AUSTIN, Texas: Kevin Durant’s last major “where should I play?” basketball decision came a little more than a decade ago. Connecticut went hard after him. So did North Carolina. They were the previous two national champs.
He took visits to both schools, a D.C. guy being lured by more than just those two East Coast powers. So where did Durant end up going?
The University of Texas, an average Big 12 program in a state he’d never stepped foot. Why? To pave his own path, Durant said. To be different. To get away from home, far away, in order to test himself as a person. The decision was deeper than basketball.
“Basketball was most important,” he stressed. “But I knew I was using basketball to get to a place I’d never been, which was on my own. You can’t drive from Maryland to here. So I felt like I was on the whole other side of the world by myself.”
So much about the next few weeks will be about reading the tea leaves and dissecting the minor rumors. Up until Durant makes his final free agency decision public, everyone will be searching for hints about where he may land.
So let’s go searching a decade back to his brief time in Austin and see what it can teach us. From the Thunder’s perspective, one clear positive sticks out: Loyalty. Despite only spending about nine months living there, Durant maintains an undying love for both the university and the city it resides.
Just last week, Durant held a two-day event in Austin to launch the latest version of his signature sneakers. He brought the idea to Nike and helped plan the itinerary.
That included an entire afternoon conducting interviews at Stubb’s BBQ, a hole in the wall spot he frequented while at Texas. His former college roommate, Justin Mason, was there. The next day Mason took reporters on a tour of campus and told tales of Durant as a wide-eyed freshman.
That morning, Durant held a brief open workout for reporters. Shaka Smart, the UT hoops coach, took him through a circuit of shooting drills. Right before, the two sat down to discuss Durant’s connection to the program.
Smart said Durant was the first former Longhorn to reach out after he was hired two years ago, texting him a congrats and welcome almost immediately after the news broke. Last summer, Durant returned for a few days to work out with the current team. In the UT locker room, he still has a nameplate and locker.
“I want to be a mentor to these guys,” Durant said.
“It’s so good for our players,” Smart said.
For nine months, Durant cultivated lasting relationships with both the people and city of Austin, a place he remains so nostalgic. For the past eight years, he’s done that to a far greater extent in Oklahoma City.
“I just tried to really embed myself in the community wherever I went,” Durant said. “Trying to figure out what the city is about, what’s the identity. And I figured it out in each city, from being weird here in Austin, to Seattle being super laid back and nice and relaxed and Oklahoma City is just a blue collar town where people enjoy the finer, smaller things in life, the detailed things they really appreciate. So I learned so much about each city and learned more about myself as I’ve gone through each city and that’s really helped me out.”
Austin is the live music capital of the world. It’s got a funky feel, unique within Texas and vastly different from anything Durant had previously experienced.