NEW YORK — NBA fans have come to accept that great players have great egos. This is not a league that celebrates the modest, the low key. Rather it is a league where over-the-top rules, a league where free agents demand to be courted like Hollywood starlets.
That's why it has been so fun to watch Kevin Durant practice with Team USA in New York. Durant is an emerging superstar, and by far the best player on the squad that is headed to Turkey at the end of this month to seek its first world championship since 1994.
On the court, the 21-year-old Durant defers to no one. There was one incredible sequence in a scrimmage this week where the 6-9 Durant just took over. Durant started back-to-back fast breaks by getting a defensive rebound, going the length of the court and setting up alley-oop layups by Derrick Rose and then Andre Iguodala.
Off the court, however, Durant is anything but a spotlight-hogging showman. This summer, while LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade had basketball executives flying all over the Midwest begging for their services, Durant rebelled against prevailing convention.
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This is how Durant's contract negotiations with the Oklahoma City Thunder went: At 11:01 Central Time, Oklahoma City executives knocked on the door of Durant's home and offered him the maximum deal. He accepted immediately. And then tweeted the news to his fans.
Durant, whose extension begins in 2011-12 and takes him through 2015-16, could have asked for the ability to opt out of his deal in the fifth season. But he said he doesn't expect to.
"I just like Oklahoma," Durant said after practice. "I didn't want to leave my teammates. It didn't need to take a lot of time. It was an easy decision for me."
Durant is not a superstar. But if he keeps playing like this, he will be one well before the end of his contract. Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski sees no limit to his talent.
"He's a no position player who is pure," Krzyzewski said. "He has no negative intangibles. He's got unique skills coupled with a great attitude. He's one of a kind and wants to get better, so you can't say this guy is like him or like someone else. He's creating his own mold."
With big stars like Kobe Bryant, James and Wade taking the summer off, Spain, not Team USA, is favored to win in Turkey. Some think the U.S. team may even have a hard time getting to the medal game. But if Team USA can win the championship without any of their big guns, Durant could go from emerging superstar to just plain superstar.
"If we get this done, this propels him into stardom," said veteran Chauncey Billups. "This would really put him into an elite group."
Krzyzewski believes it is just a matter of time before everyone is referring to Durant as a great player.
Said Krzyzewski: "In most professions, the people who become amazingly special do things in a very unique way. He wants to learn. He's half an hour early for our morning meetings. He's early for practices. That coupled with the talent he has, it's a unique combination."