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No more Mr. Nice Guy: Kevin Durant's new role as NBA villain

LAS VEGAS -- The family vacation was planned months in advance. As soon as free agency was over, DeAndre Jordan was heading to a resort in Jamaica where -- theoretically -- he would put his phone in airplane mode, surround himself with family and friends, and all the noise would stop.

That was the plan, anyway.

If you followed NBA free agency in the slightest last July, you know what actually happened. Three days after committing to the Dallas Mavericks, Jordan had a stunning change of heart and returned to the Los Angeles Clippers.

In the time it took to fill out a customs form on the flight to Jamaica, Jordan became a villain in Dallas, an accidental hero in Los Angeles, and the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows, social media and sports talk radio.

He tried to keep his phone off, but there was no escaping the fallout.

One day as he was sitting on the beach, he got a text from Kevin Durant. They'd been close since high school when Durant tried to persuade Jordan to attend the University of Texas with him. Jordan instead chose Texas A&M, so they drifted apart for a few years. Eventually they reconnected during summer workouts. And in the past few years, they'd grown much closer. So close, in fact, that the Mavericks hoped landing Jordan in free agency would give them an edge in the Durant sweepstakes the following summer.

Durant said his message to Jordan was simple: "I just let him know, 'Man, whatever you do. You've got people that love you.'"

It was the kind of thing you say to a friend to let him know you can't make things better for him, but you're still in his corner.

"I feel like the people who talked to me afterwards are my real friends," Jordan said this week, after a training session with Team USA. "The people who stopped texting me afterwards, the ones who said stuff like 'we're family and all that' while I was deciding, that wasn't real. I realize it was only a basketball decision for them.

"You find out who is really on your side. And Kevin was like, 'Man, you can't worry about what other people think. You've got to worry about you and what makes you happy.'"

Fast-forward a year and Durant is the one who spent his summer in the middle of a free-agency squall and made a stunning decision that brought withering criticism from fans, peers and media critics.

No, he didn't commit to one team and then renege a few days later. But after eight years of telling the fans in Oklahoma City that he loved them and wanted to retire there, his departure for the Golden State Warriors came as a cruel shock.

Had he misled them all those years? Did he fall out of love? Or was his love never that pure to begin with?

Durant felt all of it. If he's being honest, knowing how much he was about to hurt the fans in Oklahoma City was one of the things that held him back from following his gut and signing with the Warriors. For 48 hours after picking the Warriors, he said he stayed inside the house he'd rented in the Hamptons while receiving free-agent pitches from the Warriors, Celtics, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Heat.

"I didn't leave my bed, because I was like, 'Man, if I walk outside somebody might just try to hit me with their car or say anything negative to me," Durant said. "I just stayed in and tried to process it all ... It felt different."

Very different.

Durant hasn't been the boyish, backpack-wearing homegrown superstar most people first came to know him as for a while now. First he went through the "KD is not nice" phase where he was like a child star trying to break out of a wholesome, prepubescent box by releasing a song about being naughty (See: Selena Gomez, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber).

Then he started copping an occasional attitude at the media for perceived slights to him, his teammates, or any player in the NBA who he thought was getting unfair treatment.

But there was always something about Durant's defiance that felt a little forced. Like he was just pushing boundaries or asserting his independence from the nice-guy image that had gone way too far and escaped reality a long time ago.

He is nice. He's just not the saint people projected him to be.

For example: Last fall he turned down a half-dozen requests for an ESPN The Magazine story. He'd decided to stay silent until he could explain his feelings about free agency on The Players' Tribune. Fine. Totally his prerogative. He believed in the Tribune's business model and message of player empowerment. I can respect that. But when we saw each other at Thunder media day, he came over to explain himself in person.

How many NBA superstars do that? Most tell an agent or publicist to deliver their bad news and never address it personally. And yet because we'd always had a good professional relationship, Durant felt compelled to explain himself in person. It was an incredibly self-aware, sensitive thing to do.

That's just a small example without much consequence. So how in the world was he going to handle breaking the hearts of a city that loved him? Of going from hero to villain? Of being criticized by Hall of Famers like Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley for taking an easier path to a championship?

This week in Las Vegas has been Durant's first taste of life as a heartbreaker, and it appears he's only allowing himself to feel it in doses.

The full weight of the fallout is too much to process all at once.

"I just try to be the man in the arena," Durant said. "It's easy for the critics on the outside to tell you what to do or what decisions to make, but they weren't just out here with me, putting in work.

"I can't really worry about the outside noise. I have to go to work. The work don't stop. The love of the game doesn't fade. Everything stays the same no matter where I play."

This has become one of Durant's refrains. A self-affirmation of sorts.

Some players would get off on being disliked -- whether the sentiment is real or just a projection -- and use it as motivation. But that's not Durant's nature.

"Guys like Kobe [Bryant] thrive on it," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, a longtime Team USA assistant. "I don't think Kevin will thrive on it. But I do think he will immerse himself into the [Warriors] team."

Another key difference?

"When you come into town as the villain like Kobe, everybody's focused on him because he was the best player. But when Golden State comes in, they're not going to just focus on one guy," Boeheim said.

That was clearly part of the appeal to joining the Warriors. After years of being the face of his franchise, with the hopes and dreams of a city all on his shoulders, Durant was drawn to the idea of being just one of the guys.

That's part of what he said he's always loved about Team USA and what helped him this week as he adjusts to this new reality.

This uncomfortable period may be good for Durant in the end. Making a decision he knew would be unpopular? Maybe that's the personal evolution and growth he needs. Maybe it won't be. In hindsight, Jordan said that he's found the entire process to be clarifying.

"It definitely makes you tougher," Jordan said. "I still joke around like a little kid, but I don't get as mad as I used to about things, I don't let stuff affect me like I used to, because I've gone through that crap."

He hopes it'll be that way for Durant as well.

"When I found out he was going to the Warriors, I texted him, 'Man, I'm happy for you. This is going to be big. I can't wait to kick y'all's ass,'" Jordan said.

"I'm happy for him. He gave those guys [in Oklahoma] nine great years of MVP-level basketball, a Finals appearance. He played his heart out for that team. If they can't respect that, if other players can't respect it, that's their decision. At the end of the day, he's happy and that's the only person he has to satisfy."

Durant was sitting one seat away from Jordan as they each spoke after practice on the third day of training camp. There was plenty of room on either side of them. But the two old friends seemed more comfortable crowding each other's personal space.

If things were destined to be uncomfortable going forward, they had might as well lean on each other.

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