The Noblest Roman of Them All

“Morte di Cesare,” Vincenzo Camucci

As common as love, perhaps more so, betrayal is a delicate theme which, if the Book of Genesis is to be trusted, has permeated history since the inception of existence.  We know how this one goes: a serpent tempts Eve into an apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is strike one; soon thereafter, their sons elicit contrasting reviews for ostensibly the same work, causing the first instance of jealousy and, subsequently, the first instance of murder in the form of fratricide, which is strike two; many centuries later, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Roman Italy and earned himself a perpetual dictatorship, until a group of his friends decided that perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea. Several centuries after that, we learned to sum up betrayal in three words, none of them English: “Et tu, Brute?”

On Saturday night, Kevin Durant returned to Oklahoma City, the arena and area which raised him from a lanky post-Supersonic to an NBA MVP, to face the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena for the first time. Despite two massive victories over the Thunder already under their belts, there was no reason to expect this would be easy, particularly with many fans and, as it turned out, teammates still twisting the knives out of their backs.

That isn’t to say that the Golden State Warriors were ever going to lose, and they didn’t, beating Oklahoma City 130-114. It was never particularly close after the first quarter. Even with the occasional hiccup, they are still far and away the team with the best record in the NBA, now sitting at 46-8. But given Oracle Arena’s reputation as one of the most inhospitable road arenas in the league, even without the Durant factor, life begat hope in Oklahoma City.

But, of course, the Durant factor is what made this particular episode so much more appealing ahead of time. Following 39- and 40-point efforts at home in the previous two games against his former team, how Oklahoma City welcomed Durant was the looming interrogative.

On the one hand, Durant helped lend Oklahoma City – both the franchise and the city itself – credibility as a place where a major sports team could thrive. Thunder general manager Sam Presti went so far as to call Durant a “founding father” of the Thunder, a building block for the progress the team has made from the time it moved from Seattle[1] through its string of playoff appearances, culminating in one NBA Finals loss to the Heat in 2012 and several conference finals runs.

Of the latter, the most infamous will now likely be the last, at least for some time, when, last season, the Thunder watched their own 3-1 lead dissipate at the hands of Klay Thompson as the Warriors charged back to the Finals, leaving Durant, who shot 39.5%, including just under 27% from three, over the final three games, wondering what filtration system gives the water in Oakland such shimmering potency.

The rest, as with Eve, Cain and Shakespeare’s apocryphal dying quote, is history: Durant met with several teams in the Hamptons and signed with the Warriors on Independence Day, prompting typical fan lunacy such as the burning of his jerseys as well as, we’d later find out, perhaps lending itself as inspiration for a Russell Westbook Instagram.

You knew this was coming, but here we are anyway. The relationship between Durant and Westbrook, and Westbrook and Durant, will never make sense to any of us, just like any of your relationships with anybody can never fully be understood by a third party. As teammates with the Thunder, they prodded and compelled each other to higher highs, imploring with fans that any tension they saw was merely the residual spillover of creative genius. Lennon and McCartney, I suspect, would’ve been just fine without one another, but together they wrote “A Day in the Life,” so it was worth pounding three pianos simultaneously.

Little by little, over the three games the Warriors and Thunder have played against each other, more leftover emotion, whatever emotion it is, has tumbled out of Durant and Westbrook, from blatantly ignoring each other to full-on shouting matches during stoppages. When Warriors coach Steve Kerr switched Durant onto Westbrook in the third quarter, it was a blatant attempt to get inside the head of one of the most complex minds ever to pick up a basketball. The problem is, Durant is also on that list.

What was a six-point Golden State lead at the end of the first quarter became a 23-point deficit by halftime, the utterly anemic Thunder bench hardly able to complete a single pass before the Warriors could score thrice. The game again exposed how much better the Warriors are than everybody, and how much worse the Thunder are without Durant. These are obvious statements which anybody paying even cursory attention to the NBA in 2017 could tell you, but seeing it in action is so much more thrilling, and so, so much more disheartening.

An aside: there is absolutely no reason I should feel badly for Russell Westbrook. In scoring 47 points, the highest single-game total for any opponent against the Warriors this season, he staged his own bit of retribution. He has many, many more millions than I’ll ever be able to fit onto an iPhone screen several generations behind the cutting edge. He is an NBA All-Star[2], an Olympian and a soon-to-be father. He is an aspiring fashion icon, the kind of person who literally makes wearing a potato sack seem like a Walt Frazier-esque foray into sartorial brilliance.

Yet, watching Westbrook take on the Warriors, his erstwhile running mate giddily goading him with an alleged “scoreboard” retort while strolling back to a huddle featuring three other Western Conference All-Stars, is a serious exercise in masochism for even the most optimistic among us. The Warriors were good, and the Thunder were comparably good; with Durant having switched sides, the balance shifted so heavily that the scale broke. “Durant and Westbrook” became “Westbrook and the Thunder,” which should tell you everything you need to know about Oklahoma City’s place in a league as star-driven as the NBA is now.

I defended Kevin Durant’s decision when he made it; it’s his right, and, as he says, it’s life to live. He’s right about that. As “RINGZ”-driven as our sports-viewing culture has become, it wouldn’t make any sense to blame Durant for trying to put himself in as good a position to win as many championships as he can, with windows forever fleeting and injuries always at the doorstep. The trolls were going to come from all sides, no matter which one he chose – lose, and you’re a villain; leave and win, and you’re an even bigger villain, until the Macedonian teens perpetuating stories about your relationship with your somewhat estranged father finally die, or get real jobs.

Still, not calling Russ, for so long the exploding yang to his zen ying, to alert him of his decision in July just seems like a bit of an invalidating inaction. Going out in a Players Tribune-sponsored smoke was an affront that, while not Decision-level cringeworthy, still did little to pacify what he must’ve known would be a visceral reaction to what they would view as his abandonment in favor of the team he had come so close to beating.

Now, Westbrook has inherited Durant’s “People’s Champ” throne. While so many of us, myself included, sat in awe of Westbrook’s exploits during periods of Durant injury, always pondering what a Westbrook-centric team would look like, seeing it in full display has been breathtaking to the point of forgetting oxygen exists.

A few notable moments from Saturday’s game included the Durant-Andre Roberson headbutt[3], Durant’s foul on a Westbrook breakaway, Westbrook hitting a three on Durant and Durant hitting a three right back over Westbrook. The exchange they shared while walking to each other’s huddles, though, will be the subject of much deconstruction. Kevin Durant told Westbrook he was going to lose, pointing out the obvious when the Warriors were already up 18 in the third quarter; then again, imagine how history might have treated Shakespeare and, by extension, Julius Caesar, if his last words to Cassius and Brutus had been “I’M COMIN’” while giving them this look:

kdruss2

Westbrook-as-Caesar suggests the protagonist ripping the knife out of his own back and, bleeding out, cutting his detractors to remind them of his unparalleled will. In that version, I imagine, Caesar lives out his days as the dictator in perpetuity, a man in a Gucci toga with Air Jordan sandals and a relentless commitment to his people, a loyalty sure to lead to the exact conflicts that were coming anyway when his successors would refuse to uphold that standard due to impossibility. Scene.

With a wide enough lens, there are no moral victories in basketball, just as in life; history, as we know, is written by the victors, or at least by the people placed in the best position to prevail from the start, nevermind the details. Durant will get a ring, if not this year, then next, and be hailed as an all-time conqueror of scoring records and haters alike; Westbrook will redefine basketball, or translate it to his own language, while stink-facing his way through pointless interviews and submitting his own visible exhaustion as a newsprint answer for any questions relating to Durant.

Saturday night didn’t change anything, and Durant isn’t coming back to Oklahoma City, a la LeBron James post-South Beach. At least, he won’t be back while Westbrook is still incinerating. Draymond Green and Steph Curry wore cupcake t-shirts in support of their maligned Servant, no maintenance of Oklahoman relationships necessary.

With three games between their teams now past, the prospect of Durant, Green, Curry, Thompson and Westbrook all sharing the floor as Western Conference All-Stars is the most compelling chapter in this one-sided novella remaining, at least this season. The funny thing about Caesar’s dying words are the ones people forget – “Then fall, Caesar,” a relinquishing of the will to live. If any deviation from the Shakespearean conceit deserves mention with relation to Westbrook, it is that, and his utter defiance in the face of such a notion.

After the game, they apparently dined at the same restaurant, in separate corners, ignoring each other with a view toward the future. Same as it ever was.

*     *     *

[1] Which, by the way, if the Thunder feel betrayed by Kevin Durant, they might do well in asking Sonics fans how they feel, even now.

[2] Albeit, in the truest stroke of injustice, not a starter

[3] That, I suppose, is what the Warriors’ PR department figured was going to happen when they fired off the preview tweet.

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