Examining Glory in the NBA №1: Kevin Durant, Winning “The Right Way”, and Thresholds of Empowerment

Photo by Seth Reese on Unsplash

Even though NBA basketball has only been back for a week, a number of storylines from free agency have followed us into the season. The biggest one? Possibly James Harden’s situation with the Houston Rockets. Harden requested a trade prior to training camp, showed up to camp and preseason late, and has named a short list of preferred trade destinations that began solely with Brooklyn and has since expanded to include Milwaukee, Miami, Boston, and Philly. He is the latest example of NBA superstars leveraging their status and power to get whatever they want on and off the court. While Harden has certainly been more brazen in his defiance of league protocols than other stars, we saw this happen to varying degrees with Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and many others all in the last decade. And while many would point to “The Decision” as the moment when the floodgates of player empowerment opened to allow for the creation of superteams, we can even look at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon who both requested trades from their teams at some point in their career (Kareem in 1974, Hakeem in 1993) as similar examples from decades past. With all that in mind, it’s clear that NBA players, especially the best ones, have had and still have the ability to get their way much to the chagrin of teams and their fans. How do we make sense of these situations that seem to be happening more and more often? What can these situations tell us about what we as people (many of us American) value?

Honor and Shame in America

I was recently reading the beginning of a book titled Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission that…doesn’t really have anything to say about basketball but has much to say about the roles that honor and shame have in our world. It is a text that presents an analysis of the book of Romans, a particularly well-known text in the Christian Bible. What connects this book to this conversation about the NBA? Namely the contrast between my own cultural perspective as a Chinese American living in the 21st century and the perspectives of those who lived in ancient Bible times. In this article, I want to highlight how elements of honor and shame tied to player movement in the NBA can be viewed from these differing perspectives. In the first chapter of the aforementioned book, the author (who goes by the pseudonym Jackson W.) broadly compares Eastern and Western cultures and describes how honor and shame appear in them. He writes the following:

People are reckoned worthy of honor (or shame) in two ways. It is both achieved and ascribed. Social standing depends on performance as well as position.

While most would say that honor-shame cultures are more commonly found outside of the Western world, honor and shame exists in every society. In the United States, this is especially true as minorities continue to immigrate from other parts of the world and form their own racial or ethnic enclaves in the states. Yet this tension between honor/shame being ascribed as opposed to achieved brings to light the differences that can exist between cultures where honor and shame play an active role in social dynamics (i.e. most cultures).

The author goes on to compare Eastern and Western honor-shame cultures by stating that “East Asians prioritize ascribed honor over achieved honor” while “ascribed honor minimizes the value of achieved honor” in Western contexts. This relationship between ascribed and achieved honor/shame is also linked to one’s connections and communities of belonging. In more individualistic cultures (i.e. the United States), community is still crucial of course but groups often form “based on utility or interest” thus making “loyalty…a luxury and even harmful to self-interest”. Continuing on, he says that “individuals switch groups as necessity or convenience demands” which makes “group loyalty…only as strong as it benefits the individual”. This contrasts with group-oriented or collectivist cultures that operate under more commonly shared values. In these cultures, group interests trump individual desires, conformity to group norms is expected, and “personal and collective identity are closely wed together”. This doesn’t mean that people in the United States don’t care about the groups they belong to, about fitting in, or about how others’ reputations affect them. It does mean that the ethos, or at least the ethos of the majority culture in the United States, is individualistic; thus, group loyalty is generally seen through the lens of individual desires rather than the other way around.

A Move for the Ages

So far, I’ve painted broad brush strokes that will provide guardrails for us as we move to the basketball side of things. First, we’ll look at Kevin Durant’s infamous decision to join the Golden State Warriors in 2016. As a Celtics fan, I remember the excitement I felt when Boston brought in Tom Brady to help with recruiting Durant. Pairing Durant with Isaiah Thomas seemed like a decent fit that would relieve the pressure on a talented but young core of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier to shoulder too heavy of a load too soon. After seeing the Cavs and Warriors battle it out in the Finals for two years in a row, I also thought KD coming to Boston would infuse the league with some of the parity it had been missing for some time (mostly because LeBron’s teams had a firm grip on the Eastern Conference). Nonetheless, KD signed with the Warriors and the rest is history.

This decision made sense. After several successful seasons with the Thunder in Oklahoma City, Durant hadn’t gotten over the championship hump just yet despite having played with Russell Westbrook and James Harden (albeit when they were still young and maturing into the players they are now). Having lost to the ‘Big 3’ Heat in the 2012 Finals and to the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals in heartbreaking fashion (i.e. the Warriors came back from a 3–1 series deficit to win in 7 games), it was logical for Durant to at least look elsewhere for greener pastures. His departure gave him the best chance at winning a championship and no one could argue about the fact that the Warriors became immediate title favorites with him on board. Yet basketball fans see KD’s decision in a fairly negative light to this day (besides Warriors supporters of course). Many fans labeled him a ‘snake’ for joining the team that beat him in the playoffs the previous year. Thunder fans who hoped that Durant would stay loyal to the team that had drafted him (the SuperSonics drafted him but soon moved to OKC) felt betrayed.

You get the point. Remember when we mentioned that the majority culture in the USA is individualistic? Durant’s move seems to flow with the current of this culture. That the response to Durant’s move was characterized more so by hatred and condemnation rather than acceptance seems to tell us then that it isn’t that straightforward. So what’s really going on here?

No Longer King

First, there are elements of collectivist cultures that inform the way everything unfolded around Durant’s decision. It’s clear that loyalty was valued by Thunder fans. Given how close the Thunder had come to beating the 73-win Warriors, Thunder fans wanted Durant to come back to take another crack at things. Winning a title with OKC would have earned him respect from everyone in the league. In other words, he would have clearly achieved his way to the top, earning the glory and honor that came with beating old foes and finally overcoming past playoff disappointments. Durant’s respect would have been all earned, his honor all achieved, at least from the perspective of outsiders like the fans and media.

It’s interesting how loyalty and achievement interact in this particular situation. In some sense, Durant’s achieved honor with the Warriors (he went on to win back-to-back titles and Finals MVPs in the two seasons following the move and pocketed a lot of money along the way) was tempered by the ascribed honor that came to him via an already great Golden State team. In the same way that we as the general public might minimize the achievements of someone who is born into a rich family, many fans saw Durant’s success with the Warriors as less valuable because he gave up his homegrown status in OKC to become a “ring-chaser”. This article written by Reggie Miller, one of the game’s greatest in his own right, describes this dynamic well. Miller writes the following:

Don’t get me wrong, Durant will be the alpha dog. On the court, the pecking order will be Durant, Curry, Green, then Klay Thompson. But Durant will forever play in Curry’s kingdom. He was with them first. He won a title for them first. If Durant would have won in Oklahoma City, it would just be better. It would have been better if he joined any team that wasn’t a ready-made contender. But in Oklahoma City, winning one title would be like getting three or more in Golden State. Failing to win one with the Thunder would arguably be more admirable than collecting any number of titles with the Warriors.

Now, not everyone shares Miller’s perspective. Given the sheer magnitude of success that the Durant-era Warriors enjoyed (their title wins seemed inevitable), I’m sure many see KD in a different light at this point. Yet Miller puts into words what many felt after the Slim Reaper took his talents to the Bay by finishing his article by reflecting on his own experiences with nearly jumping ship:

The Celtics wanted me to come out of retirement in 2007–08, when they won a title with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. I couldn’t do it. There was an opportunity to join the Lakers at one point. I couldn’t do that, either. And maybe I should have. But to me, a king should never leave his kingdom.

A king should never leave his kingdom. That’s it right there. By joining a championship-level squad in the Warriors, Durant exposed the tension between achieved and ascribed honor that exists in Western contexts. Additionally, he left his kingdom. The glory that he received in Golden State, while possibly equal to what he would have received by winning a title with Oklahoma City, just seems to be of a different variety. Perhaps this variety is one that just isn’t as sweet as what could have been.

Conclusion

Earlier, we mentioned that KD’s move serves as an example of Western individualism. What we’ve found is that the response to his decision illuminates the tension that exists between different kinds of honor and shame in an individualistic context. From Durant’s perspective, whatever loyalty he “owed” to the Thunder was secondary to his desire to win a chip. While I’m sure he considered his own reputation or legacy as he weighed his options, winning eventually trumped winning “in the right way”. As a result, Durant sacrificed the opportunity to earn achieved honor within a context in OKC where with less ascribed honor (no offense to Russell Westbrook) than that which he found in Golden State. KD’s decision was permissible (not that any of us had a say in it) and understandable but a line in the sand was crossed for many NBA fans who felt that player empowerment, in this specific case, had gone a bit too far.

I will finish by relaying another quotation from the book I mentioned earlier. Jackson W. comments further on how honor and shame are navigated in the United States in the following excerpt:

Americans celebrate the lone hero who overcomes the crowd to accomplish a goal. This popular narrative magnifies praiseworthy actions done independently of others, apart from ascribed honor. By contrast, dependence is frowned upon. Individuals must earn what they get.

Whether you have a serious take on KD’s decision to join the Warriors or don’t really care at this point, I don’t think we can argue against the fact that it would have been really awesome if he had led the Thunder to a Finals victory. To be the clear “lone hero” in Oklahoma City would have associated him with players like Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant, who both won championships and played their entire careers with one team (Mavericks and Lakers respectively). By joining the team that had beat him during the fateful 2016 NBA Playoffs, KD’s actions can no longer be pulled apart from the massive amount of ascribed honor that came with a squad that had its own MVP in Steph Curry, arguably the two best shooters in NBA history in Curry and Klay Thompson, and perennial DPOY candidate Draymond Green. At this point though, what’s past is past. KD in shamrock green would have been nice.

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Jeremy Yu

Jeremy Yu

In a love-hate relationship with words

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