You may have watched Jason Whitlock and Colin Cowherd spitballing about Kevin Durant’s leadership qualities as they relate to his mother. If you haven't, don't. If you have, read on.
If you made the mistake of watching, indulge me as I try and spit some of the poison out of my system. Cowherd has been down this insulting road before with John Wall. I’ll throw in a low blow of my own and note that Whitlock has failed as a leader much more spectacularly than Durant ever has. But let’s get to their argument.
Here are some characterizations that the duo strings together:
These things do not equal each other, and proving one does not mean any of the others follow. In sports talk, loose, meaningless association is standard, but most talking heads aren’t stupid enough to bring family members into their lazy fog of conjecture. And Whitlock doesn’t mean that Durant is a "momma’s boy" the way a random moron would insult a random foe. He means that Durant is, in the specific, too submissive to his actual mother. That his mother’s presence at his basketball games reveals the essence of why Durant will never win a championship.
Whitlock contrasts the in-game interaction between LeBron James and his mother, Gloria Marie James, and Durant and his mom, Wanda Pratt. James yelled at his mom once, but Durant lets his mom sit courtside a bunch. Ipso facto, Durant is a momma’s boy and James is the man of his house.
He really said that. Ipso facto, Jason Whitlock is still a fool.
Those of us who care too much about sports are constantly challenged to make value judgments about the teams and players we watch. This is probably because we want to add more depth of meaning to our obsession with, ultimately, games. We also like to root for 1) the good guys and 2) winners. Magically, we find ways to turn winners into good guys.
No one pretends that Michael Jordan is an exemplar of virtue, so we call him a great leader. And since Jordan’s shadow is cast so far over the history of the game, we look for traces of his brand of leadership in other players. The Jordan standard is applied unfairly to most of the best basketball players until they win at least one title, like clockwork.
When Cowherd says that LeBron increasingly has Jordan’s "it" that Durant lacks, he means that LeBron has won some titles. The Skip Baylesses of the dark, mysterious world we call sports media never acknowledge when they’re wrong about someone like LeBron when he wins a 'chip. Instead, they invent change in LeBron’s personality and credit him by making him into their image of a champion retroactively.
When Kevin Durant honored his mother, who raised him through hardship, he moved anyone with a heartbeat who was looking on. Durant broke through heaps of cynicism and PR-speak in crowning his mother "da real MVP." He also broke the speech’s tradition to share his MVP award honors with everyone on his team, a mark of a great leader.
That year, Durant took on a bigger load during Westbrook’s absence, growing into the facilitator, scorer, and defender the team needed. Good leadership, eh?
Since, Durant has worked to reinforce a team-first culture, taking joy in making the extra (often unnecessary) pass, cheering from the sidelines, and defending his teammates to the public. Okay on the leadership front there.
And that’s just what we see. Great leadership does not happen first under the spotlight. It happens in the gym, in private conversation, in crisis, and when there’s no credit to claim.
Leadership is not a zero sum game. Leadership doesn’t always result in championships. Leaders don’t always win, and any good one will tell you as much. How many leaders throughout the military are not and never will be the Chief of Staff? How many great managers, team leads, and supervisors will never be named CEO?
Skill, opportunity, and good fortune are just as essential to any leader’s achievements as "how bad they want it." We know this about the real world, but pretend that the NBA does not exist in the real world.
You don’t even have to look very hard to discover the NBA isn’t some Lord of the Flies, eat-or-be-eaten landscape of basketball cutthroats. Do you have to be a blatant, borderline jerk of an alpha to become a champion, or beyond that an all-time great? Not if you’re Tim Duncan. Not if you’re Dirk Nowitzki. Not if you’re Stephen Curry (although the personality revisionists will catch up to him soon). Obviously, the NBA is demanding, the competition so tough that overtly competitive characters (born in the right bodies) will rise to the top as well. Some great players fit that mold and some don’t. It’s fine!
It’s hilarious that Cowherd puts down Durant in one breath as inferior to Kawhi Leonard as a franchise cornerstone, and in the next insinuates that Durant isn’t the alpha personality you need to build a contender around. In what universe is Leonard viewed as an alpha dog? If the Spurs didn’t have a recent championship, the Cowherds of the world would absolutely tag the soft-spoken Leonard as a guy who "just doesn’t have that dog in him."
It’s possible that Durant’s window to join team success with individual achievements on par with the game’s greats is closing. It’s also entirely possible that he’s lacking as a leader. But there is zero evidence that the media or fans have access to anything that would lead to this conclusion.
Durant’s title hopes have never been sabotaged by his personality. Not once. His inner dog would not have turned the Thunder into a mature enough group to drop LeBron’s Heatles (nor convinced Scott Brooks to bench Kendrick Perkins) in 2012. Durant was 23, the oldest star on a promising team way ahead of schedule. In that series, LeBron answered his critics with his first title at the ripe old age of 27, the same age Jordan won his first. Durant is 27 now.
Durant’s teams have fallen victim to injuries, with doses of coaching and team-building blunders compounding those injuries. The Thunder have not lost a series in which Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka played every game since that Finals appearance. The pieces around them (most notably the ghost of James Harden) haven’t been enough to fill those gaps.
In the same conversation, Whitlock casually tried to revive the outdated hot take that Durant and Russell Westbrook, who are producing at a higher level than any duo in league history this year, are a bad match. If Durant manages the herculean task of winning a title this season or next, millions of empty words from empty media personalities will be shoe-horning their growth as co-alphas into the narrative, back on track to establish a dynasty. Don’t trust these people.
BACK WHERE WE STARTED
Jason Whitlock and Colin Cowherd are masterful bullshitters. They can sit at a microphone for 3 minutes and bait the blogosphere into thousand-word responses like this. While Durant and his mother don’t need anyone to cape for them, I’m aware that this kind of lame, faux-masculinity is hanging onto the sports world for dear life while the rest of society moves on. Let’s not let the bullshit stink up Thunder nation.