NEW ORLEANS – It’s early Thursday night and practice is over and the Warriors, one by one, have filed out of Smoothie King Center and onto one of two team buses.
Only one player remains: Kevin Durant, the 6-foot-9 forward, a nine-year NBA veteran with four NBA scoring titles and an MVP trophy among his possessions.
Durant at one end of the court continues to go through his vast arsenal of offensive moves. The drop-step. The step-back. The swipe. The spin-and-dunk. Sweat drips from his chin, his arms and his gray Warriors T-shirt. He’s talking to himself. He’s destroying Chris DeMarco, a 6-8 former small college power forward who has evolved into a valuable but oft-abused assistant coach.
“They say I’m not hungry,” Durant barks out at one point, before sprinting into a corner and launching a 3-pointer and then sprinting to the top of the key for another trey.
By now DeMarco, also soaked his perspiration, is watching from a seat on the bench. No matter. He rises yet again to go back at Durant in a matchup that feels very much like championship fighter and sparring partner.
Durant finally ends the functional torture of DeMarco and flops into a seat.
“How much fun do you have beating up on DeMarco,” he is asked.
Durant breaks into a grin.
“Those are people that you don’t really get to know, get to see, that contribute to success,” Durant says. “DeMarco, ever since I got here he’s been helping get better. He lets me beat up on him and work on my game. It’s easy to just go out there by yourself. But just having another voice and having token defense out there definitely helps. I’m just trying to get better, man.
“That’s what I’m all about.”
When asked about his “hungry” remark, Durant reveals a bit of himself. Like many sports superstars, he hears the chatter and absorbs the slights. Though the comment was made in earshot of a few reporters, it shines a light into the psychological games he plays with himself.
“That’s what I say to myself when I’m working,” he says. “I hear it all the time. You hear the noise. You hear what they say about you. Everybody hears it.
“So it’s a little extra motivation when I’m out there. Nobody in this arena right now, and that’s when you get better. Nobody sees you when you’re doing this stuff right here. But luckily, y’all were in here watching.”
Durant is on a roll now. He’s loose, he’s feeling good and he’s pulling off the mask.
“You hear that stuff and you just use it fuel,” he says. “You don’t let it affect you, obviously, but when you’re out on the court you just try to use it as fuel. And keep getting better. That’s how I am.”
Asked if he reads the criticism, Durant takes only a fraction of a step backward.
“It’s not that I read it,” he says. “It’s just in the air. It’s in the atmosphere, and people tell you and you hear about it and (reporters) ask me questions about it all the time. So, obviously, I know.
“But I’m not losing sleep on it. It’s just wood on that fire. You just keep always wanting to get better.”
Which opens the door to the subject of opening night, when the Warriors were manhandled in a 129-100 loss to San Antonio, prompting spirited debate among street-corner coaches and general managers.
“Obviously, you’re going to hear everything,” he says, grinning. “ ‘The season is over.’ ‘The team is the worst team in the league.’
“You thought it was going to be easy? It’s one game,” he adds. I remember losing in the playoffs by 30 or beating someone by 30 in Game 1 of the playoffs, and you say it’s only one game. And it’s one game in 82, and you (expletive) guys are making it feel like the world is ending.”
Durant is out of his chair. Still sweating, walks toward the exit to get on the bus.
He did what he felt he needed to do to get better. He said what he felt he needed to say, responding to critics. And he did it all with no less than a trace of a smile.