RIO DE JANEIRO — It was with reluctance and hesitation that Kevin Durant admitted his break from the Oklahoma City Thunder was not neat and clean. His decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors was rather shocking and abrupt, and his relationship with one-time close teammate Russell Westbrook has suffered.
So on the same day the USA men’s basketball team met with the media, two days before opening its gold-medal defense against China, Westbrook spoke with Oklahoma City-area media to announce his long-term commitment to the Thunder after agreeing to a three-year, $87.5 million contract extension.
The fact that Westbrook, exactly a month later, pledged his loyalty to an organization that Durant bolted for the powerful Warriors and their three All-Stars, was not lost on Durant. What’s more, the topic of Westbrook made him visibly uncomfortable after a horde of reporters surrounded him in the Samba Room of the media press center.
Durant is still getting accustomed to speaking of himself as a Warrior, and still digesting the barrage of criticism he’s received after joining such a successful team instead of staying with his original franchise, which was one game from the NBA Finals.
After tiptoeing for the past few weeks about his relationship with Westbrook, Durant finally admitted it has been damaged and nearly dissolved, a difficult reality for one of the league’s good guys.
Durant was asked whether he would reach out to Westbrook to congratulate him for his contract extension or even to mend their damaged bond. Durant wasn’t eager.
“Nah, that’s a touchy subject,” he said. “It’s easy for someone else to tell me what I should do, but you guys don’t know that whole thing. I don’t know man, I’ll see after this is over, once everything dies down. Like I said, at some point we’ll sit down and talk but I don’t know when.”
For eight years, Durant and Westbrook were teammates with the express purpose of leading Oklahoma City, the state’s only major professional sports team, to prosperity. They appeared aligned in that goal until, perhaps, recently. The Thunder cracked under the pressure of sealing a series against the Warriors they led three games to one.
Oklahoma City was exposed, and Durant and Westbrook seemed to accept their responsibility for the defeat. Yet, it appears there wasn’t much contact between the two during Durant’s free agent journey that included a well-publicized meeting with the Celtics, whose recruiting entourage included Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
And there appeared to be no contact or perhaps a terse conversation when Durant decided to leave Westbrook to lead the Thunder, agreeing to join their chief rival to form a potential superteam.
“I felt good when I made the decision, it was just the outside noise that I kept hearing, it just kept getting louder and louder and it was hard to ignore it and it was hard to shut it off,” Durant said. “But as time goes on, things get better. It’s still a little different to me. I haven’t been there, settled down in the Bay [Area] yet, so I’m still trying to figure out how I am going to make that work and how new it’s going to be. But it’s basketball at the end of the day, I can mesh with anybody and I can play any game and I can fit into any system. So it’s a matter of me of going out there and getting used to it.”
The Olympics and preparation for the Games have allowed Durant to better explain his decision to sign with the Warriors to prevent the onslaught of questions during training camp. The Olympic experience can also perhaps endear Durant to the fans who now consider him a follower for joining Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green in Golden State.
“I waited all summer to get what I wanted to say off my chest but now it felt like saying [I was signing with Golden State] a few weeks ago and how everything went down and still answering those questions makes it a little easier going into the season,” Durant said. “Even though it’s going to ramp up once the season starts, but just getting my voice out and letting people know how I feel, either way they probably don’t care, but just getting it out it’s been a little easier now having this than not having this.”
Durant is at peace with his decision to sign with Golden State, but not at peace with his relationship with Westbrook. He talks of his former teammate in general terms, as if the situation created by his defection is too painful to address.
The consensus is that Durant didn’t make a bunch of friends with his choice, but he likely lost a major one and he has to accept that.
“I’m happy to see any player in this league do whatever they want to do,” he said about Westbrook’s extension. “As long as [Westbrook] wasn’t pressured to do anything; it felt like he did everything he wanted to do and that’s how I feel about every player in this league. If it’s good for him, good for his family, good for the people in Oklahoma City that watch him play and love to have him on their team.
“I have nothing but positive energy and vibes for everybody. I don’t have no beef with anybody or no ill will on anybody. So if he did want he wanted to do, that’s great for him.”