“F—- you.” – Kevin Durant, to Danny Crawford
Arguing an illegal screen called on Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Durant started off his 2013 by getting ejected on the second night of the new year in a loss to the Brooklyn Nets. As he stalked off the court, Durant could be seen further voicing his displeasure with Referee Danny Crawford, getting his money’s worth.
Thunder play-by-play man Brian Davis immediately noted it was Durant’s first ejection of his 6-year NBA career. Davis has covered the Thunder as long as just about anybody has, but it wasn’t as if he was letting us in on some secret knowledge, some gnosis. Had Durant had a prior, we would have remembered, because, well, that would be so un-KD, right?
We don’t need UVO to take us back to 2007 to remember Dickie V gushing over the most fabulous of those Longhorns’ four starting freshmen. Ever since Durant slendered his way into national consciousness, he’s developed and maintained a sterling reputation. Durant was a godsend to David Stern’s dress code era NBA, the only controversy surrounding him being his inability to bench press 185 at the draft combine.
Durant’s credentials are verified—his on-court exploits are not unknown, from those in Frank Erwin Center, to KeyArena, to Chesapeake Energy Arena, to those at Rucker during the lockout created streetball paradise. In fact, footage of KD dropping 66 reached beyond hoopheads to the masses, going viral and blowing up the interwebs. Couple Durant’s game with the backpack and frameless glasses, the humble persona, the post-game hugs with his mom, the professed desire to be a lifelong OKCer, the kissing-of-an-elderly-woman-he-just-hit-with-an-errant-pass, the un-inked arms, and what you have is a supra-JFK approval rating and a marketing machine.
“Doodle Jump? Man, that’s messed up.”
When athletes are featured as frontpersons for shoe or sports drink companies, an eyebrow raise is hardly merited. We’re talking about niche markets, targeted audiences. Allen Iverson, widely regarded as the exigency for Stern’s dress code, headlined Reebok’s 2005 “I Am What I Am” campaign (via mcgarrybowen), which sought to be about “authenticity and individuality” (implying distinction from sanitized marketing personas). Good luck crossing over from the performance category to broader verticals with that today.
Durant’s Doodle Jump Sprint commercial marked and validated his ascension to the peak of the mass marketing mountain. The Nike ads were going to keep coming (or whatever shoe company he’s with—his Nike contract is up soon). The Gatorade ads were going to keep coming. But when you show up in ads for national wireless networks (and with all due respect, we’re not talking Boost Mobile), you’ve been certified as a safe spokesperson to multiple markets and audiences.
Safe being the keyword here. Sports Marketer Steve Tebon opines that it’s not just Durant’s game that makes him market friendly, but also his appearance—the lack of visible tats, the “All-American, boyish clean-face.” Tebon adds, “Even though he’s black, he comes across pretty down the middle of the road.” Yup, even though.
“Making defenders famous in all the wrong ways is not nice.” – Nike/Wieden+Kennedy
Nike’s latest KD-centric ad campaign is built around this: “KD is not nice.” That works, of course, because it goes against the established collective image of Durant as “the nicest guy in the NBA.” The campaign lists evidence against Durant’s niceness: Leading the league in scoring, dropping 30 on the regular, nailing threes, etc.
Note the Nike/W+K dossier on KD’s not-niceness is all for on-court crimes. After all, they do vow, “No longer will KD’s off-court niceness overshadow the fact that his on-court game is anything but. KD is not nice.” The Sprint Doodle Jump ad somewhat embodies this idea. KD is sympathetic to your having to stress about overages, and he’s more disappointed than angry that you missed watching him coldly hit a pull-up game winner while double-teamed (actual game footage is used in the ad). Nice, and not nice.
But wait, let’s run the tape back. “Man, I was double-teamed, with no one to pass it to.” Wait, what? Basketball 101 dictates that a double-team means somebody is open. And lest you argue that KD might be speaking of one of those rare exceptions, the savvy viewer will see that Durant is indeed double-teamed by his BFF Michael Beasley and Kevin Love, while Thunder teammate Nazr Mohammed is wide open near the baseline and calling for the ball. Durant opts to take the shot himself. Seems a little selfish to me. Were we to swap out Durant for Westbrook in this scenario, well, you know the rest. Yes, we are talking about Nazr Mohammed, but LeBron’s been known to make that pass (word to Udonis Haslem). Nice? Not nice? “Look at Durant, so unselfish!” “Look at Durant, the cold assassin scoring despite the double-team!” These two sentiments at some point run against each other. But that’s the point. The matrices that we construct to help us understand and appreciate Durant also need to, at times, fulfill their purpose by failing. And this extends beyond the court.
“Stayin’ humble but people will never recognize
Go and get cocky now everybody electrified
Then they sayin’ I ain’t even know you had it in you
Then I say I ain’t know that you can bring it out me” – Kevin Durant, “Worried Bout Tomorrow”
Nike and W+K won’t tell you this, but off the court, KD is not that nice either, not in mass marketing terms. In his guest spot on rapper Privaledge’s “Worried Bout Tomorrow,” KD raps about being concerned about himself and his home state of Maryland over others, brags about his “whips over $100k,” drops MF and N-bombs, and proudly proclaims that he “grew up pretty rowdy.” All that talk about KD being so humble? On the song “Rolls Royce” he declares, “Swag what they talking, I’m the definition.” You think he doesn’t alienate some of the OKC fan base if those lyrics get as much run as Doodle Jump Durant?
Those inkless arms? They’re attached to a torso covered in tats. Remember all those wonderful years he spent in college? Oh, wait, he’s another one-and-done. Don’t forget those on-court possessions where he stands on the perimeter, hands on his hips just watching Westbrook, without so much as an off-ball cut.
Not so nice after all.
But really, all of that should cause neither the obsessed basketball junkies, nor the casual fans, nor the dear commissioner, much consternation.
Durant took to his official YouTube account to respond to the “controversy” of his tattoos. Unsurprisingly, his ink consists of tributes to his childhood home, city, state, alma mater, mother, grandmother, aunt, and coach. This is a man who knows it took, and takes, a village. And why are arms unadorned? Is it some slick marketing move? Perhaps, but Durant also explains that he’s saving his arms for tats dedicated to his future wife and kids. The video is produced by Goodwin Sports Management. Is Durant giving a genuine, personal explanation to fans? Or is it calculated image management? Yes.
This can be maddening. Which is the true Durant? Different situations, contexts, and audiences highlight different aspects of Durant. I’m sure Durant does experience and embody cognitive dissonance, but the issue here is not that Durant is inconsistent, but that our criteria for nice and not nice are often flawed, acontextual, and prejudiced. We evaluate Durant based on who we want him to be, and in a way that justifies our preexisting beliefs and prejudices.
Perhaps we are not yet ready to give up the antiquated idea of tattoos on a clean, middle of the road superstar as incongruous (although the backlash against David Whitley’s absurd critique of Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos seems to indicate progress). Perhaps we are not yet ready to knowingly embrace a widely marketable superstar who is humble and braggadocios, selfish and unselfish, clean and profane, nice and not nice, both on and off the court. But Durant is a catalyst for getting us closer. We do need those categories for understanding, but we also need to hold them provisionally. After all, humans are holistic beings, are totalities. And Kevin Durant is that—human.
 For the record, I interpret Tebon’s comments not to be indicative of a personal prejudice, but rather an acknowledgment of societal prejudices that continue to persist.
 This is not a call to cast asunder all evaluative criteria, but the relationship between the general public and athletes is not reciprocal, and thus far more difficult for preconceptions to be overcome. Team Durant seems to understand that. Turns out the tattoos were intentionally placed (http://newsok.com/yes-kevin-durant-has-tats-and-so-what/article/3588547/). By the time they were discovered by the public, Durant had already built up credibility, developed a rapport. In his YouTube explanation, Durant doesn’t lash out against the silliness of the “controversy.” Instead, he unapologetically and measuredly explains his tats, and in the process, brings us in on parts of his story. He’s a shrewd marketer, but not disingenuous.