KD’s torn achilles’ is unforgivable, but it’s far from surprising
What happened to Kevin Durant last night was an absolute travesty and there are many ways to divvy up blame for the career threatening injury he sustained. But first, let us set the context, shall we?
After the end of the NBA regular season and for the better part of these ongoing NBA playoffs, Kevin Durant was all but crowned the greatest basketball player on earth. And for good reason, he is as skillful as he is physically gifted, a combination that’s less common than you would think in the NBA.
Put in another way, if I were to ask someone who’s never watched basketball to watch a Golden State Warrior game and tell me who the best player on the court was, my money is on them choosing Kevin Durant. Mind you, he plays alongside three future hall of famers. Which is a good segue to the second piece of context.
Kevin Durant plays for the Warriors, a team that has had so much success in the past five years that everyone, but the players’ mothers despise them. Not so different from how the world at large is feeling about San Francisco/Silicon Valley these days (but more on that later). It’s also important to note that the Warriors were a very successful team prior to Kevin Durant joining them. This will also play a pivotal role in understanding how his injury happened.
Lastly and as fate would have it, Kevin Durant injured himself during a pivotal game in the playoffs last month. The injury immediately looked serious and media pundits wondered whether the injury was more severe than the Warrior’s organization immediately let on. Nonetheless and despite the Warrior’s losing their best player, they found a way to make it to the NBA Finals. But once they got there, it was evident from the onset that they were overmatched by the Toronto Raptors who are led by the ferocious Kawhi Leonard (who will serve as an important foil to the Durant situation later).
Now fast forward to last night where the Warriors found themselves one game away from losing the NBA Finals. Out of the Warrior’s desperation Durant was called upon, injury and all, and expected to bail the team out of unfamiliar territory: an elimination game. And rather quickly, during the 2nd quarter of the game, the NBA universe collectively cringed and witnessed Kevin Durant turn a “calf injury” into a torn achilles; a kiss of death to even the brightest of NBA stars.
How does such a devastating, but preventable injury happen to the face of a multi-billion dollar organization like the NBA? I’ll tell you exactly how.
Bad Media Management
The Golden State Warriors have been lauded as one of the greatest organizations in the history of professional sports. And rightfully so; they’ve developed hall of fame talent like Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, won the NBA championship three out of the past five years and have been praised by former and current players for an organizational culture that enables growth. But, as the saying goes, it takes ten rights to make up one wrong and boy did Warriors management screw the pooch on this one.
When Kevin Durant joined the Warriors back in 2017 he was widely criticized for joining the team that eliminated him and his former teammates (the Oklahoma City Thunder) from the playoffs. Media personalities called Durant all kinds of things, but no criticism seemed to perturb Durant more than people calling him “soft” and taking the easy route to an NBA championship . And despite Durant bringing two championships to the Warriors organizations, outside pundits continued to lob attacks on Durant’s character.
Given this context, the way the Warriors managed the communications around Durant’s injury was negligent at best. When Durant went down with his injury against the Rockets in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, every media organization suspected it was a more serious injury than the calf strain the Warriors reported. And while Steve Kerr, head coach of the Warriors and Bob Myers, general manager of the Warriors, claimed they wouldn’t rush Durant’s return, the mistake was already made: they advertently or inadvertently maintained the possibility that Durant could return from his injury.
When you consider the Warrior’s desperate situation, the historical criticism against Durant, and the sliver of hope the Warrior’s organization left open for his return, it’s easy to see how these ingredients combined to create a rather intoxicating rationale for Durant to play, despite his injury. In Durant’s mind, if he plays Game 5 he kills two birds with one stone: he silences the long held media criticism about his softness and becomes the savior of a Warrior team that’s finally in need of one. Prominent media journalists like Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and Chris Broussard cemented this logic by publicly insinuating or outright baiting Durant by saying they didn’t see how Durant even had the option to not play with his team in Game 5.
It’s hard for me to believe the Warrior’s organization didn’t foresee these pressures. And while you could say it’s Warriors management’s job to put the best possible team on the court during the finals, you don’t do so at the expense of someone else’s health (and especially if that someone is of Durant’s talent level). But, then again, this is the NBA. And oh yeah, the Warriors are from where? San Francisco? Hm…
Culture: San Francisco, NBA and Kawhi Leonard
San Francisco is home to many of the most powerful, but scrutinized companies in the world. And amongst all the criticisms that have been made against Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook, what best encapsulates what’s gotten these tech companies in trouble is their “ends justify the means” attitudes juxtaposed with their benevolently positioned mission statements. That said, it hasn’t always been this way. Many of the tech giants started out as darlings of the business, media and consumer worlds. But, as we should know, nothing lasts forever and just as sure as the sun will come up tomorrow, too much power will inevitably bring countervailing forces.
It’s hard to ignore how well this mirrors the evolution of public sentiment towards the Warriors. At one point the Warriors were the darlings of the NBA with homegrown talent led by the ultimate good guy Steph Curry. But after the Warriors won the first of their three championships and then added Durant to their roster, public sentiment shifted almost instantly, and the Warriors went from being a beloved band of brothers to NBA enemy number one.
The Warrior’s management employed an “ends justify the means” strategy and signed anyone who could plausibly make the team better regardless of how it would affect public opinion towards them. And this attitude persisted to the point where you had a Warrior’s minority owner shoving players on an opposing team and a head coach inserting injured players into one of the most physically demanding events in American sports.
But it’s not fair to give Silicon Valley and Warrior culture all the blame for this cataclysmic event. Durant’s injury is a symptom of a larger NBA culture problem. A culture that is guilty of not giving players agency over their own bodies. Ironically, you don’t have to look any further than the opposing Raptor’s team to find an example of this dynamic at play.
After sustaining a thigh injury in 2018, Kawhi Leonard was practically run out of San Antonio for disagreeing with the Spurs’ training staff on whether he was healthy enough to play again that season. While it’s hard for even the best of doctors to know anything for certain about someone else’s body we do know that Spurs management publicly casted doubt on Kawhi’s toughness in order to pressure him, through media criticism, to return. We also know that Kawhi’s camp held firm and ultimately requested a trade from the Spurs because of this. And we all know how that turned out for the Spurs…
Unfortunately, it appears that Durant didn’t have the same kind of support system he needed to fend off the pressures of constant media criticism and cultural forces at play. He needed someone in his camp to save him for himself and illuminate the fact that he had 2–4 years of elite play in his career to prove all the “haters” wrong.
Maybe he still will, but it’s more likely, if history contains any lessons, Durant will never be the same again. Yet tomorrow sports media pundits and the Warrior’s management will say everything, except admit their culpability. More specifically, they will say how bad they feel and how they wish Durant a speedy recovery.
But you and I will know the truth. And so will the NBA. And so will Durant.
Shame on the NBA, shame on the Warriors and shame on the media.
About the author: Git Bookets is a Professor of Basketball at Wakanda University