How Kevin Durant became Silicon Valley’s hottest start-up

Kevin Durant at YouTube offices in San Francisco January 17, 2017. After a turbulent summer, the NBA’s newest ‘villain’ is finding peace and building an empire among the Bay Area’s techies. — Picture by Jake Michaels/The New York Times
Kevin Durant at YouTube offices in San Francisco January 17, 2017. After a turbulent summer, the NBA’s newest ‘villain’ is finding peace and building an empire among the Bay Area’s techies. — Picture by Jake Michaels/The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 20 — Until last summer, Kevin Durant was certainly famous, but maybe not famous enough.

Here was a perennial NBA All-Star and former most valuable player who had been ranked No. 4 on GQ’s list of the most stylish players in NBA history. He had a reported US$300 million (RM1.34 billion) endorsement deal with Nike, and Lifetime had even made a movie about his mother, The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story.

Even so, every article on Durant seemed to boil down to this: He was too nice. And super-duper-stars aren’t “nice.”

That narrative persisted until June, when Durant, who had spent eight years dutifully toiling in small-market Oklahoma City for the Thunder, became one of the most heavily courted free agents in league history. The bidding war for his services was like a sports-world variation of The Bachelor.

As Durant holed up in the Hamptons with his agent, Rich Kleiman, to field pitches, the league’s glamour teams descended, dangling monster contracts and a chance at movie-star-scale celebrity. The Boston Celtics even brought along Tom Brady to flash a Super Bowl ring. Even so, no one ever thought he would really leave his heartland home. He was too, you know, nice.

But he did. Not only did he set in motion one of the great superstar divorces in league history with his old point guard, Russell Westbrook, but he joined the juggernaut Golden State Warriors, a longtime punching bag that had transformed into the Google of pro basketball. Last season, they won a record 73 regular-season games; featured Stephen Curry, the back-to-back league MVP; and beat the Thunder in the playoffs.

At last, he was famous enough, or at least mass-market enough, to land on the cover of Rolling Stone. But the league’s equivalent of Luke Skywalker was also recast as Darth Vader, villain 1A on a team of supervillains. He may have been the most scrutinised athlete in America.

But the funny thing about being in the eye of the hurricane? It’s surprisingly calm there.

Eight months after the decision that rocked the sporting world, Durant, 28, a starter in Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game, is easing into a new life as a new face of the Warriors, a brash brand of disrupters armed with Google-scale ambition that has been called “tech’s team.” He drives a Tesla, pals around with the Silicon Valley’s A-list and is laying the foundation for a tech empire of his own.

Here is a look at Durant’s life in the Bay Area over a recent two-day stretch between big wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Thunder, as he made the rounds as arguably the hottest startup in Silicon Valley.

Courting new fans

It was early afternoon on an unseasonably warm winter Tuesday, and Durant was in high spirits, barrelling down the Bayshore Freeway in a black Cadillac Escalade on the way to a speaking engagement at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California.

That morning, Durant was the centrepiece at a lavish groundbreaking ceremony for the Chase Centre, the US$1 billion pleasure dome on the San Francisco waterfront that the team plans to occupy by 2019.

But now he was hungry, so he and Kleiman dropped in to the nearest restaurant they could find, which was Jack’s, a family restaurant and bar near the YouTube campus.

Although he has appeared on magazine covers for a decade, Durant still carries himself like a teenager. He slouched in the booth with his shoulders slumped, face buried in his iPhone before the food arrived.

Once the conversation did start, however, Durant sounded pensive, introspective. Unlike many MVP-calibre athletes who seem to field every question seemingly looking for the quickest exit strategy, Durant paused to consider each question, and he seemed unafraid to open up, despite his natural shyness.

“I didn’t really have friends,” Durant said of his childhood in Seat Pleasant, Maryland, which neighbours Washington. “I was quiet. I was awkward-sized.”

Raised by a single mother in a rough neighbourhood, Durant said he “didn’t look the part” of a cool kid, adding that, “It made it easy for me to not worry about the social life and just play basketball.”

“That’s the gift and the curse of being an athlete that is so dedicated at an early age, you forget about real life sometimes,” he said. “So I’m just in the last few years starting to feel comfortable to meet new people, going out in groups, meeting new girls, hanging out. That stuff was foreign to me until a few years back.”

Near the end of the lunch, a petite woman in a Warriors jersey trailing two eager children approached the booth. “Excuse me, Kevin?” she asked diffidently. But a man in his security detail whisked her away before he could respond.

Upon leaving the booth, however, Durant demonstrated his growing ease with fame among his adopted family of Warriors fans, making a beeline toward the woman’s table to graciously pose for selfies with the family.

“They can feel how much heat that I got from coming here,” he said of his controversial move to the Bay Area. “They’re trying to make me feel at peace.”

Calling the geek squad

Later, the Escalade pulled into a parking garage beneath the sprawling YouTube campus. Durant had no time for a plunge down the office’s 45-foot-long red slide, to sink a 10-footer on the indoor putting green or to grab a quick snooze in a Kubrickian, white-plastic “nap pod.” After all, he was the employee perk that day.

He proceeded to an auditorium that was filled to capacity with YouTube employees, some of them looking barely old enough to vote, let alone drink, and took a seat onstage across from Neal Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer, who was moderating an employees-only question-and-answer session that was live-streamed to YouTube and Google offices around the world.

Flashing a US$59,000 Vacheron Constantin watch, Durant did not exactly fit the profile of the skinny-armed tech programmer. But he cast himself as just another member of the YouTube generation, talking about his obsession with Grand Theft Auto V, hip-hop and, of course, YouTube. “I’m sure you guys know, you want to look at one quick video and it turns into four or five hours,” he said. “It’s pretty dangerous, that app.”

When an audience member asked if he planned to try acting, like the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin or the Cavaliers’ LeBron James, Durant snorted sarcastically, “If anybody could do it, it’s Blake Griffin and LeBron.” The audience erupted in laughter, since both players are considered Oscar-worthy on-court floppers. Durant, holding back a chuckle, insisted that he was talking about their impressive work in commercials and movies.

Then the talk took a more serious turn. Asked if he is plugging himself into the Bay Area tech scene, Durant responded that he is eagerly following the lead of a Warriors teammate, Andre Iguodala, who is a noted investor in companies like Twitter, Facebook and Tesla.

Last summer, in fact, Durant and Kleiman unveiled a startup of their own, the Durant Co, with a swelling portfolio of investments in tech companies like Postmates and Acorns, in addition to hotels and restaurants and film and television development.

Adopting a Silicon Valley wardrobe

The next day, Durant was piloting his black Tesla Model S up a windy road in the Oakland Hills, after the Warriors’ morning shootaround. It was about noon on game day, the second meeting of the season with his former team, the Thunder. He seemed more distant that day, his voice quieter, raspier.

Dressed in a grey Warriors hoodie, he steered into a hilltop cul-de-sac and pulled into a driveway of his sleek contemporary-style house, where he hopped out, plugged in the Tesla and headed into the house through a garage where his black labradoodle Ro was resting peacefully.

As his private chef hunched over the stove, preparing a gameday pasta meal, Durant slumped into the world’s longest sectional sofa and stared out the soaring windows, which were rattling from the wind, toward downtown Oakland in the distance. He chose the house for the view.

“It’s beautiful to be on top of everything, see it from a different perspective,” he said, “because I was at the bottom growing up.”

Durant has been living in the 10,000-square-foot rental for only a few months, and as a bachelor who spends half his time on the road, it has a temporary feel to it. The white lilies on the kitchen table were silk, the fiddle-leaf fig plant in the corner of the family room was plastic.

Still, it was decorated in a style that might be called sports superstar moderne: The stark white walls are festooned with abstract expressionist artwork, with ample trophies on display. The house has a home recording studio, a recreation room littered with Washington Redskins memorabilia, a movie theatre that seats 16, and a walk-in closet devoted to sneakers.

Durant padded barefoot past his hangar-size master bedroom, into another vast closet where he keeps his custom suits, jewellery and watches. The real treasure there, however, was his swelling collection of vintage concert T-shirts from the 1980s and ‘90s — Nas, Biggie, Metallica, Stone Cold Steve Austin. “I take pride in my collection,” he said.

Old T-shirts may seem like an odd obsession for a player who helped pioneer the neo-preppy nerd-chic look (bow ties, Urkel-style glasses and backpacks) that swept the league a few years ago. In 2013, he even covered All-Star weekend as a fashion correspondent for GQ.

But what’s the point of looking runway-ready in a culture where Mark Zuckerberg’s sweatshirt sets the tone? Durant feels more at home in the Silicon Valley-approved wardrobe of jeans, sneakers and hoodies.

“Fashion,” he said, “is what you make of it.”

Joining a billionaire’s boys club

Back in the family room, Durant paused in front of his frame wall containing a moody black-and-white photograph showing three clenched fists, each with a small triangle tattoo at the base of the thumb. One fist was Durant’s; another belongs to Charlie Bell, a childhood friend who is now a top executive at Jay Z’s agency, Roc Nation; and the third to Kleiman, who still represents Durant through Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports and is also working for him directly as his manager and partner in the Durant Co.

The photo is a reminder to himself about real friendship, Durant said. His social world had shrunken since his controversial move.

“When you make it to the league, especially from where I’m from, it’s like everybody made it,” Durant said. “I can remember times going to a club, I had 30 people with me. I’m thinking to myself, this was never me. But if you’ve never had the support outwardly like that, people showing you affection in your face, love in your face, even if it’s fake, you try to grab that because it feels good for the moment.

“Now, it’s us three.”

He may be rounding the math a little bit. Durant may have called off his engagement with Monica Wright, a WNBA player, and dialled back the entourage, but he goes out often after games and is quickly making friends with the tech titans who populate Oracle Arena’s version of celebrity row.

In September, he celebrated his birthday at a lavish barbecue at the house of Ben Horowitz, the influential venture capitalist and business partner of Marc Andreessen. Two months later, he watched the election results at the home of Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services, along with Tim Cook, Apple chief executive, and Pharrell Williams.

“I think that’s why a lot of athletes and entertainers work well with some of those guys, because for one, they all had humble beginnings,” Durant said. “They built something from the ground up, so they can relate to us.” — The New York Times

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