NORMAN — In the North American team-sport athlete pantheon — sorry, Lionel Messi fans — the man atop them all is not even an American and spent his prime playing home games nearer the Arctic Circle than Los Angeles, New York or Chicago.
And, if that pantheon only included a single entry from each sport, roundball’s played his college at Kansas, then became a Globetrotter and then became the most dominant force the game’s ever known in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Philadelphia again and Los Angeles.
Sorry Michael Jordan, but you’re no Wayne Gretzky, nor even Wilt Chamberlain.
Yet Jordan remains the barometer of our time.
All those years he was the league’s best player before he ever won a title. All those titles. All that refusing to lose.
Armed with an other-worldly skill set that turned athleticism into production in a way nobody’d every seen, he became still more than that for what he would not do: lose.
Once he won that first championship, only a brief sojourn into another sport, baseball, allowed others to steal the crown. You just knew he’d make the shot and the Bulls would win and Phil Jackson would be tabbed as more guru than coach and Scottie Pippen would continue to feel unappreciated.
And, though attempts have been made to label some — Kobe Bryant and LeBron James — as the next Jordan, there have been no serious attempts to paint anybody as remotely like Jordan.
Let’s stop that now right now. Allow me to introduce Kevin Durant.
You want to laugh Durant out of the comparison because Jordan won five MVPs and six championships, which happen to be five and six more than Durant has yet won. You want to laugh him out of the comparison because that’s Michael Jordan we’re talking about and comparing anybody to him is not allowed.
But if you watched Jordan play, really watched him play, and remember what it felt like to watch him play, it wasn’t the awards and championships that defined him so much as what he did to earn them; how he was always as good as he had to be, whatever that had to look like.
He could score, defend, distribute and go get it. Because he wasn’t going to let his team lose, he would do all of those things or some of those things. He would do what’s required.
Sound like anybody?
What Durant has done since 2013 became 2014 has been Jordanesque like that.
Night after night, Durant’s been the best player on the floor. Yet, more than that, he’s the best player on the floor in the ways he must be the best to win the game, and that’s a different thing entirely.
Against Miami, Durant won that little end-of-third-quarter duel over James, signaling both sides quite clearly who’d be winning.
Against Atlanta two nights earlier, he hit the game’s two biggest shots and scored 37 other points, too.
Against Philly, two nights before that, it was a triple double and the Thunder rolled.
Against San Antonio three nights earlier, 36 points and seven rebounds were countered by 11 turnovers. But all that means is the night he proved he was human, he still had 36 points and seven rebounds.
The day before, it was 46 points to beat Portland, pushing the Thunder atop the Western Conference.
Four nights earlier it was 54 points against Golden State because beating the Warriors required 54 points.
Durant’s become must-see TV not because the Thunder are on a winning streak, but because who knows what he’ll do next to keep them on that winning streak. And when was the last time that happened?
There are few things more fun to watch and intriguing to cover than an athlete getting better before our very eyes. And, how cool is it when that athlete was already the second best player on the planet before the latest ascension began.
Maybe it took Russell Westbrook going down. Maybe it was simply time. Maybe Durant’s far more calculating than any of us give him credit for and he’s on fire for his first championship because the only way you’ll ever get to six is to start with one, and if he’s going to catch Jordan he better quit spinning his wheels.
Whatever, the why doesn’t matter. What matters is every night Durant’s world just seems to get bigger and better and more surreal and unbelievable.
And before Jordan won all those title and before he claimed all those MVPs, his game expanded in very much the same way.
Now it’s happening with Durant. Who knows where it will lead? Also, it’s pretty special right now.
Follow me @clayhorning
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