Come on, Patrick. Of course character counts. Sports are entertainment, and one of entertainment's most important functions is to communicate shared cultural values. If I find out a point-guard that I like beats his wife, for instance, I won't root for him any more—no matter how transcendent his talent may be. You can claim you only care about sports for the display of physical prowess, but I'm unabashedly looking for heroes and villains. And, really, they aren't that hard to spot. Sure, athletes today have tightly controlled public images. But even through the blizzard of hype, it's possible to get a sense of what a player is like as a human being, on- and off-court.
Unless you are with the Portland Trailblazers, apparently. For a long time, the Blazers picking Bowie over Jordan has been the gold standard for bad NBA drafting. It's not merely seen as the worst pick in league history, but has become a kind of symbol for a mistake so huge and glaring that Malcolm Gladwell will write a book about it. Yet the Blazers may have outdone themselves by taking Greg Oden over Durant. Incredibly, when news broke earlier this year that Oden needed yet another knee surgery, acting Trailblazers' GM Chad Buchanan stood by his club's pick. He claimed there was no way anyone could have predicted Oden's injuries.
Oh, yeah. That would have been impossible. You would have had to know that Oden had at least two surgeries before he even played college ball. One, to repair a dislocated hip, was in sixth grade. Not a good sign. Even ignoring the fragility, though, all Portland had to do was look at Oden's hangdog expression and body language on the court. The kid never seemed to be having fun playing basketball, let alone be hungry for titles.
Durant sure did. Always. That same year, in his single season at Texas, KD played in 35 games, averaging over 35 minutes per contest. (He also averaged 11.1 rebounds. Oden, the 7-footer, grabbed 9.6.) For me, though, it only took one of those games to know that Durant was special. That March, Durant brought his 15th-ranked Longhorns into Allen Field House, and put on maybe the single greatest performance by an opposing player in the history of KU basketball. It was just dazzling. Showing a poise that would have been sensational for an NBA vet, the freshman opened the game by going 5-for-5 on three-pointers. Then, in the second half, he got hot. Kid stopped, popped, dunked, banked, and everything-elsed for 25 points—despite spraining an ankle with four minutes left in the game. The KU crowd couldn't help but roar when he left the court.
Durant did something else in that game, too. Late in the second, Durant made a "clam down" gesture towards his teammates, helping them stay poised. Anyone who watched his young Thunder team beat the Spurs this week saw him make the same gesture two or three times. That's what makes me think that Oden may ultimately prove an even bigger blunder than Bowie—and that Durant may even outshine Jordan.
MJ had greater individual skills, no doubt. Jordan's stats in his first five years were much better then Durant's are. Then again, Kevin was two years younger when he left school.
More importantly, Durant is simply a better leader. He is less selfish than Jordan was early in his career. Durant came into the league knowing how to make his teammates better, something His Airness had to learn (and that Kobe and LeBron still haven't mastered).
That unselfishness, and his leadership skills, are huge reasons why Durant is in a position to win his first title at 23, five years sooner than Jordan. To me, that proves that all those fuddy-duddy "Play the right way" moralists are right. Even if all a fan cares about is winning, Durant's success proves that character counts.