After his painful exodus from OKC, Kevin Durant reached the mountaintop this June: NBA champion, finals MVP, game-winning shotmaker. GQ’s Zach Baron spent days with KD during his summer vacation in India and watched Golden State’s ultimate Warrior recharge himself to chase ring number two.
Author: Zach Baron | Photography: Nathaniel Goldberg | Modeling: Kevin Durantwww.gq.com
First the waiters in Delhi brought Kevin Durant a plate of butter chicken, and then what looked like…a pizza? Then some rice, and a glass of tequila, and then a plate of samosas. “I'm sorry,” Durant said to the waiter bending low over his shoulder. “What is this?” He was wearing a Morrissey “Boxers” tour T-shirt and black jeans and attempting to pretend that he couldn't see the long line of people trying to see him. He'd landed on a private jet a few hours ago: the first real NBA star in anyone's memory to come all this way, to India, where basketball is still a novelty. This dinner, out on the roof deck of a hotel in the city's diplomatic enclave and nominally hosted by the NBA, was in his honor. Well-intentioned waiters kept trying to bring him things. Scotch. An apron, for some reason. Naan. They brought out the biggest piece of naan bread you've ever seen. After some conversation, Durant was persuaded to hoist the bread in the air to the upper edge of his seven-foot wingspan so that his YouTube guy could film this moment of cultural exchange for his YouTube channel.
Just six weeks earlier, Durant's team, the Golden State Warriors, won the NBA Finals in five games. Durant was the finals MVP. In Game 3, with his team trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers with under a minute to go, he hit the shot of his life—a three-pointer, tossed up as casually and optimistically as a wave hello, over LeBron James, his role model and rival. “That was the best moment I ever had,” Durant told me. “I made the game-winning shot in the finals against my idol. Somebody that I really, really, really followed since I was a ninth-grade high schooler. I felt like he was passing the torch to me.”
Even before his Game 3 shot fell, it felt inevitable that the Warriors would win. They'd arrived in the finals without having lost a single playoff game. And Durant, who'd spent the season being cast as a villain for leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder—or at least a man more interested in winning a championship than remaining, for sentimental reasons, on the team that first drafted him—was playing to the full, lethal level of his abilities. It was merciless: 38 points in the first game of the finals, 33 in the second, 31 and 35 in Games 3 and 4, and 39 in the closeout game against a Cleveland team that likely went home seeing Durant's silky, improbably elegant jump shot in their dreams.
The night the Warriors won the title, Durant walked out of the arena tipsy from the beer he'd had in the locker room, waded through a crowd of fans, got in his Tesla, and was driven home, to celebrate more. After nine often frustrating years in the league, he was a champion, the consensus best player on the best team, and now, in the months that followed, he was enthusiastically exploring what that meant. He went to Vegas to celebrate, and to Hawaii to paddleboard, and to Sicily, where he attended Google Camp with Prince Harry and David Geffen. “I got to meet people I never thought I'd meet,” he told me. “I lived in L.A. all summer. I hung out at Nobu Malibu for July Fourth.” About a year ago, the NBA asked him if perhaps he'd come be a basketball ambassador for them for a few days in India, and he'd agreed—his charitable foundation could use the occasion to build a couple of courts there. He felt like, why not? How hard could it be, to be an ambassador?
Now he was finding out how hard it could be. He stood and greeted the television host Rannvijay Singh, then sat, and then stood up again to take a photo with Satnam Singh Bhamara, a G Leaguer for the Dallas Mavericks, who was also in town. Then he sat back down, only to have a functionary come over and ask if he could meet some “pretty big business owners” here in the Delhi community. For the eighth or seventeenth time this evening, Durant rose to shake some stranger's hand. This new stranger was former tennis pro and world No. 16 Vijay Amritraj. Amritraj was impeccably groomed and professionally smiling—gold buttons on his jacket, gold rings on his hand, gold watch on his wrist. He and Kleiman mimed tennis serves at each other. Next up was a kid in a Jordan Brand shirt. “Every morning I watch you,” the kid said. “Appreciate that,” Durant said. Some guy in an iridescent vest emerged with a basketball: “Would you mind signing this?”
The evening humidity of India in July bore down. In the background, just out of sight, a pair of DJs played nationless house music. That's it, Durant said, beseeching Kleiman, as more people milled around in the middle distance. He crouched behind the giant naan that was still in front of him, hiding.
Finally the trickle of dignitaries dried up, and Durant ordered a glass of Pinot Noir, biggest glass you have, which turned out to be a wineglass the size of my forearm. We all got one. Durant visibly relaxed. He offered up his glass for a toast and then took a photo of all the glasses clinking, the cool red wine sloshing around. I kind of like the vibe here, he said, exhaling. It was late, and though there was half-hearted talk about going to a second location, we wound up instead ordering more wine to Durant's suite. Someone found a portable speaker. Durant lay flat on a daybed, his legs as long as a compact car. Then Jay-Z's Lucifer came on, and Durant sat up to rap, word for word, the second verse, about triumph and its cost:
Yes, this is holy war
I wet y'all all with the holy water
Spray from the Heckler-Koch automatic
All the static, shall cease to exist
Like a sabbatical, I throw a couple at you, take six!
Spread love, to all of my dead thugs
I pour out a little Louis, to a head above
Yessir, and when I perish, the meek shall inherit the Earth
In the calm of his hotel room, Durant told me that he related to Jay-Z. Not only the younger, defiant Jay-Z now on the speaker, but the present-day, 2017 Jay-Z, the guy who just made 4:44. The older, more vulnerable, confessional artist. Just the honesty, Durant said. Durant has been signed to Jay's Roc Nation Sports for years and is friendly with Jay-Z. But there was something about listening to 4:44. The openness, Durant said, putting his finger on it. You could tell he had something he wanted to get off his chest. And it can be hard when you got so many people watching you. So I feel like you got to build up that courage to just say: Look, man, this is how I do things.
The off-season—even an off-season as full of opportunity and good feeling as this past one—has always been a complicated time for Durant. “In between, when I'm not playing, I'm just chilling, waiting for my next game,” he told me. “When I'm in the summer, I'm waiting on my next game. These meetings and these corporate events I gotta go to, I'm waiting on the next game. I'm just like not even in the mind frame to think anything else is important. And that's a fault.”
When I first met Durant, in 2015, he was 26 and trying to make up for lost time. His childhood had been a lonely one, and basketball—a socializing force for many of his peers—had isolated him further. Unlike LeBron James, who'd grown up in the spotlight and had years to get used to an unsettling level of fame and attention, or Steph Curry, who'd grown up wealthy, in a family that passed along a measure of security and knowledge about life off the court, Durant was learning as he went. “I wasn't no phenom growing up,” he told me. “It was just my mom, my brother, my godfather, and my grandma. My games wasn't packed out in high school. I didn't even play at night. So this is all new. As it's happening, I'm experiencing it for the first time. I wasn't taught a certain way to be growing up. I got taught right from wrong, and how to be fair. Anything else, I had to figure out.” At the time we spoke, he was playing out the penultimate year of his contract with Oklahoma City and full of a growing curiosity about the world: about food and wine, about travel, about clothes, about all the things that everyone else around him already seemed to know. “What's the craziest place you've been where you had to taste, like, a piece of their culture?” he asked me then.
His decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors last summer was about basketball: He looked at the team, the coach, and the players, and wanted to join in what they had. But leaving Oklahoma City also felt, to Durant, like personal growth. “I chose to take control of my life, and I think that was a huge step for me personally, and I felt really proud,” he told me.
The championship he won in his first season with the Warriors was confirmation that he'd made the right choice. But he also found, away from Oklahoma City, that his world kept getting bigger in ways he hadn't anticipated and didn't always know how to deal with. In Game 1 of the finals, he was at the free-throw line when he heard a woman heckling him, shouting “Brick!” as he released each shot. It was only when he looked over that he realized the woman was Rihanna. This was not the kind of thing that regularly happened in OKC. “Rihanna never came to my game before, unless we were in L.A. She didn't come to a home game of mine before. Jay-Z and all these people who come…that amount of attention for me is like, you ever seen Hancock? You remember when he had to walk into that event and all these cameras were flashing, and he just didn't know how to smile? That's me sometimes. I get a little overwhelmed. Because, man, I can remember me cooking up as a kid by myself. Now millions of people are watching me play? That's an adjustment, bro.”
Durant was the number two draft pick in the 2007 NBA draft. He won Rookie of the Year. He's a four-time scoring champion and a former league MVP. He's won two Olympic gold medals. But for most of his career his time in the league was, relatively speaking, quiet. He played in Oklahoma City, in front of adoring but unglamorous crowds, and though he had an occasionally adversarial relationship with the local press there, not too many stories they wrote made it outside the city. But the past year and a half with Golden State had been a rude lesson in how many things the NBA, and the media eco-system that has sprung up around it, required of him outside of and beyond basketball.
The next morning in Delhi, Durant woke up bleary-eyed and dressed for the day in long track pants and a red Nike basketball shirt. The plan was to go to the school where his foundation had built the new basketball courts and then to drive south, out of Delhi, to Noida, where the NBA had started a basketball academy. There, an NBA functionary explained, Durant would help the academy's students break the Guinness World Record for “biggest basketball lesson,” capped off by a VIP-only dinner at a resort nearby. The dinner, arranged by the music executive Steve Stoute, whom Durant and Kleiman have known for years, was to be hosted by two young Indian plutocrats—one an executive in a company specializing in construction and arms dealing, the other a concert promoter who'd just successfully pulled off Justin Bieber's first show in India. A day of being a professional basketball player, without an actual basketball game anywhere in sight.
The morning traffic in Delhi was dense with taxis, guys on bikes, rickshaws, everyone driving like running backs seeking contact. We stopped first at the Ramjas School, where Durant inaugurated the courts he'd built with an arcing shot from the top of the key, and was then swarmed by the little bodies of students. Then, as the humidity rose, we were back out into traffic, making our way through a slow drip of cement trucks and buses, southeast through the city, and then out of it into a cloudy green haze. After about an hour our caravan came to rest at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Complex, in Greater Noida, where the NBA was holding its academy. For the next two hours, Durant was put to work in an increasingly surreal set of tasks. First he joined a clinic, downstairs on the basketball court, helping the NBA's coaches run their teenage students through drills. Then, upstairs, he gave a press conference. Finally Durant was led back downstairs, to break the Guinness World Record for…something. The explanations kept differing as to exactly what.
Carlos Barroca, the NBA's associate vice president for basketball operations in India, was onstage, in front of a gym full of children. Four large screens showed four other gyms in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, and Kolkata, also full of students. The lesson began. Barroca, in a polo shirt and Britney Spears headset, invited Durant to stand next to him. Then Barroca began chanting:
“One, two, three, stance.”
All the kids in the gym crouched and extended their arms, raptor-like.
Barroca looked at Durant, and Durant looked back at him. Then, belatedly, Durant, too, got in his stance.
“One, two, three, defense.”
The students slapped the floor, then spread their wingspans again, and Durant, reluctantly, did this too. Then Barroca asked the assembled children to run in place, and so Durant ran in place.
“I need to know how you become a champion,” Barroca said to his assembled pupils. “Do you play like a sleeping cat?” he asked. “Or like a tiger?” He asked his pupils to roar and they roared. On one screen, kids were absentmindedly trotting around in Bangalore; on another, Chennai had temporarily cut out.
Barroca was now fired up. He pointed at Durant. “You want to see him do the tiger?”
The kids yelled back their assent. Durant took a deep breath. Then he got down in a crouch, legs bowed, each hand outstretched and curled, like a tiger.