Of the many takeaways from Kevin Durant's decision to join the Golden State Warriors, chief among them was the sense that he no longer cared what the public thought about him. This is a significant development in the life of any professional athlete, but especially one as well-liked as Durant has been.
Doing what everyone else asked of him, what was expected of him, only held him back. KD figured out what he wanted, and he was going to employ any means necessary to get there, abiding by the motto attached to his Twitter bio: "I'm me, I do me, and I chill."
It was a far cry from the guy from the guy who used to be considered too nice. In fact, it was reminiscent of the Durant who told Lee Jenkin's four years ago that he was "tired of being second."
And when the Golden State Warriors took home the Larry O'Brien trophy on Monday, defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games (capping things off with a 129-120 victory), Durant was anything but a second fiddle. He outshined two-time MVP Stephen Curry and defensive aficionado Draymond Green, squaring up against LeBron James to the tune of 35 points per game throughout the series.
Insofar as anything on this Warriors team belongs to a single individual, the NBA Finals belonged to Durant. Consider the significance of this. Durant has always been playing in someone's shadow. In Oklahoma City, he shared the spotlight with Russell Westbrook, the league's most captivating, boisterous presence, with an on-court style that certainly drew more attention than Durant's lithe, methodical shot-making.
As a result, prior to last summer, one of Durant's biggest cultural contributions was the "You da real MVP" meme, which sort of came full circle on Monday night when KD and his mom got together on the court after the game.
Durant was the NBA's most imageless superstar -- even more-so than the reclusive Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs, since Leonard actually managed to make his lack of a persona into a persona.
Besides the usual hot taker pundits, there was considerably less outrage -- outside of Oklahoma, that is -- at Durant's decision to depart from the Thunder, than the hatred LeBron faced when he left Cleveland for Miami. You can only betray someone if they were loyal to you in the first place. Durant has consistently been the second-best player in the NBA, but he has never been enough of a phenomenon to make people feel completely emotionally invested in his future.
Monday's victory, in that sense, gave him something aside from his first championship ring: his first enduring memory in the national conscience.
These playoffs, more than anything else, will be remembered for the dominance -- no, the inevitability -- of the Warriors. What they lacked in synchronicity compared to seasons past, they made up for in stardom -- and that was largely powered by Durant. Every time the wheels appeared to be coming off the wagon, he steadied the ship. If the opponent allowed itself a brief moment of confidence, it was Durant who barged through like Mr. Automatic, clamping down on hope with long bomb after long bomb, and lanky, agile sidesteps that left even the best defensive rotators on skates.
Kevin Durant, less deferential that he has ever been, spent the playoffs taking with authority everything he believed belonged to him. He is a player not only self-actualized, in a system that incorporates his talents with thrilling efficiency, but vindicated. And finally, after so many years outside the spotlight, he is on top.