A curious phenomenon about the media is that, in a moment of media controversy, members of the media will reflexively talk about the media as if they are not part of it.
This is happening right now, today, because Kevin Durant is angry with the press and angry that speaking to it is among the requirements of his job. This disposition is en vogue. The Seattle Seahawks running back, Marshawn Lynch, has turned this disposition into a personal brand that, in conjunction with his excellent play, has made him an effective pitch man in an economy increasingly sustained by content marketing.
“You guys really don’t know shit,” Durant said Saturday. “To be honest, man, I’m only here talking to y’all because I have to. So I really don’t care. Y’all not my friends. You’re going to write what you want to write. You’re going to love us one day and hate us the next. That’s a part of it. So I just learn how to deal with y’all.”
Durant, the sitting NBA MVP, has enjoyed a lifetime of fawning media coverage, beginning with the verbal confetti of the recruiting web sites, then to the coverage of his dazzling one-year collegiate career, and into the NBA, where he has been broadly depicted as The Boy Next Door (Who Can Really Fill It Up). But last season, his seventh in NBA, Durant began to take some shots from the press. Some cheaper than others.
Since 2010, Durant has won four scoring titles and his team has won four division championships. The Thunder are 1-2 in the conference finals and 0-1 in the NBA Finals, that loss coming in five games to the Miami Heat in 2012. If you are a bored and lazy storyteller looking for a narrative, that’s just enough to make Durant The Boy Next Door (Who Can’t Win The Big One). That’s still pretty thin, but with enough mud you can make that sod shack stand upright.
And so that’s what has happened to Durant. He has been cast as the tragi-hero in a play he didn’t even know was showing. Well somebody has to play Michael Bluth, don’t they? And Charles Barkley retired and Peyton Manning won him a ring and you can’t get this stuff to stick to a baseball player like it will on a quarterback or a scoring champion. Kevin Durant: You’re up, pal.
Whether or not this is fair is beside the point. Kevin Durant, the man, can be understandably irritated by the chore of talking to people whose use for him extends only as far as his utility as a narrative device. But Kevin Durant, NBA MVP, exists inside an edifice that gives his plight artificial meaning. At their best, sports are a only metaphor for real life. The value of Durant’s immense basketball skill derives directly from its capacity to sell advertising. Durant’s jump shot has roughly the same value as Kim Kardashian’s ass, and for the same reason — it gets people to look at their glowing boxes.
For this to work, we all have to be in on it. We have to nod and go along with the idea that the NBA championship is a thing that matters. If we don’t, then what we’re watching amounts to a carnival act. An amusing and sometimes thrilling distraction that means nothing and vaporizes. But we do not want that. We give the team a name, and we say it represents a city or a school or a country, and we allow that team’s characteristics to inform our own identity. In some cases, it’s the other way around.
The sports media — known pejoratively as the “toy department” by the smugger news-siders — cooperates with all this, because there’s a buck in it. If a news agency covered sports from the ivoriest Fourth Estate tower, the game coverage would focus on the parking situation, the demographics of the fans, the number of tickets sold, the activities of the police and, somewhere past the end of the reporter’s nose, the final score.
And that wouldn’t be very much fun.
So the way it really works is, sports and entertainment agencies provide access to the entertainers in exchange for publicity. The internet has disrupted the symbiotic balance of this relationship, but so far not so much that any entertainment product I can think of has stopped requiring its performers to engage with the press. In the movies, this usually means hitting the late-night talk circuit. In comedy, it’s a lot of morning radio. In sports, it means talking to a lot of beat writers and TV anchors.
The nature of these interactions is typically ridiculous. I am told there was once an era when these communications resembled natural human behavior, and you can still catch a moment like there here and there, but in any case the usual locker-room interview nowadays is more of an extraction than a conversation. Reporters complain about scared or #branded athletes telling boring lies, athletes complain about dimwitted or antagonistic reporters asking irrelevant questions, and nobody is wrong. But the general public doesn’t seem to know the difference, or care about it. Despite what you’ve heard, people still read this stuff. They read the hell out of it.
Because sports have meaning. In other words, a narrative arc. They are a medium on which people can project their own identities and stories. When they are at their best, when they actually are important, is when that narrative syncs up with reality, and distills it to its essence. When Jackie Robinson gets the call-up. When Ali fights Frazier. When the Celtics play the Lakers. When Boobie Miles blows out his knee. When the U.S. plays the USSR. When Milan wins state.
Durant has enjoyed a lot of sugary projections over the years. He plays in a small city in a rural state, for the Mike Huckabee of NBA teams, a brand so infused with projections of Heartland Values that every church lady from Ada to Sioux City remembers the NBA season is going on just in time to root for the Thunder to take out that fancyboy Lebron James. Durant himself has been a media favorite, his apparent humility and self-awareness having made him a sweet antidote to all the salty hooey people have tried to project onto James.
This was a collaborative effort between Durant and The Media, that nebulous, villainous collective which can be blamed for anything and everything because its members keister their credentials every time there’s a knock at the door. No media in here, officer. Think I saw one down the street, though.
Kevin Durant doesn’t want to play anymore, which is understandable, but not an option. The only way out is to retire, to step outside the big metaphor altogether, and there’s no reason to do that when there’s still money to make and stories to tell.
At 26, he figured it out.
“Y’all not my friends,” he said.
No, but not his enemy either.