Kevin Durant works the checkout register during a community service event in 2015. Photograph: Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images
What stings fans most about Mondays news is the realization that despite all appearances, they had not, in fact, found a kindred spirit, someone with whom they could weather the floods, tornados and fracking-induced earthquakes. Perhaps this was an unfair assumption for fans to make in the first place, and one that surely seems quaint and nave to those on the outside, but it was the dominant local perception. O Alan Noble doesnt blame fans, noting an inherent contradiction: What draws fans is when they can identify with a player. But its also a business, and players have the right and responsibility to make the best decision for themselves. We cant have it both ways. If the NBA wants to encourage a tight bond between local fans and a player, we should expect those fans to be hurt when the player makes a decision that is good for himself but not that community.
For his part, Durant eagerly leaned into his role as signifier of state values, tweeting criticism when players left small markets to join other superstars and emphasizing loyalty in multiple interviews. His decision to join the Warriors comes as a contradiction of a decade worth of self-presentation. Predictably, the enthusiasm that once led Oklahomans to describe Durant as representative of the states homegrown work ethic has turned to bemusement and even rage (for instance) at what is locally perceived, fairly or not, as a decision to abandon Oklahoma for the easy way out, a guaranteed shot at a title with a team located close to Americas most self-congratulatory gold mine Silicon Valley (even if Oakland itself has its own economic problems).
While Durant could probably have won a governors race in Oklahoma, his status in Oakland may more closely resemble that of historical footnote to Golden States continued success a versatile scorer who helped revitalize an already-thriving team (think Clyde Drexler in Houston, 1995). Rather than having the hopes of an entire state resting on his shoulders, Its possible that the absence of messianic pressure is actually one aspect of what helped lure him to Golden State in the first place. After all, the man never asked to become a signifier of statewide success for three million people.
Meanwhile, Oklahomans remain unable to control their states destiny, weathering one more in a long line of letdowns as a result of financial concerns that leave citizens beholden to state governments and corporate whims. The sense one gets when discussing the implications of Durants departure with residents is that theyre saddened by Oklahomas inability to hold on to good things. Theyre frustrated by the outsized financial and cultural pressures that drive prosperity out of the center of the country and toward the coast. Oklahomans loved the way the presence of an NBA superstar made their state matter to people who had only ever flown over it. And while they begrudgingly respect Durants decision from a labor v management perspective, theyre blown away by the departure Mondays news represents from the image and ethos he spent a decade cultivating, an ethos so many bought uncritically took at face value.
Perhaps saddest of all for those reflecting on the ups and downs of the past eight years is that residents of the Sooner State are once again left to kick themselves for buying lines that were too good to be true while they pick up the pieces. For better or worse, Kevin Durant had come to serve as the last vestige of a brief era of prosperity. Likewise, basketball had been an oddly reliable outlet for catharsis in a community whose citizens seem to suffer more than their fair share of hardship. So while it is inevitably tempting to sneer and wonder what could cause otherwise functional adults to shed tears over basketball, its worth remembering that Oklahomans are, in so many ways, mourning much more than basketball.