After a turbulent summer, the N.B.A.’s newest “villain” is finding peace and building an empire among the Bay Area’s techies.
Kevin Durant at his home in Oakland, where he feels comfortable in the Silicon Valley-approved hoodie. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
Until last summer, Kevin Durant was certainly famous, but maybe not famous enough.
Here was a perennial N.B.A. All-Star and former most valuable player who had been ranked No. 4 on GQ’s list of the most stylish players in N.B.A. history. He had a reported $300 million 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 Mr. Durant seemed to boil down to this: He was too nice. And super-duper-stars aren’t “nice.”
That narrative persisted until last June, when Mr. 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 Mr. 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 M.V.P.; and beat the Thunder in the playoffs a month before.
Mr. Durant signing autographs at the offices of YouTube. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
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 scrutinized 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, Mr. Durant, 28, a starter in Sunday’s N.B.A. 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 Mr. 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 start-up in Silicon Valley.
Courting New Fans
It was early afternoon on an unseasonably warm winter Tuesday, and Mr. Durant was in high spirits, barreling down the Bayshore Freeway in a black Cadillac Escalade on the way to a speaking engagement at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, Calif.
That morning, Mr. Durant was the centerpiece a lavish groundbreaking ceremony for the Chase Center, the $1 billion pleasure dome on the San Francisco waterfront that the team plans to occupy by 2019.
Mr. Durant was on hand to break ground on the arena that is to be built in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
But now he was hungry, so he and Mr. Kleiman dropped in to the nearest restaurant they could find, which was Jack’s, a family restaurant and bar near the YouTube campus.
With his six-foot-infinity frame and impossibly long legs, Mr. Durant seemed to swallow a yard of real estate with each stride. As an eight-time N.B.A. All-Star seemingly dressed for Pitti Uomo (he wore a blue custom suit, a striped pocket square and white Common Projects sneakers), Mr. Durant certainly stood out in the wood-beam suburban sports bar where a number of diners were decked out in blue-and-gold Warriors gear.
But even though Jack’s that day looked like a Durant-themed hall of mirrors, with clips of his epic rejection of a LeBron James shot from the day before flickering on TVs, he was able to walk unmolested through the busy restaurant and take a seat in a rear booth for a plate of boneless hot wings.
Mr. Durant is comfortable with the level of scrutiny he receives in the Bay Area, meaning, not too much. “Hey, it’s not L.A., it’s not New York,” he said. “It’s somewhere in between.”
Although he has appeared on magazine covers for a decade, he still carries himself like a teenager. He slouched in the booth with his shoulders slumped, face buried in his iPhone before the food arrived.
Mr. Durant heading home after practice. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
Once the conversation did start, however, Mr. Durant sounded pensive, introspective. Unlike many M.V.P.-caliber athletes who seem to field every question seemingly looking for the quickest exit strategy, Mr. Durant paused to consider each question, and he seemed unafraid to open up, despite his natural shyness.
“I didn’t really have friends,” Mr. Durant said of his childhood in Seat Pleasant, Md., which neighbors Washington. “I was quiet. I was awkward-sized.”
Raised by a single mother in a rough neighborhood, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Bay Area. “They’re trying to make me feel at peace.”
Calling the Geek Squad
Fifteen minutes later, the Escalade pulled into a parking garage beneath the sprawling YouTube campus. Mr. Durant had no time for a plunge down the office’s 45-foot-long red slide, sink a 10-footer on the indoor putting green or 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 $59,000 Vacheron Constantin watch, Mr. 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.”
Mr. Durant’s T-shirt collection includes one of Nascar’s Jeff Gordon. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
When an audience member asked if he planned to try acting, like the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin or the Cavaliers’ LeBron James, Mr. 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. Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Durant and Mr. Kleiman unveiled a start-up of their own, the Durant Company, with a swelling portfolio of investments in tech companies like Postmates and Acorns, in addition to hotels and restaurants and film and television development. They are also investing with Ronald Conway, one of Silicon Valley’s “super angel” investors and a front-row fixture at Oracle Arena (the Warriors’ current home in Oakland), and consulting with Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’s widow, on his own charity foundation.
In a sense, Mr. Durant is not wholly unlike the legions of ambitious 20-somethings in hoodies and cool sneakers who descend on Silicon Valley to make hundreds of millions.
The only difference is, he has already made hundreds of millions.
Adopting a Silicon Valley Wardrobe
The next day, Mr. Durant was piloting his black Tesla Model S up a windy road in the Oakland Hills, after the Warriors’ morning shootaround. It was around 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.
Mr. Durant’s extensive collection of athletic shoes. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
Dressed in a gray 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 game-day pasta meal, Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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 cdthist artwork, with ample trophies on display. The house has a home recording studio, a recreation room littered with Washington Redskins memorabilia, a movie theater that seats 16, and a walk-in closet devoted to sneakers.
Mr. Durant greeting fans in Oakland before his Golden State Warriors faced his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
Mr. Durant padded barefoot past his hangar-size master bedroom, into another vast closet where he keeps his custom suits, jewelry 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? Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Durant’s, another belongs to Charlie Bell, a childhood friend who is now a top executive at Jay Z’s agency, Roc Nation, and third to Mr. Kleiman, who still represents Mr. Durant through Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports and is also working for him directly as his manager and partner in the Durant Company.
The photo is a reminder to himself about real friendship, Mr. Durant said. His social world had shrunken since his controversial move.
Mr. Durant, a starter in the N.B.A. All-Star Game, has cut quite a figure in Silicon Valley since coming to the Bay Area. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
“When you make it to the league, especially from where I’m from, it’s like everybody made it,” Mr. 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. Mr. Durant may have called off his engagement with Monica Wright, a W.N.B.A. player, and dialed back the entourage, but he goes out often after games in San Francisco 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,” Mr. Durant said. “They built something from the ground up, so they can relate to us.”
Laying Down Rhymes
Minutes before he was ready to settle down for his 2 p.m. nap, Mr. Durant headed to the real sanctuary in his Oakland home, the recording studio.
“Man, why you all keep it so cold in here?” he asked Raleigh Dunn, his recording engineer, while taking a seat in the corner. The lights turned low, Mr. Dunn prepared a sample of the Chi-Lites “Have You Seen Her” for Mr. Durant to lay rhymes over. While some might call Mr. Dunn a “producer,” Mr. Durant has a different name for him: music therapist.
At this point, the N.B.A. star with a sideline in rap has become the stuff of cliché. Before there was Damian Lillard, there was Kobe Bryant. Before Mr. Bryant, there was Shaquille O’Neal. But those guys were different. They made records. They wanted cred. Mr. Durant’s rhymes are more like an audio diary, intended only for himself and close friends. For him, music is like meditation, or sometimes, primal scream therapy.
“I’ve got so much stuff on my mind, quite honestly, it’s kind of easy for me to say it all here,” Mr. Durant said, looking almost monastic with his goateed face hidden in the hood of his sweatshirt. Music, he said, is “a release. It keeps me in the moment. It takes my mind off this crazy world.”
In a few hours, he would hit the court against the Thunder and Mr. Westbrook, his former teammate. While Mr. Durant has called the supposed feud between the two “fake drama” whipped up by the news media, there are clearly unresolved issues.
In their first on-court meeting last November, Mr. Westbrook appeared to troll Mr. Durant by showing up for the game wearing an orange bib that read “Official Photographer.” (Mr. Durant is a budding amateur photographer who shot Super Bowl 50 for The Players’ Tribune, the sports site started by Derek Jeter, and in which Mr. Durant has a stake.)
But at the moment, Mr. Durant would only say that latest rhymes were about “relationship things, both with male friends, females, relationships that might have been broken on both sides.”
That’s the beauty of music. Once you put it down on tape, he said, all the nagging issues “are just out of my mind. I can move on to the next thing.”