KEVIN DURANT, looking like a 19-year-old who just got out of bed (which, at this moment, he is), ambles through the door of a Denver hotel and spots a half dozen autograph seekers armed with Sharpies. It is the morning of the rookie's first NBA shootaround, at the Pepsi Center some 10 hours before tip-off against the Nuggets. Durant scribbles his name on various collectibles, nods politely at a few comments ("I saw you play at Texas") and climbs slowly onto the Seattle SuperSonics' bus, at which point the hounds disperse. There is no beseeching of Nick Collison, no love for Chris Wilcox, no apparent eBay growth potential in Luke Ridnour.
And so it is for Kevin Durant, upon whom the spotlight will shine harshly this season, the Boy King of a faltering kingdom. The Sonics have no other marquee players, have gone 66--98 in the last two seasons and have their metaphorical bags packed for Oklahoma City, the team's ownership and the Emerald City having failed to reach a deal on a new arena. Moreover, with Portland Trail Blazers center Greg Oden out for the year after right knee surgery, Durant is the It rookie, the only first-year player on whom the league can focus its marketing muscle.
This amounts to a lot of attention for a teenager who's sharing a house with his mother, particularly since Durant's basketball trial will not be by fire but by conflagration. "Kevin is our focus," says coach P.J. Carlesimo, who was hired on July 5, one week after the Sonics made Durant the second pick (behind Oden) in the draft. "We can't hide that. We can't pretend he isn't. He will play 34 to 36 minutes and have a lot of rope."
This child-shall-lead-them approach is not new, of course, but Durant's task seems more burdensome than previous ones. Michael Jordan (1984--85) had three years of seasoning at North Carolina before he went to Chicago; Kevin Garnett ('95--96) could lean on mentors such as Sam Mitchell in Minnesota; Kobe Bryant ('96--97) had Shaquille O'Neal as a teammate in Los Angeles; and LeBron James (2003--04) arrived as the most physically imposing person in Cleveland (the Browns included). Remember, too, that Seattle said goodbye to two former All-Stars over the summer, when rookie general manager Sam Presti traded guard Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics and forward Rashard Lewis to the Orlando Magic. (The Sonics' coaches and brass share this grim-faced joke: We won 31 games last year and got rid of our two best players—we've got to be better.)
Further, everything about the impossibly narrow-shouldered, 6'9" Durant just says kid. The rookie Garnett was skinny, but he had (and still has) a granite toughness. Durant is a waif. He cops to 220 pounds, five more than he weighed at the predraft camp, but he looks as if he could be blown over by a stiff Northwest breeze, not to mention any future winds that might sweep through the Oklahoma plains.
Still, there is plenty of substance to Durant—in his person (laid-back but tough), his marketing portfolio (about $80 million in deals with Nike, EA Sports and Gatorade) and his game (smooth, smart, versatile). That was clear in the opening days of a pro career that promises to be electric, no matter where the Sonics ultimately call home.
GAME 1: OCT. 31, AT DENVER NUGGETS
DURANT COMMITS a rookie mistake upon entering the Pepsi Center, carrying his backpack past a security guard at the players' entrance. "Let me look at that, son," he says to Durant, who complies.
During warmups Durant paces himself, the combination of mile-high elevation and opening-game nerves leaving him gasping. Carlesimo pulls him aside before the tip-off. "Good luck and just go out there and have a good time," the coach says. "Don't worry about anything else." As Durant stands outside the center circle—Carlesimo had penciled him in as his starting shooting guard seconds after becoming coach—his eye is drawn to the signature shoes worn by Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony. "They the new ones?" Durant asks Melo, who says yes. Durant is tempted to ask if Anthony will autograph the sneakers for him afterward. "But I kind of stopped myself right in the middle, because I've got an NBA jersey on too," Durant explains later.
The game goes predictably, which is to say that Durant looks like a 19-year-old among men and the Sonics are gallant but outgunned, getting blown away down the stretch in a 120--103 loss. Durant shoots an airball from 10 feet, fails to finish near the basket several times and misses an opportunity to exploit a nine-inch advantage when Allen Iverson switches off on him. He begins aiming his shots and even hopping up and down in an effort to will them into the basket.