Will OKC ever again cheer Kevin Durant? Seems possible but unlikely

Will OKC ever again cheer Kevin Durant? Seems possible but unlikely

Over the years, the boos have remained, though the rancor has lessened. But not lessened to the point that Paycom Center love for Kevin Durant is even conceivable.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 29, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 29, 2024, 6:00am CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — Chance Stephenson has a dream. Maybe it’s not a dream. Maybe it’s just an idea. Or, more likely, mere fantasy.

But Stephenson has thought about a future game in Paycom Center, Thunder vs. the Phoenix Suns or whatever team then employs Kevin Durant, and the Oklahoma Hall of Famer is introduced, and a section of fans goes against the grain. The next section of fans jumps on board, then another, and suddenly the building is encircled by applause.

That’s right. Praise. Acclaim. Appreciation.

“I think if we ever cheered him, it would be the most emotional the arena would ever feel,” said Stephenson, a 42-year-old Oklahoma City resident.

Durant and the Suns play the Thunder on Friday night in Paycom, and it’s slated to be Durant’s seventh game back in OKC since leaving for the Warriors on July 4, 2016. Independence Day, as in the day Durant gained his independence from Oklahoma devotion.

When Durant and the Warriors played in Oklahoma City on November 3, 2016, the vitriol flowed as high as a horse’s bridle. The hostile atmosphere was unsettling, the acrimony immense.

Over the years, the boos have remained, though the rancor has lessened. But not lessened to the point that Paycom Center love for Kevin Durant is even conceivable.

“I am a man of God and forgiveness is what I know is right,” said Jeff Dunford, 37, of Yukon. “Therefore I forgive him for being a slimy, ring-chasing snake. He only deserves a quarter of the boos he gets.”

I’m not sure that’s what Saint Paul meant in his letter to the Ephesians, but Oklahomans’ anger is understood. Durant took the easy road to an NBA championship, joining the mighty Warriors, crippling the Thunder’s title hopes and making a mockery of basketball’s competitive balance for most of three years.

It was Durant’s right to do so. Just as it was the fans’ right to grow angry at his departure, some of Durant’s colleagues’ right to question his competitive spirit and Durant’s right to strike back against fans, media or the Thunder organization itself.

It’s a free country.

“I thought at the time, and still believe, that KD’s decision in 2016 was a weak move and I was pretty upset,” said Thunder fan Joel Gilliland, 64, of Ponca City. “I was at his first game back in OKC with the Warriors, where my youngest son and I really enjoyed booing heartily every time he touched the ball, while my wife and youngest daughter sat there wondering why two grown men would behave like that,.

“So, yeah I really couldn’t stand KD then. But I have none of that vitriol left. Now, I just feel sorry for the man who seems to be chasing something he can never find in this world.”

Yes, from a distance, Durant seems discontented. He left Golden State in summer 2019 to join forces with Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets, but that went sideways fast, and in February 2023, the Nets traded Durant to Phoenix. But the Suns haven’t risen. The Denver Nuggets eliminated the Suns in the 2023 Western Conference semifinals, and now Phoenix sits in seventh place in the West.

In some ways, Durant has become a sympathetic figure as a wayward soul.

“By now, most Thunder fans should be over Kevin Durant,” said Kyle Whitson, 29, of Norman. “That was really our first glimpse into the business side of professional sports. For me as a huge Thunder fan, I think it was just how KD left, and where he went was a gut punch.

“Fast forward eight years and to see where the Thunder are now as a franchise, we are in a better spot because of Kevin Durant and what he did to help OKC theoretically. I think more fans need to have the appreciation and realization for how good he was and get over that he left.”

Indeed, the winds seem to have slightly shifted. The Thunder still hasn’t brought a title to Oklahoma City, but there’s no assurance that Durant would have even had he stayed, and the new Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gang seems as capable as the first rendition of annual Thunder contention.

Which leads us to Friday night. Durant vs. the Thunder. Like always when Durant comes to town, there will be no special recognition. No tribute video. No public-address announcement welcoming back an all-time hero.

The Thunder has directed such welcomes for Russell Westbrook and Scotty Brooks and Serge Ibaka and a host of other Big Blue alumni. But not Durant. Organizational hard feelings remain, not just because of Durant leaving or the way he left, but because of his Thunder criticism in subsequent years, trying to deflect the fallout from around the league.

You want a feel-good moment with Durant back in the building? It will have to be grassroots.

Durant’s recent podcast with his agent, Rich Kleiman, on Boardroom, a media network founded by Durant and Kleiman, spoke glowingly of those early OKC years.

“I no longer have ill feelings about KD,” Stephenson said. “His recent interview was good. It brought a perspective I didn’t really think about. How everyone was young, including (general manager) Sam Presti. KD didn’t just help build a winning franchise in OKC.  He helped build the city we see today.

“I believe KD wants to be beloved in OKC and recognized. He seems to finally understand how that decision changed his perception around the league, which led to him always searching for a home.”

Stephenson knows his idea of a feel-good Paycom moment is a longshot, Friday night or any other time.

“I don’t know if it’s possible in his playing career,” Stephenson said. “I don’t know why that is. I don’t get the sense that the Oklahomans will forgive him that soon … and I’d hate to see it be too late.”

But a guy can dream. The best revenge is living well, and the Thunder has lived well since Durant departed. Three wild and fun Westbrook years. A stunning Chris Paul/SGA season. Two years in the wilderness of tanking. Now back-to-back breakout seasons that have elevated the Thunder into top-tier status.

We’re getting closer to Ephesians all the time, and maybe it will start when a solitary section of Paycom Center goes against the grain.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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