HE CHOSE the house in the hills because it provided the most expansive view: the Bay, the bridge, his new city, his new home. But now Kevin Durant feared it would be just another vantage point to sustain him through yet another injury.
It had all been going so well too. Fifty-eight games into his maiden voyage with Golden State, he'd been averaging a tidy 25.8 points and 8.4 rebounds, shooting a career-high 53.8 percent. It was Feb. 28, a date he'd circled on his calendar -- the night he would return to his native Washington, D.C., for the first time in his gleaming gold and blue duds, to play in front of nearly 80 family and friends.
Just 57 seconds into the game, Wizards forward Markieff Morris lured Klay Thompson into the post as Durant watched from the weak side. Morris' turnaround jumper bounced off the iron, and Wizards center Marcin Gortat threw Zaza Pachulia out of the way in pursuit -- Pachulia flailing backward, his 275-pound body rolling into Durant's left leg. It buckled awkwardly. When Durant grabbed his knee and hopped three steps up the court, his father, Wayne Pratt, turned to his wife: "Kevin's hurt."
"I knew," Pratt says now, "because he never reaches for his leg like that."
Durant stayed in the game for 36 more seconds, jogging gingerly up the court before retreating to the bench. "Something's not right," he told coach Steve Kerr. On the sideline, Wizards coach Scott Brooks couldn't help but wince. He'd come to adore KD during the seven years they were together in OKC, back when basketball was the only thing that mattered to Durant. "I would say, 'Kevin, did you eat breakfast today?' Or, 'Kevin, you need to wash your face.' 'Kevin, you need a haircut.' He had no clue. He just wanted to play ball."
As Durant limped off the court, his mother, Wanda, was arriving at her seat. She'd been stuck at the turnstile, head-counting the gaggle of relatives attending the game. Before she could sit, Durant's brother Tony cut in. "Mom," he said, "it's Kevin."
Wanda hurried to the visitors locker room, warding off the rising panic in her chest. It was all too familiar -- eerily reminiscent of what she'd felt two years earlier after her son's last serious injury, when Durant had broken his foot. When she found Kevin now, he was being attended to by Chelsea Lane, Warriors head of physical performance and sports medicine. Durant's business partner Rich Kleiman was there too. The initial X-rays were negative, but Durant was clearly in pain. "I'll come with you to the hospital," Wanda assured her son.
"No, Mom," Durant said. "I got this."
Kleiman accompanied Durant on the 2.7-mile drive to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where Durant's father once worked police detail. There, the orderlies, nurses and security guards still remembered him as a gangly 13-year-old running the halls. But when they greeted him now, Durant didn't respond. "I was in a daze," he says.
Although preliminary MRI results revealed a "significant injury," Kleiman was advised not to tell Durant anything until a CT scan could confirm the diagnosis. But Durant was more than a client to Kleiman -- he talks to him eight to 10 times a day. There would be no secrets. "You have a broken tibia," he told Durant. It was an injury that would end his season.
Durant blinked back tears. Soon he was sobbing, his head in his hands. "It was such a freak injury," Durant says now. "I'm flashing back to OKC, where I had all those problems with my feet, and I'm asking, Again? Why again?"
Kleiman called Wanda. She too wept at the news. Durant reached out to Draymond Green via text. "Fractured tibia," he typed into his phone. "Done for the year." Green responded immediately: "Are you serious??"
All those months of rehab on my foot, all that angst over choosing my own path, and this is what I get? Durant's mind was racing. He remembered the isolation and uncertainty of his last injury. But then, suddenly, Durant's mood turned.
He lifted his head. He wiped his face. He straightened and told Kleiman, "C'mon. Let's get out of here."
KEVIN DURANT WAS just 18 when the Seattle SuperSonics drafted him with the No. 2 pick in 2007. Eager to establish roots in his new city, he bought a house he hoped to call home for the next decade. Instead, the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City after one season. Durant wouldn't sell that Seattle house for almost six years.
If there was a lesson to be learned from that, Durant wasn't ready for it. What he was ready for was basketball. He immersed himself in a young OKC nucleus that included Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden -- the four of them often staying at the facility well after practice, eyeballing one another in a game of workout chicken. Who's going to stop first? Who's going to leave first? Not Kevin. Never Kevin.
"I was in a different place then," Durant says. "I was in a basketball bubble where nothing else mattered to me."
It all came so fast. Yet it all took so long. After winning just 23 games in 2008-09, the Thunder surged to 50 wins the next season, the Western Conference finals by 2011, the NBA Finals by 2012, followed by Durant's first MVP award in 2014. But then Harden was traded, and bodies began breaking. Westbrook tore his meniscus in 2013 and broke his hand in 2014. And then, in 2014, a Jones fracture was detected in Durant's right foot, and the details of that injury are more astonishing than most anyone knows.
"I was the MVP one minute and in a wheelchair the next. It was awful."Kevin Durant on his second foot injury in OKC
On Oct. 16, 2014, doctors inserted a screw into Durant's foot and projected a return in six to eight weeks. He was back in the lineup by Dec. 2, but the pain persisted. Durant changed his shoes regularly, trying to manufacture comfort. According to Dr. Martin O'Malley, one of the consulting physicians, Durant's size 19, triple-A foot was the culprit. It's extremely long with an unusual curvature. "Pictures of Kevin's feet look like hockey sticks," O'Malley says. It was so narrow, the head of the screw was irritating the bone adjacent to it.
On Feb. 22, 2015, Durant underwent another procedure, this time to insert a headless screw, one sunk deeper into the bone. And then, after four weeks and no contact, O'Malley says, Durant broke his foot again -- in the exact same place.
O'Malley recommended a bone graft using a piece of Durant's pelvis, plus a synthetic graft made from bone proteins that would form a large, thick bone around the outside of Durant's foot for extra protection. In a sense, O'Malley was creating a bionic foot, a technique he'd never tried on NBA players. "These were desperate times," O'Malley says. "I told Kevin, 'I've never had an NBA player lose his career over a Jones fracture.' But I couldn't cut and reshape Kevin's foot. It was scary. We were all freaking out a bit."
After O'Malley operated on March 31, at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, Durant's orders were to remain completely immobile for the next six weeks. No weight on the foot. No basketball.
He was a prisoner in his own world. His mother flew out to care for him, parceling out his meds, changing his sheets and serving him meals. "I was the MVP one minute and in a wheelchair the next," Durant says. "It was awful." His thoughts spiraled. What if the graft doesn't take? There were no other medical options. What if my career is over?
After three weeks, he graduated to a motorized scooter. Brooks tried to keep KD engaged by encouraging him to draw up plays and inviting him to coaches' meetings, but Durant knew the drill: If you can't play, you might as well be invisible. Five weeks later, he was ambulatory but still banned from the gym, so he passed the time tinkering in the sound studio in his OKC home. When his friend Drake invited him to Montreal for a show in May, Durant realized that for once there was no reason he couldn't go. He assumed Montreal was just like Toronto, where he'd been to play the Raptors. "But then I got there and everyone was speaking French," he laughs. "I was like, Man, I gotta get out more."
His normal routine in a big city was this: stay within the confines of the hotel, eat his meals, hunker down for a pregame nap. But in Montreal, Durant walked around uninhibited, spending two days in a hockey town window-shopping and munching on Canadian pastries. "When I came home from that weekend, I felt so refreshed, and so different. Ever since then, my lens has widened."
With what he craved most -- shooting hoops -- still forbidden, he surveyed his landscape and realized his world needed a jolt of reality. For the first time in his life, he would venture out of his basketball bubble. "Basketball was out," he says. "So I thought, Let me go out and see this world I'm in."
Later that summer, on an annual overseas Nike trip, Durant rented a mountain bike in Madrid. He spent an afternoon tooling around the city. He dined at an outdoor café and lounged on a stoop. He people-watched.
In 2016, when The Players' Tribune offered him a press pass for Super Bowl 50, he jumped at the chance, clicking sideline photos of Peyton Manning's final game. He developed a renewed interest in his business ventures. He'd always entrusted his AAU program in the DC area to his dad, but now KD had questions: Why aren't all the kids wearing my shoes? Do we have a community service component to our program?
It was, he now says, "a young player learning about what comes next. I have a short period in my life where I'm going to play basketball. Hopefully I'm going to live to be 85 years old, maybe more. I owe it to myself to experience everything that's out there."
NOW BACK IN DC in late February, in that hospital room facing news of yet another potentially season-ending injury, Durant knew what he had to do: He had to lean on the lessons he'd learned two years earlier. There's more to life than basketball.
His deliberations on leaving OKC had been agonizing. He hated disappointing people. He'd paced his Hamptons hotel room until the wee hours of the morning. When he ultimately opted for Golden State, "he wasn't spraying champagne and screaming 'Warriors!'" Kleiman says. "He couldn't move." Overnight, Durant had been vilified as a turncoat, a front-runner, a phony. "It was surprising," Green says. "Kevin Durant was the kid with the backpack that everyone adored." Still, if he'd gotten through that, he could get through this.
Back in the Warriors' locker room, the injury was already casting a pall. The coaches, in touch with Kleiman by phone, had purposely refrained from telling the players what they'd heard. But Green, texting with Durant, was under no such restrictions. He was already quietly spreading the word from locker to locker. KD was done. Says Green: "We were all in a state of shock."
And then, as Durant was heading back to the team hotel at the Four Seasons, the doctor called with astonishing news: The CT scan had revealed a deep bruise of the tibia, not a break. The new diagnosis? A sprained MCL. Durant would be back by the end of the regular season.
THIS TIME, THIS injury, Durant knew what to do. With eight weeks off in a new city, he would lean heavily on the culture that surrounded him. He took a trip 90 miles north to Sonoma County to learn how soils and climates affect the body of a fine wine. He transformed himself into something of a foodie, exploring the restaurants of Oakland and San Francisco. When Wanda visited in the fall, he picked one of his new favorite spots, Tosca Cafe, and escorted her to a private table in the corner. The two shared a hearty pasta meal with meatballs that Wanda swears were as big as baseballs. Some nights, he startled Bay Area fans by taking in a Giants or A's baseball game, hot dog in hand, baseball cap jammed on his head.
"I think it has been liberating for him to be here," says Warriors guard Shaun Livingston. "He's living on his own terms, maybe for the first time ever."
Still, no matter how often Durant insists his move to Oakland was not merely to win a championship, the naysayers will have their say. Their narrative is clear: If the Warriors win a title, Durant will have accomplished what everyone expects. If they lose, KD is the guy who still can't get it done.
"And what if we do win?" asks Warriors GM Bob Myers. "Are we supposed to close the book on everything? Do we stop? Does Kevin not play basketball anymore?"
"Two or three years ago, that stuff would have bothered me," Durant says. "Not anymore. I'm having fun and enjoying my life. I know they want me to be miserable, but I'm not. Sorry." Win or lose, the plan is now the same at the house in the hills. Kevin Durant will play the game he loves, then come home, crank up the classic vinyl Marvin Gaye record his father bought him for Christmas and watch the sun set on the Bay, the bridge, his new city, his new home.
Forget about the kid with the backpack. He's gone. In his place stands a man who surveys the landscape before him and likes what he sees.