OKLAHOMA CITY — The private conversations will always stay that way. Kevin Durant does not seem like one to wax nostalgia. Neither does Kobe Bryant.
So, the Oklahoma City forward always preferred “learning more from just watching” the Lakers’ star and “figuring out why he’s like this.” After all, those moments told Durant more about Bryant than anything Bryant could ever say. And what Durant saw from Bryant in the Las Vegas during the 2008 offseason.
Then, Durant had just completed his NBA rookie season and began training for the U.S. Olympic trials in Las Vegas. Bryant was also there to train for the U.S. Olympics later that summer in Beijing.
“Jeff Green and I are only ones on the first bus. Right as we’re about to leave, we see Kobe getting on walking by himself when everybody else took the day off,” Durant said. “He worked out on one end. We worked out on the other.”
Then, Durant saw Bryant make 50 shots in seven different spots from behind the 3-point line. As Bryant dripped in sweat, Green and Durant remarked to each other, “He’s the best player in the league.”
“He took a bus to a high school gym to put some work in,” Durant said. “He’s old school. That’s exactly what I wanted to be like.”
Durant will face off against Bryant for one final time when the Lakers (16-64) visit the Oklahoma City Thunder (54-26) on Monday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Durant described the upcoming matchup as “fun.” He also described Bryant in less laudatory terms in a recent Nike commercial. Durant called Bryant an “asshole” and admitted, “he pissed me off a lot” during matchups that included an Oklahoma City first-round exit (2010 in six games) and a semifinals win (2012 in five games).
Yet, Durant spoke those words out of reverence.
“The intensity he played with and how he played, it was always controlled recklessness,” Durant said. “The fact that he hit big shots, the fact that he made tough shots, the fact that he made things that looked tough seem easy, that was frustrating. That’s always frustrating for a player. It wasn’t like I don’t like Kobe.”
Instead, Durant has said he loves Bryant and has often credited him for mentoring him.
“The way he played, it made it seem like it was tough,” Durant said. “For him, it was pretty easy. As a player, that’s what you wanted to be and that’s what you wanted to do. Definitely a role model for me, myself, and all my other teammates and how he approached the game. It was on another level.”
Durant has collected an NBA MVP award (2014), appeared in seven All-Star games (2010-16) and led the league in scoring four times (2010-12, 2014). Yet, Durant hardly feels on Bryant’s level. The Lakers’ star once told Durant during the 2012 NBA playoffs that he could not sit at his so-called “lunch table” since Bryant has five rings to Durant’s zero.
Durant also shook his head in amazement how Bryant has maintained longevity through 20 NBA seasons.
“I’m in my ninth year and after games sometimes, I’m hurting a little bit. For him to do that for 20 years at a high level, that shows how much he works. Once you become efficient and developed that in between game, that’s what helped him last for so long,” Durant said. “He mastered every level of the game from paint shots to mid-range [jumpers] and 3’s. That made him be a player that is able to play 20 years in this league. That’s the example he set. All players will love to play at that level for so long.”
Durant first saw that example set when Bryant worked out at a non-descript high school eight years ago when no one else was watching and everyone else was resting. But not Durant, who witnessed the work that goes behind Bryant perfecting his craft.