In The Ish: Do You Love Me?

This article appears in SLAM #217, available now in Titan outlets and major bookstores

KD arrived in Manila and found an entire nation as in love with the game as he is. Deep down – past the titles, past the trolls, in his feelings – is a pure love for basketball only a crazy country like ours can match. And so for a weekend in the Philippines, crazy as it may sound, Kevin Durant was home.

By Nikko Ramos

“They don’t BS you. Never”

Kevin Durant always makes it a point – on these around-the-world self-titled tours that only so few human beings ever go on – to always hold a camp where he can train and impart basketball knowledge on young kids. The quote above is why.

Children, they don’t lie.

As he arrived in Manila, for the first time with Nike in his little-over-eleven-years as a signature athlete, KD had a clear challenge, a simple theme: RISE. GRIND. SHINE. AGAIN. It’s clever marketing, an impactful play on words that the advertising geniuses over at Beaverton came up with to help describe the Nike KD 11. Along with it, old home videos of young Kevin running up a hill in Seat Pleasant, proof of how today’s ease is a product of yesteryear’s hustle.

RISE. GRIND. SHINE. AGAIN.

Sure, many an elite athlete can claim this for a mantra. Remove it from this campaign and it’ll still probably work for most top-level sports stars who believe in the importance of hard work. Only this is more than just a catchy line for Kevin Durant. It’s more than a cool t-shirt slogan. It’s his life, plain and simple. And as we at SLAM PH got exclusive access to #KDinManila, we came to a determination that we had long suspected: contrary to popular belief in the opposite, the reigning, two-time, back-to-back Finals MVP is quite simply, a simple dude.

The parade that he arrived in was swarmed by fans, all eager to see the world’s most automatic bucket walk by. There were a few hundred people, many of whom arrived early to secure spots closer to the barricades, or on vantage points high and clear enough for the perfect Instagram post. Most of them stayed there under the punishing heat of the Manila sun; that is of course until they stayed there under the punishment of torrential Philippine rain. Fickle as the weather was, they remained committed to wait for KD.

Young and old, male, female, babies and their grandparents: decked in Warriors blue and gold, retro KDs in hand, armed with the determination to see, hear, and if fortune favored them, high five their Champion.

Kevin Durant was supposed to roll down the street in a fancy convertible. I know because I saw the car. It was everything you imagine a player of his caliber should be rolling in on: white as sugar, with his logo perfectly printed on the hood, chrome wheels, leather seats, the works. Except, from the window of his bus, KD saw the weather (and weathered) warriors anticipating his arrival.

Forget the whip. He walked it.

A hundred meters, maybe a little more or less. But he walked it, the sides of it. Almost never in the middle of a four-lane road cleared for his comfort, KD alternated walking along either fence, hugging, fist-bumping, selfie-smiling among the crowd. He bent over, all seven feet of him (don’t let him convince you he’s 6’10”. He’s a footer, Easily), to squeeze his hand through the railings to rub a Durant-jersey-wearing toddler’s head. He reached over to sign a poster held up by a girl five rows back, invisible to anyone not seven feet tall (I’m telling you, he’s 6’11 ¾ at the very least).

“This is crazy man, unbelievable,” he said to nobody in particular.

Right before the stage, there were jeepneys designed to represent the things most important to him: Aunt Pearl, the Longhorns, his Slim Reaper nickname, etc. He was supposed to walk by them, maybe say “Cool” or “That’s bad ass”, and then walk up to the spotlight, to his Larry O’Brien trophy waiting onstage. But nope, he went around each one, obsessed with the details, at one point even licking his thumb and trying to see if the paint was dry.

The men who owned these jeepneys, all of whom drive them daily for a living, were sitting on the driver’s seats: their office, their place of work. They all had their phones out, taking videos and photos of the most famous person who’ll ever look at their rides this closely, if at all. Before KD’s life moments were so artfully airbrushed onto their vehicles, they were probably adorned by their children’s faces, wild horses, their favorite cartoon characters. But today it was all about KD. And he knew this too. Every driver got asked, “This your ride?” Every driver got told, “Appreciate it, man.”

Some of his most die-hard fans got to send in questions, and Kevin was answering them on a makeshift stage inside the Nike store in BGC before we got our chance to sit next to him and ask questions of our own (“our”, meaning ours at SLAM PH and yours, our readers via our always-interesting comments section). I had met KD twice before, in Austin, Texas for the KD9 (days before he went to Golden State) and again in Shanghai, China for the NBA preseason (days before the start of last season).

For some reason unbeknownst to me (it’s not, I know why. I just wanted to use the word “unbeknownst”), he remembered me in China. “Yo, I remember you. You’re the guy who airballed back in Austin. What’s up Manila how you been?” may or may not have been his exact words in front of 50 or so other members of the press with cameras recording. Because of this half-cool, half-embarrassing phenomenon of his memory, I was hopeful he would remember me again.

I was introduced by Jinno Rufino, “From SLAM Philippines, I believe you’ve met before, I’d like to call on Nikko Ramos!” I walked up on stage, KD turned around, gave me a dap and said to me “You been working on that jumper?” In that moment, in front of the deadliest offensive weapon possibly in the history of basketball, I did a 180 and wished he had forgotten me instead.

Later in the day, I had another chance to interview KD, this time in front of the media. Before he arrived there, at a swanky one-day-only, almost-shrine of all things Durant, he was at the Nike Hypercourt in Comembo, Makati. There he facilitated a quick camp with some up-and-comers trying to squeeze out every second with him on-court. Kevin wasted no time, he didn’t need to stretch, or wave, or do around-the-horn introductions. No, there was basketball to be played, and no one was delaying it any longer. KD ran through each drill, pointed out each nuance, called out each error, encouraged every player there, boy, girl, good or not. If they had let him, he would have been happy to stay there all day.

By the time he arrived at the press conference, I was just about as ready as I could be. We had rehearsed the entire show, gone through the flow of the program multiple times. I memorized the questions so well I might as well have had them tattooed on my skin, Michael Scofield-style. The intro video was playing. Probably ten seconds left before I had to climb onstage and bring him out. Right then, someone from Nike came up to me. He had been speaking with KD in the back.

“Forget the script. KD says to tell you, ‘Let’s just talk.’ So just talk.”

So we talked. I asked about Boogie and he was giddy like how you get when a girl you like replies to your text. I asked about trolls and he was quick to shake his head and say they don’t get it. I called a room of professional sports media men and women “my fellow Blog Boys and Girls” and he laughed and looked at me with big eyes as if wanting to distance himself from a joke everyone there knew he came up with anyway.

We brought up the designer of his sneakers, Nike’s Leo Chang and we talked about late night text messages they send each other when one of them has a new colorway idea. We talked about the now-famous calf-high KD8 Elite’s that were a 1 of 1. We talked about Manila, how the love for the game was something Kevin said he could almost see, radiating from the people and just shining like nowhere else he’s ever been to.

For about an hour or so, one of the biggest, most recognizable, most successful, most talked-about athletes in the world, was on-stage with a dear friend of his and a kid he once laughed at after a free throw airball, and he was just talking. No filters, no safe, prepared questions, just a bunch of dudes talking.

Kevin Durant left and proceeded to the Araneta Coliseum after that. A massive, well-produced, musically exciting opening number brought him out to the crowd, hydraulic lift, pyrotechnics and all. Unlike many other superstars before him, there was no question as to whether or not he would play 5-on-5. KD walked over to center court and got ready for the jump, even clapping at the referee as if to say “Come on, toss it up. I’m ready to go.”

He was wearing a turned-around dad hat, toying around and chucking threes and getting in his bag with the handles. A dunk here, the smoothest jumper on the planet there, couple of swishes, and before you knew it, it was done. A life moment for RJ Ramirez, who threw the alley to KD’s oop in-game, for Raffy Verano who got a stop and nailed a three while matched up with KD, for Matt Nieto who eventually went home with the aforementioned dad hat.

And it was a life moment as well for guys not as popular, not as equipped with UAAP experience, Hypercourt tryout standouts who were on the same court as Kevin Durant for one night, but really, for the rest of their lives.

For KD, it was a game. The first one he had played in since Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Catching up with him the morning after for the cover shoot of this very magazine, all he could talk about was that game. How Thirdy and Juan had hops and kept trying to dunk on every possession. “Keep working,” he said. He talked about trying to get a better feel for his teammates, which one of them “looked like they wanted to shoot and not just give it to me everytime just ‘cos I’m KD.” He talked about a jumper he took and missed from 23 feet out, on the right side of the court, after he went behind-the-back and then in-and-out to the step-back, “I want that one back, I can’t believe I missed it.”

We at SLAM PH cleaned out our closets for the shoot, tried to find every KD shoe we could, many of them in terrible, dirty, cement-court-battered conditions. “They better dirty anyway. Grimy anyway,” KD said.

And as he sat there, a huge smile on his face, still talking about makeable missed jumpers and barely-made dunks and grimy sneakers, it was absolutely, unquestionably clear: just like so many of us, he’s a pretty simple dude.

Guarding him, stopping him, limiting the tallest guard in basketball, okay good point. That endeavor is astoundingly complex. Outside of that though? In his own words, “I’m just another 29-year-old guy.”

The first time I met him in Austin, at the University of Texas, he told the story of his first day in campus: I went to the other guys on the team, and even if I didn’t know them yet, or they were older, I brought all of them here, to this gym, to play. Because I wanted to play. That’s it.” A year later, in China, I asked him if the Nike Flyknit Trainers he was wearing were his favorite off-court shoes, considering I had seen him wearing them for weeks at that point. “I love it man. It’s easy to put on, it’s comfortable, goes with everything. I love it.”

One of the first things Leo Chang ever told me back in 2016 was, “KD wants a shoe that looks good even if you’re just walking around in it. That’s so that if you walk by a court and there’s a game going you can just jump right in and you don’t have to change shoes. That’s a huge philosophy around the decisions we make with his sneakers.”

I asked KD about this, to which he answered, “I’m still that guy, man. All I want to do is hoop. I don’t care for too much of the other things. It’s silly to some, the whole tech-fleece everyday thing. But for me, not thinking about what I’ll wear gives me one less thing to worry about, so I have more room in my brain to focus on the game.”

Rise. Grind. Shine. Again.

Sure, it can apply to all. But it can’t ever apply to anyone more than it does to Kevin Durant.

Underneath it all, is a kid, just wanting to play the game so desperately he’ll do it with a hat still on. He’ll go around the world and skip the cameras and the glitzy, scripted interviews if he could just so he could train kids. Because like children, the only thing that matters to him is the game. No BS. Never.

Here’s all that you need to know about KD: there are few people in the world who have such unblemished love for the game of basketball. It’s pure, it’s pristine. You see it in his face when he’s talking about drills, when he’s detailing plays, when he’s recalling screens he’s set or have been set for him. He absolutely, unequivocally, in the simplest, truest, most sincere way possible, loves basketball.

As we wrapped up the shoot, I thanked him for his time, wished him good luck next season and a safe flight home. He gave me a dap, said thanks, and also said “Keep that elbow in, Manila. Stop airballing free throws that’s just sad.”

The next day, my feed was full of people posting photos of and with Kevin Durant. One of those posts was by a young lady, a Warriors fan who trooped to BGC by herself and stood under the rain and the sun to get an autograph at best, a KD sighting at least. She posted a photo of a Durant poster, his signature sprawled across the middle of it. “I love you KD!” was her caption.

Durant too, posted a video recapping his time in Manila. Below, on the comments, he replied to the account @balldontstop, “pure lovers of the game.”

There’s a reason Kevin Durant walked the streets of BGC when he could have rolled in like the star that he is. There’s a reason he went off script and just talked from the heart. There’s a reason he was comfortable hooping here of all places, for the first time since The Finals.

For Filipinos, in the exact same way it is for Kevin Durant, the love for the game is pure. It’s simple.