Kevin Durant and (Possibly) the Greatest Basketball Team of All Time


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Ok, why not, let’s start with the asteroid. Thirty-five million years ago, a giant space rock, two miles wide, came screaming out of the sky and crashed into Earth. It struck the eastern edge of the landmass we know today as North America. And it unleashed an apocalypse. The asteroid hit with the power of many nuclear bombs. It hit so hard that it vaporized itself and cracked the bedrock seven miles down. It incinerated whole forests, killed all life in the area, sent super-tsunamis ripping out across the Atlantic. You can still find remnants of the trauma (shocked quartz, fused glass) as far away as Texas and the Caribbean.

Where it hit, the rock left a scar: a giant smoldering hole more than 50 miles across.

Eons passed. The world turned cold. Glaciers started crawling down from the north, with irresistible slowness, inching their way toward the asteroid hole, grinding up the landscape, dragging boulders and carving valleys. Then they stopped. They started to melt. The glaciers bled ice water, and little trickles went rolling downhill, braiding themselves into rivers, seeking low places in the landscape.

Eventually, inevitably, the water found the asteroid hole. The ancient crater sucked down streams like a shower drain. It flooded and overflowed, expanding its borders, mingling freshwater and seawater, filling up with creatures of all kinds: oysters, fishes, turtles, dolphins, otters, pelicans, newts. Little blue crabs scuttled through its grasses.

Today we call that waterlogged space-hole the Chesapeake Bay. It is the largest estuary in the United States, a jackpot of fertility, home now to more than 18 million people — and for 400 years it has been a vortex of American history: Jamestown, revolution, tobacco, the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglass used to watch sails gliding across the Chesapeake Bay and dream of being free.

I could tell you about that asteroid hole forever. But the reason I am telling you now is that Kevin Durant, the basketball superstar, grew up next to it — so close that he can tell you how many blue crabs come in a bushel. On a recent afternoon, when the Brooklyn Nets had a day off, I told Durant the story of the asteroid and the glaciers and the formation of the Chesapeake Bay.

“That’s incredible,” he said, and then he started thinking out loud about the way things evolve over time, how even the tiniest incremental changes can, day after grinding day, turn trauma into beauty. “Sick,” he said admiringly. “That’s sick.” And: “That’s a message to me. You telling me that just took me down a deep hole.”

Spend any time with Durant and what you will notice, I swear, is not his height (6 feet 10¾ inches) or his wingspan (7 feet 4¾ inches) but deeper things, spiritual things. You will notice his large, thoughtful, searching eyes; his matter-of-fact self-consciousness; a certain tender, unhidden sadness. Durant is a four-time scoring champion and a two-time finals M.V.P. and an 11-time All-Star and the protagonist of countless N.B.A. dramas and mini-scandals and memes — by any measure, one of the defining athletes of our time. His decisions about where to play, and which teammates to play with, have thrust whole franchises up to glory and sent others plummeting down.

This season, once again, Durant sits at the center of the wildest drama in basketball: a radical experiment in Brooklyn, where the once-hapless Nets have transformed themselves into a superteam around K.D. and his friends — a knot of talent so dense and strange, thrown together with such sudden force, that it is impossible to say whether it will steamroll the entire league or lose narrowly in the second round or dissolve into chaos and go off the grid and turn up 20 years from now on a submarine in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. The Nets seem designed to raise deep philosophical questions about not only basketball but also life. What is a team? What does it mean to belong? What would happen if we took 17 alternate story lines and folded them up together into an origami swan with three heads and a beard?

Which means they are the perfect team for Kevin Durant. He has exactly the sort of transcendental galaxy brain that likes to rise up very high, and then slightly higher, to think about things like deep time and space rocks and the meaning of life. And the Brooklyn Nets are his galaxy-brain superteam. At long last, after all these many millions of years, Kevin Durant may have finally found his true basketball home.

Four years ago, the Brooklyn Nets were the worst team in the N.B.A. They lost 76 percent of the time and finished 33 games out of first place and were famous mainly for sparse crowds, blowout losses, bad signings and a long history of weird uniforms and dorky mascots.

Today the Nets are arguably the most talented team in basketball history.

What happened? And how on our spherical Earth did it happen so quickly?

Well, let us discuss the phenomenon of superteams. They are not exactly new. Most of the N.B.A.’s signature historical teams were absolutely stuffed with Hall of Fame talent. In the 1980s, Larry Bird and His Outrageously Tall Buddies (three titles, seven Hall of Famers) squared off repeatedly against Magic Johnson and His Bouncy Pals (five titles, six Hall of Famers). The 1990s were ruled (six titles) by Michael Jordan and His Flying Long-Armed Army (five Hall of Famers). But superteams, back then, were basically institutions. They were built slowly, through draft picks and opportunistic trades, and they accrued championships like tree rings. One superstar, in each case, tended to rise above the group, stamping his face on the franchise and collecting corporate endorsements. But the real deep power, the power to construct and deconstruct, belonged to the executives: schlubby men in suits who sat in back offices under fluorescent lights writing checks and making extremely boring phone calls.

The modern superteam is something else. It sprang all at once, fully formed, from the brilliant balding head of LeBron James. In 2010, James was the best player in the world, in the full ripeness of his prime, and he was a free agent. Every executive in American sports would have sacrificed everything to sign him. Instead of playing by their rules, however, James flexed his power. He turned the whole thing into a spectacle, starring in a prime-time TV special called “The Decision,” on which he announced, while wearing a magenta gingham shirt, that he would be leaving his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to go off and form a superteam with two other stars in Miami. “Gonna take my talents to South Beach,” is how James unfortunately, infamously, put it.

James’s “Decision” decision (as well as his decision to air it as “The Decision”) kicked off a new era. The league’s center of power swung from executives in front offices to group texts among superstars. “The Player Empowerment Era,” people call it. Other superstars now routinely do the things James did: They tailor their contracts for maximum flexibility, influence the hiring and firing of coaches and — above all — scheme to play together. This inspired exactly the kind of panic you might expect in certain quarters of America, given the racial dynamics involved: a redistribution of power from (mostly) old white executives to (mostly) young black players. Many fans suddenly cast LeBron James as a villain.

Back in 2010, at the beginning of that new era, Kevin Durant was still a baby-faced prodigy. He was famous for his long arms and his skinny frame and his blandly nice persona — people saw him, basically, as a seven-foot-tall Pez dispenser with a cartoon smiley face. He was also seen as an antidote to the superteam trend. In interviews, Durant said that he hoped to stay forever with his original franchise, the Oklahoma City Thunder (nee the Seattle SuperSonics), and those statements set off trumpet blasts of praise, and everyone lauded him as a sort of anti-LeBron. On the day before James sat down for “The Decision,” Durant announced that he would be signing a five-year contract extension to remain in OKC. In 2012, when OKC and Miami met in the finals, all the moral force was on Durant’s side. But James’s superteam won, because that is what superteams do.

Years passed. It turned out that much of what people had been reading into Durant — simple, deferential, loyal at all costs — was actually more about them than him. When Durant’s noble contract extension expired in 2016, he was no longer married to the idea of staying with his team. He conducted his free agency like the superstar that he was: He rented a mansion in the Hamptons, where he hosted waves of N.B.A. suitors. The Thunder had to fly out there like everyone else, and in the end, Durant made a choice that just about ripped the basketball world in half. He left OKC to join the Golden State Warriors, the best team in the league, one of the greatest teams in history and the team that just barely knocked the Thunder out of the playoffs five weeks earlier. It would have been like Jimi Hendrix, after narrowly losing a battle of the bands to the Rolling Stones, signing on as their new lead guitarist. To many sports fans, Durant, like LeBron James before him, became an absolute villain. He had taken player empowerment too far, critics said, violated a sacred code of competitive pride. Also, he hurt their feelings. ESPN’s most famous bloviator, Stephen A. Smith, called it “the weakest move I’ve ever seen from a superstar.”

Durant’s time in Golden State was basketball heaven. His talent was jet fuel on a bonfire. The team was basically untouchable, winning two titles in three years, losing the third only because a catastrophic wave of injuries hit them at the worst possible moment — including Durant’s tearing his Achilles tendon during the 2019 finals. But his three Golden State seasons had also been exhausting: the gossip, the villainization, the volcanic hot takes. Durant now sat in California, a broken free agent, surveying the league for his next home.

Out in Brooklyn, meanwhile, the formerly pathetic Nets had become almost sort of maybe good. New management had taken over and instituted a textbook rebuild: They dumped bad contracts, loaded the roster with promising young talent and set the stage for a patient, long-term, sustainable rise. In 2019, the Nets had actually, shockingly, made the playoffs. They got stomped in the first round, but that hardly mattered. They had a balanced roster, a creative front office, a major media market and two maximum-salary slots to sign big stars. In the era of player empowerment, the Nets had built a perfect lightning rod to attract wandering superstars.

It took no time at all for lightning to strike. Despite his torn Achilles, Kevin Durant was still the league’s most desirable free agent. He could have held a month of meetings out in the Hamptons. But this time, he avoided any drama. He took zero meetings. He simply informed the Nets that he would be joining their rebuilt franchise. Durant has always been different this way. Whereas James appears to be visibly calculating his next move, at every moment, often in nakedly corporate terms — life as a series of Nike commercials — Durant tends to follow his feelings. (“The spirit of the game was talking to me,” he has said of his decision to join Golden State.) The asteroid hits where the asteroid hits. Then all the energy in the landscape flows toward it.

Durant during the Bulls game on May 15. Almost all his life, he has been a tremendously accurate shooter.Dina Litovksy/Redux, for The New York Times

Durant’s friend Kyrie Irving was the other big free-agency prize of 2019 — and he, too, picked Brooklyn. It was hard to say for sure if one superstar followed the other or if the two joined hands and jumped together. But it was clear that they came as a pair. For the Nets, this was (as the N.B.A. reporter Adrian Wojnarowski put it) a “clean sweep.” The two superstars would plug right into Brooklyn’s talented young core. They would grow together toward a championship. If you squinted and tilted your head, it almost looked like an old-fashioned institutional superteam.

But superteam logic is brutal, unsentimental and sometimes ugly. Big stars are not trying to wait around, season after season, for incrementally better odds at a title. If you are going to have a superteam, why not make it every bit as super as you possibly can?

And so it happened that, in the chaos of January 2021, when Durant was fully healed and the Nets were finally in a position to see exactly what they had built, they suddenly changed again. With the blessing of their new stars, Brooklyn bundled up its best young talent — the organic, slow-cooked core of that heroic rebuild — and said goodbye. They traded it all away for yet another superstar: James Harden, Durant’s friend and former teammate, 2018 N.B.A. M.V.P., one of the greatest offensive players the league has ever seen. The Nets’ Big 2 was now a Gigantic 3.

In March, while the dust from that impact was still swirling through the air, I asked the Nets’ general manager, Sean Marks, if he ever falls asleep at night with a single tear rolling down his cheek, staring at a photo of all the young players he had to trade away. Marks told me that yes, it hurt him a lot — he lost multiple nights of sleep and cried actual tears and made the worst phone call he’s ever had to make in his life. “You’re reminded,” he told me, “that this is sometimes a cruel and unjust and strange and unfair world.” And yet he would have done the trade 100 times out of 100. Superteam logic is harsh, yes, but it is also irresistible. And it was now firmly in control of the Nets.

The Nets’ Big 3 are almost comically different, physically and spiritually and stylistically. It’s like the opening screen of a video game in which you have to choose your character, each of whom comes with a different set of pros and cons. Do you want the tiny quicksilver thief (Kyrie Irving) or the burly crafty woodsman (James Harden) or the tall ethereal phantom (Kevin Durant)? Choose carefully — your survival depends on it. Somehow, Brooklyn figured out the cheat code that allows you to pick all three.

Kyrie Irving is short for the N.B.A., just 6-foot-2, and in a crowd of pro athletes he looks slight and vulnerable, like the little brother someone’s mom forced him to bring to the gym. But give him the ball and watch. Irving is probably the best dribbler in the league, and he can string together long sequences of moves that baffle whole groups of defenders — street-ball fakes and spins and jukes that shift and build, one by one, like incantations, until he is suddenly levitating through empty air to score.

All the best Irving highlights unfold like this, in multiple phases, theatrically. Act I: He confuses the defender immediately in front of him with some move the rest of the N.B.A. will later study in slow motion, over and over, looking for clues — and then when that defender scrambles madly to recover, Irving will unleash Act II, in which he uses the overcorrection to his own advantage, spinning off into a new opening, where for Act III he will square his shoulders and gather the ball as if he’s about to shoot, sending all the nearby help defenders leaping to try to block the shot — but of course he was only faking the shot, and now he is dribbling into Act IV, driving all the way to the hoop, leaping at the rim, which is guarded by the biggest player on the floor, who is somehow a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than Irving and whose whole professional job depends on his ability to swat the ball away when little guys try to shoot — but Irving goes flying toward him anyway, and the big man leaps, body and spirit, to spike the layup into the crowd, but at the last possible millisecond Irving hits him with Act V, in which he switches the ball to his left hand, thrusts it away from his body and then whips his wrist, putting so much spin on the ball that it’s like one of those trick shots you sometimes see on a pool table, those looping optical illusions that seem to defy geometry and physics: Irving’s layup hits the backboard way out on the edge, where a normal layup would never hit, so far from the traditional spot in fact that any grade-school basketball coach would blow his whistle immediately and be like, “Kids, we need to take this practice seriously, I am not out here spending my Saturday so you can fling balls willy-nilly at the glass like clowns, now line back up and start again” — except Irving’s ball hits that ridiculous spot, right on the edge of the coordinate grid of the possible, and it is loaded with so much twisting left-handed spin that as soon as it touches the glass it fires off, at a weird angle, directly through the hoop.

All along, act by act, the crowd is going “ooh” and then “ah” and then “OOOOHHH,” and after Irving scores they are chanting “M.V.P.,” and although the whole drama took only about five seconds and was worth just 2 points — the same as the most boring baseline jumper — it was so much more than that. Every possession, for Irving, is a hero’s journey.

And that’s just one of the Big 3 — probably the one who would get picked last in gym class.

James Harden stands as thick as two Kyrie Irvings. He has a volcanic plug of a black beard, and in many ways he hardly looks like a pro basketball player. The internet loves to pass photos around of Harden looking borderline chunky, and he is notorious around the league for partying all night long, and it is possible that in his entire life he has never been the fastest player in a gym. (His fellow N.B.A. superstar Russell Westbrook, who played against Harden as a child in Los Angeles, remembers him, even then, as “a little chubby left-handed dude.”) And yet Harden is a one-man basketball revolution. No defender in the league can guard him one on one. He is so shifty and tricky and clever and quick, so deceptively skilled, that his defenders frequently end up starring in humiliating GIFs. Harden’s most famous highlight is probably the time he juked someone so hard that the defender crumpled to the floor and Harden stood there, watching, for what felt like an hour, and then actually licked his lips before swishing the open shot.

Harden’s signature move is characteristically weird: the stepback 3-pointer, in which he picks up his dribble very far from the hoop and then basically runs and hops backward, away from the basket, making an already long and difficult shot even longer and much more difficult, because — contrary to normal basketball logic — he decided that there was all this unused space behind him that was just going to waste, space that no one had ever really thought to exploit. So Harden started exploiting the hell out of it, and he became so good at it that it destroyed whole coaching schemes. Out of pure desperation, teams started positioning defenders right on Harden’s left shoulder — a place no defender ever needed to stand before. They were begging him to drive to the hoop, to please shoot layups. Please, score 2 easy points on us! Anything but the stepback 3!

Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Bruce Brown and Kevin Durant playing against the Chicago Bulls at the Barclays Center on May 15. Dina Litovksy/Redux, for The New York Times

The best of the three superstars, however, is Kevin Durant. Durant is nearly seven feet tall, and he shoots 30-footers as if they are layups, and if any player has ever looked more natural or graceful on a basketball court, I have never seen him. Durant’s keynote is ease. He moves with a pure, unforced economy of motion, a frictionless glide, that makes him look almost indifferent to the action around him. He looks so elemental on a basketball court that you almost expect to find him mentioned in James Naismith’s 13 original rules for the game. (8. A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket — also someday there will be a man named Kevin Durant, he will perfectly express how this game is supposed to look, he gets it better than I do, I am just writing all this stuff down so the game exists when he comes along.) Durant has been so good, so consistently, for so long that the biggest drama surrounding his career has always been where he chooses to play. When he decides to leave a franchise, it feels sort of like finding out that the Grand Canyon has decided to move to Sweden.

In conclusion, each of the Nets’ three superstars makes you shake your head and say “wow,” but in an entirely different way. For Irving, the wow means: I cannot believe he just pulled that move off. For Harden, it means: I cannot believe that that guy right there just did all of that to all those other guys, what is happening, are we all on some kind of prank show? For Durant, the wow is the same wow you say when you see the ocean for the first time or look into a volcano — it is the wow of the sublime, of witnessing a force so beautiful and grand and elegant and simple and natural and enduring that it makes you feel, by contrast, small and lumpy and clumsy and soft. And yet, you would never choose not to look at it if you could.

Could the Brooklyn Nets experiment possibly work? The Nets’ three superstars are all basketball geniuses, but they can all also be described, quite fairly, as “moody.” Each one, in his own special way, has managed to leave a trail of drama and destruction in the wake of an otherwise illustrious career: jilted former teams, on-court tantrums, P.R. blunders, playoff flameouts. As young teammates in Oklahoma City, Durant and Harden once got so heated in practice that they had to be separated — and weeks later Harden, who had grown tired of playing in the shadow of superstar teammates, was traded to Houston. Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, won a championship in Cleveland with LeBron James but then requested a trade. The Boston Celtics welcomed him as a conquering hero, and he reciprocated the love (“If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here”), until suddenly he didn’t. After months of bickering and drama and passive-aggressive quotes and Instagram essays with weird capitalization, Irving left Boston, to a chorus of jeers, to join Durant in Brooklyn. Back in Houston, Harden, who had established himself over eight seasons as a superstar, forced the trade that would allow him to join the fun in Brooklyn, too.

It would be hard to assemble a more eccentric trio. Irving once suggested that the earth was flat, and then when everyone went crazy tried to claim that he said it only to make everyone go crazy. (“It was all an exploitation tactic. It literally spun the world, your guys’ world, it spun it into a frenzy and proved exactly what I thought it would do in terms of how all this works.”) James Harden partied maskless in Las Vegas during the pandemic and then shuffled his way through actual professional games with the effort of a teenage boy unloading a dishwasher at 6 a.m. K.D. got himself in trouble on Twitter and then in more trouble on Twitter.

How could these three players, with their infinity of moods, possibly coexist? Especially through the volatile, gossipy, drama-filled grind of an N.B.A. season? Especially when anything less than a championship would be seen as an embarrassing failure? Especially in a wild, compressed pandemic season in which normal chemistry-building exercises (team meals, hangouts, practices) were largely impossible? Even in the best circumstances, moods are unpredictable. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it, “Our moods do not believe in each other.”

As it turns out, the superstars hardly got a chance to coexist at all. This season seemed to be cursed. Brooklyn’s Big 3 played together, all year, for only about 200 minutes. It was an endless series of minor accidents and misunderstandings and unsynced timelines. Kyrie Irving disappeared for a while, mysteriously missing seven games for what the Nets called “personal reasons.” (The gossip flying around the media section of Barclays Center would have singed your eyebrows off.) Kevin Durant got swallowed, as who among us has not been, by health and safety protocols — “Free me,” he tweeted, virally — and then tweaked his left hamstring, and what was supposed to be a short absence turned into nearly two months, 23 straight Durant-less games — and then just before he came back, James Harden, who does not get injured, got injured. Then Durant got kneed very hard in the thigh, right in his Rick James tattoo, and Irving got hit in the face, and the season was suddenly over.

The whole thing felt like the old logic puzzle about the fox and the chicken and the grain, where you can ferry only two of them across the river at once, and if you pick the wrong pair one of them will be eaten — and somehow we were always picking the wrong pair of Nets. In a 72-game season, Brooklyn used 38 different starting lineups. It was chaos. By the end of the season, I had seen more rappers named “Lil” at Barclays Center (Lil’ Kim, Lil Baby) than I had seen games featuring the Big 3.

And yet, somehow, out on the floor, the Brooklyn Nets were amazing. I am not, personally, a big fan of superteams — I am old-school and snobbish, a connoisseur of chemistry and underdogs and all that antique stuff. But the Nets won me over. Even without the full Big 3, their offense was overwhelming. Harden controlled games like a puppeteer, making defenders lean and spin and run into one another, making their legs fly out from under them, making mediocre teammates look like All-Stars, driving past his man and then — at the exact nanosecond someone else stepped forward — lobbing the ball to a suddenly open teammate for a dunk. He made shots that looked like yo-yo tricks. I saw the Nets start a game by making 13 of their first 16 shots. I saw them score 42 points in a single quarter. (For much of N.B.A. history, 42 would have been a perfectly respectable halftime score.) It was a pure expression of basketball joy. Multiple times, they had me laughing out loud.

And their defense! That, too, made me LOL. It was almost as bad as their offense was good. Brooklyn’s defense was so bad that it sometimes felt like art — rich with meaning, a Dada masterpiece, a problematization of the very notion of defense. It was as if the Nets wanted the other team to have as much fun out there as they were having. Opposing stars got to take turns looking like Wilt Chamberlain. Score all you want, the Nets seemed to say — you will never score as much as we do. If we need to, we will beat you 391-386. And it worked. Over one particularly hot stretch, the Nets won 14 out of 15 games.

Kevin Durant missed that stretch. He was, for much of the season, the man in the shadows. He came to games and sat on the bench, often with a black hood over his head and a black mask over his mouth, looking like a ninja assistant coach. I watched him watching, game after game, and I wondered when we might see him again, playing basketball, back in his element.

Once, in the middle of Durant’s longest injury absence, I got to see him shoot around before a game. He was wearing all black (hat, T-shirt, shorts, leggings, shoes) and moving with that signature Durant economy of motion, the unmistakable posture and gait, as if his joints were full of ball bearings. He was, as always, as he has been almost all his life, a ridiculously accurate shooter. When Durant makes a shot, its swish seems extra pure — the ball hovers inside the net for a second, as if it lives there, as if it wants to take its time and really enjoy itself before it falls. I watched Durant shoot for 10, 20, 30 minutes, until he was the only player left on the floor. He seemed to never want to stop. I watched him shoot many 3-pointers in a row, first off two feet and then off one foot, and then he started shooting free throws. The whole ritual felt truly obsessive, like a chase for perfection. Durant left the floor eventually, but only so the actual game could start. Then he came back out, with his mask and hoodie on, and took his place silently at the end of the bench.

Durant’s keynote is ease. He moves with a pure, unforced economy of motion, a frictionless glide, that makes him look almost indifferent to the action around him.Dina Litovksy/Redux, for The New York Times

One day in late April, when Kevin Durant’s hamstring was fully healed but his thigh was freshly bruised, I visited him in New York. In the player-empowerment era, the biggest stars tend to have their own corporations. Durant’s is called Thirty Five Ventures, and it operates out of a suite of offices in Lower Manhattan. Durant lives nearby. He wasn’t there yet when I arrived, so I sat on a big couch and studied the office’s art: two sculptures, by the artist Ron English, of the cartoon character Charlie Brown — except that Charlie’s face is split open across the middle, like an overripe fig, to reveal a skull with a skeletal smile.

Eventually Durant showed up. He wore a black Malcolm X hat and a black Nas hoodie and some truly wonderful pants: long and soft and fuzzy, with zippers on the pockets and drawstrings on the ankles and a hypnotic paisley pattern. Durant had a few things to take care of in the office that day: paperwork to sign, jerseys to autograph, a podcast with ESPN. I watched him stand on a sunny balcony and pose for photos holding a Major League Soccer trophy. (Durant is a part owner of the Philadelphia Union.) I sat in on a meeting while Durant and his team strategized with a Nike rep about a forthcoming apparel line and some shoe releases that were still several years away.

After a while, Durant led me back to his office to talk. Given the setting, I assumed that I would be interviewing Business Durant: that he would be on message and strategic, a relentless ambassador for his brand, full of references to his favorite start-ups and causes. Thirty Five Ventures has a wide, eclectic portfolio: investments in more than 70 early-stage tech and private-equity companies, initiatives to fund women’s sports, a sports-business media network called Boardroom. Durant has invested heavily in Prince George’s County, where he grew up. He paid to renovate the rec center where he learned to play basketball and founded a college prep program, the College Track at the Durant Center, where local kids can hang out and receive free food and tutoring. This year, Durant was an executive producer on a short film about police violence called “Two Distant Strangers,” which won an Academy Award.

But the Durant I met was not at all a brand ambassador. Instead he lowered himself, in slow motion, onto a long couch and asked, sincerely, “What do you want to talk about?” I said, only 20 percent joking, the meaning of life. This seemed to make him happy. We proceeded to sit there and talk for a very long time, sinking deeper and deeper into the couch, about his childhood and Chesapeake Bay and meditation and crabs and Twitter. The K.D. who hosted me that afternoon was relaxed and talkative and full of questions, both rhetorical and actual, and he seemed to have all the time in the world. It felt less like an interview than like a therapy session or a late-night dorm-room philosophy jag.

This was all classic Durant. In a sports world defined by tough-guy posturing and bulletproof messaging, he has always come off as something else: a thinker and a searcher and a wandering soul. In interviews, he will abandon the script of jock clichés and drop right into existential dread. “I go to sleep at night, like, ‘Am I going to be alone forever?’” he once told Zach Baron of GQ. And to Michael Lee of The Athletic: “I’ve been roaming my whole life. I never had no stable environment. Ever. Ever. Since I woke up.” Durant has spoken publicly about how important it is to cry. If Michael Jordan were a Dostoyevsky character, he would be Kevin Durant.

This level of openness, at this level of superfame, is sometimes terrifying to see — it feels like watching an astronaut take his helmet off on the moon. The world of sports media is basically where American men go to avoid therapy, where they can project their wounds and failings onto strangers and referees. To be a celebrity in that world — a celebrity so big that major media companies pay their bills by telling stories about you — can just about strip flesh from the bone. Most N.B.A. stars adopt protective strategies. James Harden is famously distant: He lives, as he puts it, in a “box.” Kyrie Irving has spent much of this season on a sort of spiritual retreat from reporters — so much so that the N.B.A. fined him $25,000 for violating its media policy. (“I do not speak to Pawns,” Irving posted on Instagram afterward. “My time is worth more.”)

Kevin Durant, by contrast, is radically open. He walks around in his fame like a raw nerve. He speaks and feels and changes his mind, contradicting himself, allowing people to see him in all kinds of moods.

“The world is bigger than my little box,” Durant told me. “I’m not going to be playing this game forever. So I can’t be expected to stay in this box.” He laughed. “Like: ‘This is the K.D. box.’ Who gives a [expletive]? It’s been billions of people on this earth. We really are small, if you look at it from a universe perspective.”

I asked Durant if he had ever been to therapy. He said no. But he told me he meditates constantly, every day. Not formally, cross-legged, like a Buddhist. He meditates just by doing normal things. Shooting a free throw, he said, is meditation. Conversation with the right person is meditation. It feels like meditation, to Durant, to drive through New York City in his Tesla, blasting music, looking at the swirls of people, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on his way to the practice facility.

Durant is always searching, in all the noise, for relief, simplicity, stillness.

“There’s a lot of stuff that we get distracted by, or we chasing, to make us feel a certain way,” Durant said. “When it’s really basic. We should just be experiencing everything as human beings, as much as we can. Being normal amongst each other.”

He paused. Durant is hyperaware of how he is perceived. He is aware that people are aware of his awareness. And of course he has a question about that, too. “Is that a bad thing?” he asked. “To be aware?”

Kevin Durant’s very first memory is sitting in a stroller on his grandmother’s porch, strapped in, just watching. This was sometime around 1990, in Capitol Heights, Md., in Prince George’s County — in between the waters of Chesapeake Bay and the White House. (“Gateway to the Nation’s Capital,” a sign says.) The house was small, with yellow siding; its porch was carpeted with green synthetic grass. In Durant’s first memory, it is dark outside, and he is calm, looking around, inhaling the world through his big, watchful eyes: the chain-link fences, the tree in the yard, the big dim sky. Adults are passing here and there, talking, and Durant doesn’t understand any of it, but that doesn’t bother him. The vibe is chill. Secure. He remembers most of all feeling secure.

His mother, Wanda Durant, told me that tiny Kevin would have been in that stroller because she needed a break. Five minutes. She had two boys, her first at just 18, and Kevin was the second, and although he was almost no trouble at all — he hardly cried, didn’t look for attention, knew how to calm himself down all on his own by sucking his thumb — as soon as he could walk he was like a Ping-Pong ball, bouncing off every surface in the world. So once in a while Wanda would give herself a break, strapping him in and just letting him sit.

This was, and remains, Durant’s natural mode: looking. He was from the start mild and quiet. He studied other children to see what they were doing and how it was being received. He studied adults to see if they were friendly or dangerous, comfortable or stressed. When he saw something he liked — a way of walking or talking or joking — he would imitate it, make it a part of himself. He was a big silent sponge of empathy. “It was easy for him to connect emotionally,” his mother told me. “He was loving. Oh, gosh, he was such a loving thing.”

But it was not, always, a loving world. This was the 1990s, during the so-called crack epidemic and the war on drugs. The population of Prince George’s County was majority Black, with pockets of deep poverty and high crime. Durant remembers people walking around his neighborhood looking like zombies. He navigated the streets on foot, and there were so many hazards that he sometimes ran to get where he was going, and often he didn’t even use the sidewalk — he learned to run down the middle of the street after an angry dog attacked him.

Durant’s grandmother’s house was a refuge, the center of his world. It was full of women. Wayne Pratt, Durant’s father, left the family when Kevin was a baby; Pratt was only 23 and grew up himself without a father, so he didn’t feel ready to be one. Kevin saw him around the neighborhood once, and they didn’t even acknowledge each other. (Years later, his father came back into his life.) Wanda had a brother, Michael, who looked just like Kevin and even had a similar personality and would absolutely have been a kind of father figure. But Kevin’s Uncle Mike died around the same time Kevin’s father left.

Wanda was a strong mother. For generations, American institutions had failed her family and her community — so she turned herself into an institution for her two sons. Her mind was precise and realistic, and she had plans for how her boys could fit into the world. She knew that Kevin was sensitive but also that he couldn’t afford to be soft. So she had a rule. He was allowed to cry but not to whine. If you get hurt, Wanda taught him, you should express that pain, no matter what anybody else says. Crying is natural. It is the truth. But whining is something else — a manipulation, an attempt to extend your pain to get something you didn’t earn.

Wanda’s mother, Barbara, was one of 15 siblings, not counting four who died young, and many of them lived nearby. The extended family was huge. Durant remembers big Sunday dinners, crab boils, holiday feasts, colorful personalities. It was, he told me, “a real Black family.” Like you see in a Tyler Perry movie, he said.

Kevin had special affection for his Aunt Pearl, one of his grandmother’s sisters. She, too, lived in the yellow house. Aunt Pearl was, in Wanda’s words, “a marshmallow.” Soft and sweet. She’d let the kids stay up late and drink Coke and watch TV in her bedroom. When they acted up, Aunt Pearl would threaten physical punishment — “I’m going to work on your building,” she’d say — but she rarely followed through. (This was in stark contrast to Wanda; “I knew my mom’s hands was heavy,” Durant told me.) Aunt Pearl made Kevin sandwiches and snacks. When the kids slept over they’d all pile onto a makeshift mattress next to her bed. Except for Kevin, who would climb up, off the floor, and sleep in bed right next to her.

When Kevin was 11, Aunt Pearl died. It happened in front of him. She had late-stage lung cancer. One day she got up to use the bathroom but never made it back — she collapsed in the hall, struggling to breathe, and started coughing up blood, so much blood that it gushed out of her and she died, right there, in the house. E.M.T.s came and cleaned her up, then laid her back in bed. Everyone was waiting for the coroner. Kevin walked over and climbed into the bed, as he always did, and lay down. Just lay there next to Aunt Pearl, keeping her company. His grandmother, seeing her grandson in bed with the body of her sister, asked if Kevin was OK. “I’m not afraid of Aunt Pearl,” he said.

The world inside the house was small, and Kevin was growing. Wanda worked nights at the post office, loading mail trucks, struggling to keep the family afloat. Kevin hated, more than anything else, the thought of adding to her stress. So when he had questions about life, when he wanted to talk about feelings or problems or confusions, he swallowed them. He stayed quiet. He did his best to figure everything out on his own.

“In the house, I felt like my voice was suppressed a little bit,” Durant told me. “Not that they intentionally meant to do it. It was probably all me. But I just felt timid around my mom, my brother, people that were older than me. So I held a lot of stuff in.” He added, “The natural me, I held it in a bit, just to not cause any trouble, to not get in anybody’s way.”

As a modern N.B.A. superstar, it is impossible to stay out of everybody’s way. Someone, somewhere, will manage to be upset about anything Kevin Durant does. Wanda told me that she sometimes gets so riled up about the things people say about her son that she has to write a response, she can’t stop herself. But instead of posting it online she texts it to her P.R. manager, who acknowledges her pain and then tells her not to tweet it. So she doesn’t.

Kevin Durant takes, shall we say, a different approach. Like most modern Americans, he spends a lot of time looking at his phone. He looks at it in locker rooms and in business meetings and on airplanes and in down moments during conversations. He showed me his lock screen: a picture of a desert nomad, alone at night, riding a camel.

“That’s all of us walking in the desert by ourselves sometimes,” he told me.

Durant looks, especially, at Twitter. N.B.A. Twitter is a whole vibrant world unto itself, an extension and amplifier of all the on-court drama, and in that world K.D. is a sort of trickster god. He has almost 19 million followers and is famous for responding to his critics, whether they are journalists or talking heads or fellow players or random kids. “ok you’re right bro,” he once wrote to someone who called him a coward. “We got that out of the way. I feel u, I hear you loud and clear. You good now??”

Not surprisingly, then, Twitter has been the source of a couple of the major gaffes of Durant’s career. He once, excruciatingly, responded to a critic in the third person (“Kd can’t win a championship with those cats”) — thereby accidentally revealing that he was trying to defend himself, anonymously, from a fake account. (The Onion recently published an article called “Kevin Durant Spends All Day Feuding With Own Burner Account.”) More recently, Durant was caught up in a furor when Michael Rapaport, a professional loudmouth, exposed a series of inflammatory messages — including sexually explicit and homophobic language — that Durant had made to him, months earlier, as the two argued in the D.M.s. (The N.B.A. eventually fined Durant $50,000.)

“Anybody that’s crucifying me for some [expletive] that I said behind closed doors,” Durant told me, “I would definitely love to see y’all phones.”

I asked Durant if, just anthropologically, I could take a peek at his Twitter mentions.

He said no. But he described them for me. “It’s like: ‘u a bitch.’ ‘u soft.’ ‘u insecure.’ ‘i love u kd, can you respond?’” Basically, it’s a constant fire hose of praise and insults and cries for attention.

I asked him if his brain exploded every time he opened the app.

“My brain doesn’t explode,” he said.

“How does it not explode?” I asked.

“Because I’m a very centered, balanced person,” he said. “I understand why these people are doing this. If I didn’t understand, then I probably would go crazy.”

What Durant understands, he explained, is that the people writing to him aren’t actually writing to him. Kevin Durant, to them, is just an abstraction, a guy on the TV, a figment of their imaginations. So what they are doing is projecting onto him the pain or hatred or longing that they actually feel about real things in their own lives. This is why he likes to write back. He wants to show them that he is an actual human, just like them, with his own fears and hatreds and longings. He wants to connect with them on that level. Even the angry ones, he believes, have good hearts. Hatred, he told me, is just another form of passion, and therefore a sign that you’re really alive.

“It ain’t just a game. Because I seen my whole world change. Not necessarily the success, or the money. It’s just like: I’m seeing people differently.”Awol Erizku for The New York Times

“I can work with that,” he said. “I want to see what’s underneath.”

“And you can get there?” I asked.

“I know I can. People are naturally emotional when they talk to somebody they feel is on a higher pedestal than them. I’m trying to say: We equals at the end of the day. Once I bring ’em up to that, then they realize what they was doing was childish.”

Then Durant got biblical.

“Jesus used to do that,” he said. “He used to go to the worst places, and go find the people who hated him, absolutely hated him. Who denied him, never even thought about saying his name. He went to go holla at them and give them the truth. And once they heard the truth they souls changed, and they couldn’t deny it. So I try to take that approach.”

“In your mentions,” I said.

“In everything I do.”

For a couple of hours, in his corporate headquarters, it felt as if Durant and I were having an in-person D.M. exchange. He wasn’t just answering my questions. He was asking me questions too. And asking himself questions.

Durant wondered out loud, for instance, why he has devoted his entire life to basketball. Why does he wake up every morning when he doesn’t want to and force himself through all those compulsive never-ending drills? What makes him want to grind his every waking moment down into muscle memory, grind it so deep that the rest of us will watch him play, and say: Oh, it’s easy for that guy? Durant thinks about these kinds of questions a lot. Out in public, when someone asks him, he usually gives the stock answers: I love the game. I want to be great. But now, in this mood, those answers made him laugh. “It’s got to be deeper,” he said. “It’s got to be a different connection.”

One day when Durant was 7, Wanda took him to the Seat Pleasant rec center. She did it for much the same reason she used to strap him into a stroller: Maybe basketball could hold him steady, could keep him from bouncing around in the chaos of the world. Durant remembers entering that gym as a full-on spiritual awakening. It was as if the gates of heaven opened. Holy light flooding down. Angels singing.

This actually might be the best way to understand Kevin Durant: as a religious figure. In that gym, almost immediately, he became a sort of basketball monk. On a basketball court, Kevin Durant finally made sense to himself. The game drew on every aspect of his being: the watching, the moving, the thinking, the feeling. It was a deep spiritual channel, a way to align his body and his mind. Basketball brought him instant mentors, the father figures his daily life lacked: Taras Brown, known as Stink, and Charles Craig, a.k.a. Big Chucky. The coaches ran Durant through endless, punishing drills — the same few motions, over and over and over. There were times he broke down crying. Then they ran him through the drills some more.

‘There’s a lot of stuff that we get distracted by, or we chasing, to make us feel a certain way. When it’s really basic. We should just be experiencing everything as human beings, as much as we can.’

Every evening, the rec center would close for two hours, but instead of leaving, Durant would curl up and nap on an exercise mat on the floor, hidden behind a curtain, then wake up to play more basketball until it was time to go home. Nearby in the neighborhood there was a hill, a sudden thrust of elevation, and Durant would go there to sprint, to build up the muscles in his skinny legs, and his coach would tell him to do it 25 times, but then Wanda would say why not 50? And she would sit in her car at the bottom of the hill reading a novel while Durant forced himself up and down, again and again, draining the oxygen from his body, gasping and lightheaded, up and down, and if he looked west he would have seen one dark structure on the horizon, way far out — something in Washington, nearly 10 miles away, too far to see very clearly, but it was big and stone, and I looked it up, and it turns out it was the National Cathedral.

Even today, when Durant plays basketball, with all the cameras and the tweets and the talking heads and the screaming fans, he feels fully alive, connected to some higher power. The littlest parts of it — listening to his coach during a timeout, talking trash to a fan in the crowd — vibrate with holy energy. “The whole world just feels brighter to me,” he told me. “That’s how I know it must be something. It ain’t just a game. Because I seen my whole world change. Not necessarily the success, or the money. It’s just like: I’m seeing people differently.” He paused. “God’s got his hand on every court in the world,” he said. “It’s amazing. It makes me emotional, because it’s just like, Damn, I didn’t know the game could make me think that deep, and feel that deep.” Today, two decades later, basketball remains the most stable home Durant has ever known. Even his grandmother’s house is gone. It was recently torn down; if you drive there now all you will find is an empty lot at the end of a dead-end street. But Durant still carries it around on his body. He has an image of the house tattooed, very large, on the left side of his torso.

As of this writing, the Brooklyn Nets are crushing the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. The Big 3 are finally together, and so far it is going exactly as planned: Durant is delicately swishing 3s, and James Harden is making defenders question their basic life choices, and Kyrie Irving pulled off such a cheeky series of moves, on one play, that he had to tilt his head and wink afterward, like a rakish old-timey movie star. And yet, still, the Nets raise all kinds of unanswered questions. How far will they go? Against better opponents, will the three superstars magnify or diminish one another? Will they win a championship? Two championships? If so, which of the Big 3 will win finals M.V.P.? Will Kevin Durant spend the rest of his career in Brooklyn? Will any of it make him happy?

Durant is tired of all these questions. And I think I can understand why. These are all just details. Regardless of the score or the playoff seeding, regardless of the color of the uniform he’s wearing, regardless of what he will be asked on the postgame show or even what happens to be trending on Twitter, Kevin Durant, on a basketball court, is practicing religion. When he is able to play, Durant is both in the action and above it, seeing things on the floor but also from a universe perspective. His mind rises and looks down and watches everything blend, the fans and the uniforms and the coaches, all of it mingling in one big flow, like rivers pouring into a bay.

Every time Durant shoots, the neurons firing inside him are the same neurons that have been firing since he was a boy — and when they fire he can feel the past and present pulsing as one, the action on this court merging with every other court he’s ever played on, with every court out there in the world, on every continent and in every timeline, and the backspins on all the balls are rotating in perfect synchronicity, and when the shot finally drops through the hoop all the shots drop through together, the whole vast catalog of shots that he or any other player has ever taken and made, all the way back to the very first ball that ever thunked into the bottom of a peach basket. And still, Kevin Durant’s galaxy brain rises, out of the arena, to heights where whole cities overlap, whole cities and their teams, high enough that everything starts to make sense, all ideas start to cohere, and running on an N.B.A. court is just running up the old hill, and he is sprinting in an official game but also sprinting through drills, and he has been working for so many thousands of hours that soon Aunt Pearl will have to come over to the rec center and bring him a sandwich — and he is already very high but is determined to go higher, all the way to the origin of everything, the place where all points converge, and then if possible higher than that, up to wherever an asteroid comes from.

Sam Anderson is a staff writer at the magazine. His most recent cover story was about the last two northern white rhinos on earth. Awol Erizku is an Ethiopian-born American artist in Los Angeles whose paintings, photography, sculpture and film employ a wide variety of found materials and highlight an Afrocentric aesthetic.