Nice guys finish last? Kevin Durant is taking that to heart. More accurately, his PR team is taking it to heart. And so what we had over the weekend is a perfectly modern (and silly) take on image in sports. Snarl, bark, and glare. Even if it’s not you at all.
During NBA All-Star weekend in NYC, Durant sparred multiple times with media. He declared the press corps was not his friend, that reporters were undeserving of their MVP votes, and ripped them for lacking a sense of humor. Which seemed as out of left field as Kanye’s performance on SNL 40. It’s not that Durant hasn’t at times shown some frustration and emotion. It’s that he took a normally benign weekend of fluffy, slap-you-on-the-back media events and made it combative.
So why did he choose events that often center around new sneaker releases and “how fun is this weekend for you?” questions to start friction? Maybe it was a play drawn up by his Keebler marketing elves, in the nation’s heart of commerce, when the most eyes were on him.
Longtime Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel has covered Durant since he arrived in OKC, and joined me on the show. He thinks the calculation is obvious. “From a marketing standpoint, we’ve seen Durant sort of change course a little bit,” says Tramel. “To where he wants people to see him as sort of not just an ‘Aw shucks’ really nice guy who’s just a phenomenal basketball player. He wants to be seen as a guy with a little bit of a darker side on occasion.”
The proof is in the swoosh. Durant’s latest Nike ad campaign parodies his clean cut image. A police chief is trying to solve “another vicious dunking,” but doesn’t believe Durant is a suspect. “It can’t be Kevin, he’s the nicest guy in the NBA.” The slogan? “KD is Not Nice.”
Feel free to groan now.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t some natural tension starting to build with Durant. His beloved coach Scott Brooks is a frequent media whipping boy. The constant press availability during the season can be exhausting. The Thunder has championship expectations again, yet find itself outside of a playoff spot as the homestretch begins.
So let’s hope this is organic frustration boiling over for a normally placid and affable guy. Because the alternative is kinda pathetic. If KD is merely putting on a “bad boy” image because his PR team says to, it’s lamer than Screech writing tell-all books and releasing sex tapes for street cred.
“Some of his endorsements have gone a lot more shadow, a little bit more ominous,” Tramel told me. “We see some incidents of Durant on camera saying. ‘I’ve got a mean streak. I’ve got an attitude that people don’t always see.’ That’s clearly calculated. I think Kevin Durant, at the core… is a pretty decent, congenial guy. But I do think there’s been some changes by construction in his attitude and his public persona. I think they’ve said, ‘Let’s do a slight image makeover.’ He’s still an admirable superstar, but I think his handlers have said, ‘Let’s change the direction just a little bit and maybe appeal to even more people.’”
A year ago, NBA writer Royce Young for CBS Sports, penned a piece titled: “Kevin Durant is, in Fact, Very Nice.” It begins with the sentence, “Kevin Durant is kind, he’s genuine, he’s just a good human being.” He describes an incident following a tough home loss to the Cavs, where camera man Mark Voyles injured himself tripping over some wires. Sit back and enjoy how the angry malcontent Durant reacted.
“Kevin came over,” Voyles recalls, “and said ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘Well, I think I broke my finger. Ah, it’s all right. I have broken fingers before.’ But he said, ‘No, you need to go see the trainer.’ He insisted I go back there.” So Durant helped Voyles up, and escorted him back to the Thunder’s training room. “He was kind of my knight in shining KD’s to come and rescue me.” Voyles said Durant walked him back to find the team’s doctor, while making some smalltalk about a new vehicle Durant had evidently recently purchased.
“He called me ‘Sir’ the whole time, but I told him I’m no sir,” Voyles said. “Kevin was very polite, being a gentleman the whole way,” Voyles said. “I’ve always been a Thunder fan and a KD fan, but now I’m one for life … KD’s a gentleman. I’ve always heard the stories, but now I have proof.”
There are plenty of reasons to be annoyed by media, but if Durant’s people are telling him to be less diplomatic just to sell sneakers, it’s ridiculous. Since when did being a good guy actually turn into a negative? There are plenty of fans who call KD their favorite player primarily because he’s always been known as a great dude. His tearful, candid MVP speech last year made even the most cynical applaud. Tons of callers to my show said how much they appreciated Durant’s emotion and gratitude, and how they’d be rooting for the Thunder even if they weren’t an OKC fan. Yet somehow this isn’t good enough for Madison Avenue?
If KD is sick of prodding from the media about his coach and playoff losses it’s understandable. But if he’s trying to wear the black hat just because some marketing flacks think it’ll push product, then he’s getting bad advice. Hey Kevin, it’s okay my man. Being nice isn’t a bad thing. In fact, that’s why we like you.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.