to leave Oklahoma City for Golden State in 2016, many people used the moment to dissect his personality and denigrate his character. How could Durant leave a team he had been with for so long to join a team he had just lost to after being up 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals? Was there a rift between him and Russell Westbrook?
The part of the decision that jumped out to me, though, had nothing to do with basketball. It was reports of Durant’s interest in Silicon Valley, and the Warriors’ connections and proximity to the world of tech. Then there was this from Durant’s announcement in 2016 on The Players’ Tribune:
"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 … 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.”
It seemed to me that the jump to Golden State, though a great basketball situation, was about more than just championships. Sure enough, Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures company successfully invested in more than a few tech startups in the following years.
When players leave one team for another, the ring and super-team debates often dominate the conversation. But a lot can also be gleaned from their personal interests and post-career plans. These players are more than athletes, they are husbands and fathers and sons, but also walking corporations. Where they play can sometimes be about more than what happens between four lines.
That's where my mind went when LeBron James left Cleveland in 2018 to sign with the Lakers. His interest in film was already evident through his work as an executive producer on shows like "Survivor's Remorse," appearances in movies like "Trainwreck" and with his SpringHill Entertainment company, founded in 2007. For someone as late in his career and accomplished as James, all the Lakers could offer him beyond what he already had was the city of Los Angeles, where he already owned a home, and the world of Tinseltown. It was no coincidence that "Space Jam: A New Legacy" began filming the summer after his first season in LA.
Now, a week past the release of Space Jam, which reportedly did over $31 million at the box office in its first three days, Sportico is reporting that James is the first NBA player to hit $1 billion in career earnings while still active (Michael Jordan didn't hit that mark until retirement). Next in line is Durant, who sits at $580 million and Stephen Curry at $430 million.
While true that the internet and social media have made it so that athletes no longer need to be in big markets to gain visibility (see: newly-minted champion Giannis Antetokounmpo's viral moment at a Chick Fil A), certain markets still provide the opportunity to maximize the earning potential from that visibility -- especially when combined with winning. Which is why it made sense that New York, where Thirty Five Ventures is headquartered, was the eventual destination of Durant upon his departure from Golden State.
As we look toward free agency this summer and players decide on their futures, it's fine to wonder which teams give them the best chance to win. But if where they play gives them a chance to win on the court but also enhances their ability to earn off it, that's important to keep in mind too.