Erik Malinowski | Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History | Atria Books / Simon & Schuster | 8 minutes (1,846 words)
Kevin Durant’s joining the Golden State Warriors — thereby creating a modern-day super-team — was not just feasible but seemed to make sense. In two years with Steve Kerr at the helm, the Warriors’ offense was a juggernaut, and Durant (standing in for a departed Harrison Barnes) would only magnify their proficiency. The Death Lineup pick-and-roll with Steph Curry and Draymond Green? Swap in Durant for Green as the roll man and now you’ve got defenders guessing how to guard the two best pure scorers in the NBA on one play. Curry’s spot-up jumper or Durant’s iso dominance? And what about a Thompson catch-and-shoot, Andre Iguodala corner three, or Green cutting to the hoop? At their best, the Warriors, with four All-Stars under 30 and a Finals MVP, would be unstoppable. It would mean letting go of Festus Ezeli and Harrison Barnes (who knew he was gone from the way his exit interview went) and finding a trade partner willing to take on Andrew Bogut and his $12 million salary, but an ESPN projection concluded that the Warriors (with Durant) would win 76 games. And as Durant sat at home watching Game 7 of the Finals alongside Rich Kleiman, his agent, he was envisioning the same thing.
The Warriors, knowing that potential future championships were at stake, took nothing for granted. Steve Kerr had a video package of clips prepared to show Durant how he might fit into his offense. The team partnered with NextVR — a Southern California virtual reality company that boasts Peter Guber as a board member — to produce a simulation that would show Durant what it was like to be a Warrior, to run out the tunnel and into Oracle Arena, to be in the huddle with everyone as Kerr diagrammed plays, and so forth, all while Drake lyrics in the background subliminally played their part: Cause I got a really big team / And they need some really big rings … Are we talkin’ teams? / Oh, you switchin’ sides? / Wanna come with me?
After spending the night before in New York City, the Warriors arrived at Durant’s rented house in the Hamptons eight deep: Joe and Kirk Lacob, Bob Myers, Steve Kerr, and the four All-Stars of the Death Lineup. On Durant’s side, there was Kleiman, longtime friend and confidant Charlie Bell, and Durant’s father, Wayne Pratt.
They talked for the next two hours, and the immediate future of the Golden State Warriors had all the uncertainty of a jump ball free-falling to earth.
Bob Myers thought the Warriors blew their chance. Sure, they gave the pitch meeting everything they had, but there was just no way Kevin Durant — the Kevin Durant! — would sign with them. It simply couldn’t happen.
Back at his in-laws’ house in South Lake Tahoe, Myers’s brain was racked with second thoughts as he paced the floor on the morning of July 4. The meeting hadn’t gone exactly as planned. The virtual reality headset that would give Durant a taste of life as a Warrior? Malfunctioned from the start. Kleiman jumped in to take control: “Why the hell would you guys want Kevin?”
From there, everyone took their turns. Curry talked about facilitating shots and not caring who was getting all the attention. Iguodala, who had also won a gold medal alongside Durant in London in 2012, stressed to him that joining the Warriors would also mean the most fun he’d ever had in his life. As Joe Lacob sat next to Durant’s father, Kerr showed Durant some video plays to illustrate how he’d use him in their offensive schemes. Green told him not to sweat the public’s reaction, that they would defend him through anything. “Just know you not in it by yourself,” he said. “You take some backlash, we taking it with you.” Thompson started riffing how Durant’s presence would create the most open shots Thompson had ever seen before catching himself and steering the pitch back toward how Durant would also benefit, but everyone had a good laugh. Durant’s reps asked about business opportunities in Silicon Valley. Renderings of the new San Francisco arena were shown. It was a cordial back-and-forth that lasted about an hour. The players then talked among themselves for an hour after that. Durant later said it looked as if the players had walked into the room holding hands. That’s how genuine their camaraderie felt.
For the most part, Durant didn’t talk all that much that afternoon. After parting ways with Durant and his reps, Myers headed to the team plane not truly knowing what to think. On a confidence scale of 1 to 10, Myers tells me he was probably a 3: “He’s a very quiet guy. They didn’t show any of their cards.”
The meeting had been on a Friday afternoon, with several teams to follow over the weekend. (Oklahoma City had met with Durant for five hours on June 30 and would get last crack at him on Sunday afternoon.) The Warriors flew back to points west — Joe Lacob to his summer home in Montana, Curry and Iguodala to Chicago, and Myers to Tahoe — but the pitch never truly stopped. Myers made sure the Warriors were following up in every way that might help.
Late that Friday night, Curry sent Durant what Myers called “one of the best text messages I’ve ever seen,” a heartfelt promise that Durant would fit in with them, that they truly wanted him, that no one cared about attention or sacrificing stats, that what mattered was winning a championship. Durant also got calls from Steve Nash (a longtime friend) and Jerry West, who chewed his ear for a half-hour, speaking of regret over his multiple failures in the Finals — Durant had lost once, in 2012 against LeBron James and the Miami Heat — and told him to think about his legacy, of wanting to be regarded as a great all-around player, the implication being that Golden State provided a more fulfilling environment for his diverse skill set.
Internally, West pushed hard for Durant’s recruitment because he was convinced his presence would solve one of the Warriors’ most glaring issues, namely, that their best scorers did not get to the free-throw line enough. From the perimeter, yes, they were lethal, but when you’re deep in the playoffs — perhaps fatigued, physically or mentally or both — West knew you could always rely on driving to the basket, drawing contact, and getting yourself to the charity stripe for a couple of freebies. Curry averaged just 4.6 free throws per game during the season, the second-fewest in NBA history for a 30-points-per-game scorer. In those waning moments of Game 7, West saw the Warriors become completely dependent on the often-fickle deep three. A player like Durant would act as a hedge against Golden State’s temptation to fall back again on such a risky strategy.
Above all, West urged him to block out the noise. “Kevin,” he said, “just follow your heart.” West’s counsel had paid countless dividends in his five years with the Warriors, but his call that day with Durant was everything Lacob had hoped for when he hired him. “You’re recruiting somebody, whether it be in a Silicon Valley tech company or whether it be in basketball,” Lacob would say of enlisting West’s help to persuade Durant, “you’re going to use everything you can at your disposal to do things that would hopefully convince the party to join.” Lacob also enlisted a small, select group of former Warriors to call Durant and vouch for the organization.
The first clue Myers received that the Warriors might get lucky was on the afternoon of Sunday, July 3, when Durant called him to talk. Myers put him on hold to call Lacob and patch him through. The owner was out in a boat on the lake that borders his Montana home and wasn’t sure the reception would hold up. The only salient portion of that call Myers remembered was when Durant said something to the effect of “So when I come…” Myers called Lacob back to verify he wasn’t going insane and had heard the same thing. Neither was completely sure, and hope, at that point, was a dangerous thing. They had already started work on contingency plans. Even as whispers circulated Sunday night that Durant was leaning toward Golden State, Myers decided to just wait for the official call, which would come the next morning.
Finally, a little after 8:00 a.m. Pacific time on July 4, Myers was wandering around outside his in-laws’ house — no more than 50 feet from the exact spot he was back in 2013 when he got the call that secured the Iguodala deal — when his cell phone rang.
It was Rich Kleiman, Durant’s agent. “Do you have a second to talk to Kevin?”
“Sure.” Myers steeled himself for the bad news.
Durant got on the line. “I just want to tell you that you guys are a first-class organization and I appreciate all the things you are and who you guys are but…” Myers’ brain raced at that but.
Oh man, here it comes, he thought. “But I’m coming to the Warriors.” Myers was overjoyed. He thanked Durant, hung up, and let out a celebratory yell that caused one neighbor to ask if he was okay. All Myers had time to do before the news became public was call Lacob, who was sitting out on his lakeside patio in Montana when his general manager called at 9:20 a.m. local time to tell him that the Warriors had pulled off the biggest free agent signing in years. Lacob already had packed his bags and was ready to jet to the Hamptons if it would help quell Durant’s indecision. His pilot, waiting on standby, could stand down.
“I grew up here,” Myers says. “I just couldn’t fathom a player of his caliber choosing us. We are mostly a homegrown team. Steph was drafted. Klay was drafted. Draymond and Harrison were drafted before we got Kevin. Andre was a free agent acquisition. We’d never been in my mind a place that could attract a player like him and it’s very hard to get anybody in free agency. Disbelief was probably the biggest emotion, to be honest.” Back in 2011, they were elated just to sign a restricted free agent like DeAndre Jordan to an offer sheet. Now the Warriors were an A-list destination, capable of attracting the biggest superstars.
After Myers, Durant called Sam Presti, OKC’s general manager, to tell him the news. It was short, but tears were shed. Around that time, Charlie Bell was texting Draymond Green, who was lying in a hotel room bed in Michigan. “Let’s get it,” the text cryptically read. Klay Thompson was sleeping, checked his phone when he heard the news, and went back to snoozing. But all around the country, fans (and media) were frantically refreshing The Players’ Tribune, the online publication where the announcement was to be posted.
Then it appeared.
From Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History. Copyright © 2017 by Erik Malinowski. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.