TORONTO — When Kevin Durant went down on the court early in the second quarter with an apparent Achilles injury, the first person I thought about was Kevin Garnett. When you cover a championship team you tend to view most things through the prism of that experience.
My mind was on KG because it was exactly 10 years ago when the spring of 2009 was dominated by questions about whether Garnett would come back from a knee injury to rescue the Celtics during their championship defense. His injury occurred in February when the Celtics were steamrolling through the league with a team that many in the organization considered a superior outfit to the 2008 championship squad.
The initial timeline was two to three weeks and Garnett gave it a go late in late March lasting only four games playing limited minutes. There were some optimistic signs of progress, but the C’s shut him down before the start of the playoffs.
Then-coach Doc Rivers went so far as to say that while it wasn’t officially official that KG would miss the postseason run, he didn’t see how Garnett could get back on the court. Garnett likely needed surgery, but it was put off on the slight chance that maybe, just maybe, he could return.
That faint hope took on a life of its own as the Celtics battled through an epic seven-game series with the Bulls and then prepared to take on the Orlando Magic in the second round. The Celtics were battered and bruised by that point. Those who were able to play were lauded for their guts and fortitude.
Garnett was a phantom at that point, present but not exactly visible. There was grumbling from some media quarters that Garnett wasn’t even sitting on the bench during games — didn’t he care? Every night there were whispers that he was going to to come back and those whispers built upon their own momentum until the question became: Why isn’t Garnett coming back?
A few weeks after the end of their season, Garnett had surgery to remove bone spurs from his knee. Playing on it would have been physically disastrous and ethically wrong. The moral of that story, and countless others, is that we really don’t know what’s going on medically with players. While we praise those who play through the pain, it’s worth remembering that another true sign of toughness isn’t gutting it out, but having the courage to say no.
The second person I thought about was Kawhi Leonard, who sat out almost an entire season and forced his way out of San Antonio over a disagreement regarding a quad injury. Like KG and KD, Kawhi took a raft of shit over his decision to withhold his playing services.
Even some who would normally be considered player-friendly wondered what was really going on here? How could Kawhi turn his back on the organization that raised him and the teammates with whom he won a championship?
To this day you can surely find people who question whether Kawhi was really that hurt, as if they truly had his best interests at heart. On an emotional night in Toronto, Leonard offered the best summation of the situation with a reminder that the mental scars are just as real as the physical ones.
“What do I think about his situation? It’s devastating,” Leonard said. “Like you said, you work so hard to get to this point, these are the last games, you see him try to come out and push himself, but obviously he tried to do a move — and I feel bad for him. I’ve been in that situation before. I hope he has a speedy recovery, and just gets healthy and I hope that he’s going to be okay mentally, just throughout the whole rehab process.”
From the moment it was announced that Bob Myers would be addressing the media after Game 5, it was clear that this was no ordinary press conference. Choked up and struggling to maintain his composure, Myers took responsibility for Durant’s injury as the Warriors President of Basketball Operations.
“He was cleared to play tonight; that was a collaborative decision,” Myers said. “I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame, but I understand in this world and if you have to, you can blame me. I run our basketball operations department. And to tell you something about Kevin Durant, Kevin Durant loves to play basketball, and the people that questioned whether he wanted to get back to this team were wrong.
“And I’m not here to — he’s one of the most misunderstood people. He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person, it’s not fair. I’m lucky to know him. I don’t know — I don’t have all the information on what really the extent of what it all means until we get a MRI, but the people that worked with him and cleared him are good people, they’re good people.”
This cuts to the heart of the situation. Durant risked his health and maybe his livelihood with the assurances of medical professionals that it would be ok. They are as responsible as Myers, and while it was laudable that he stood up and took the shots for everyone, there is still an untold story waiting to be revealed about how it came to pass that KD was allowed back on the court.
The Warriors are far from the only responsible parties.
The Finals are an entity unto themselves. The press travels in a pack for two to three weeks, attending practices via interminably long bus rides, taking flights, staying in the same hotels, and eating meals together. Taken to a 7-game extreme, the Finals can last longer than the Olympics, but with far fewer diversions and characters to study.
The result is a highly-pressurized bubble where every move is dissected and every sentence scrutinized for telltale signs that only seem obvious in retrospect. If there wasn’t internal pressure on Durant to return, there was certainly no end of external prodding.
Even those who did worry about Durant’s health first wanted to see if he could rally his team from a 3-1 deficit, bringing this Warriors story full circle while allowing KD to claim his rightful place in their tale. He’d been vilified and ridiculed for joining the Warriors and “taking the easy way out.” Here was a chance to silence all that noise and reclaim the title as the best player in the world. How could that not affect Durant?
It would be nice if everyone suddenly got religion on athletes and injuries, but that’s not really the world we live in. Players are viewed not as human, but as superheroes, with their own narrative arcs that render the victors immortal. The vanquished are diminished, as if possessing a fatal character flaw that doomed their championship hopes. At the end of the day, they’re just people blessed with extraordinary skills.
“Sports is, it’s people,” Myers said. “Sports is people. I know Kevin takes a lot of hits sometimes, but he just wants to play basketball and right now he can’t. Basketball has gotten him through his life. So it means, I don’t know that we can all understand how much it means to him. He just wants to play basketball with his teammates and compete.”
Back in their locker room, the Warriors were wounded and hurt. Angry and agitated that this had reached the point where people were questioning Durant’s motives and motivations.
“Fuck them,” DeMarcus Cousins said for everyone. “Fuck them.”
Even with all that, the basketball somehow continues. The Warriors played valiantly without KD, maintaining a lead that carried them well into the fourth quarter. The Raptors finally made their move and had a title in their grasp, only to be denied by their own mistakes and the cold-blooded shooting of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
“I just told the team I didn’t know what to say because on the one hand I’m so proud of them,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “Just the amazing heart and grit that they showed, and on the other I’m just devastated for Kevin. So it’s a bizarre feeling that we all have right now. An incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time.”
Back we go to Oakland with a championship in the balance. Someone’s going to win this, but it will be hard to separate that moment from the image of Kevin Durant lying on the floor clutching his calf. In that moment, the Finals seemed like the least important thing in the world.