By PAUL NEWBERRY, Associated Press
Let's get one thing clear right from the start: This is not another rant against LeBron James.
But it's sure hard not to root for Kevin Durant and the little city that could from America's heartland.
James is the best player in the world, hands down, and certainly deserving of his first championship. Rest assured, Commissioner David Stern and the bigwigs over at ABC are sure glad LBJ is back in the NBA finals after the television ratings bonanza he was largely responsible for during Miami's riveting Eastern Conference victory over Boston.
That said, the Oklahoma City Thunder and their gracious star have shown another side to a league where the big names often come across as petty, selfish and overflowing with hubris.
There's the glasses and backpack Durant wears off the court, which make him look more like a Star Wars nerd than perhaps the second-best player on the planet. There's the heart-tugging hugs he doled out to his mom and family after beating San Antonio for a spot in the finals, the humility he shows when talking about his stupendous game, the sense that he truly embraces playing in one of the league's backwater cities.
He's the anti-superstar superstar.
"Kevin gets it," said former player Steve Smith, now an analyst for NBA TV. "The way he plays. The way he carries himself. The way he handles the media. What tops it off is his love and passion for the game. During the lockout, he was just continually wanting to play basketball. That's a treat for me.
"He's kind of a throwback player, like those guys back in the '80s and '90s."
Unlike players such as James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, who either joined new teams as free agents or engineered trades by threatening to bolt, Durant seems perfectly content to stay where he is. Never mind that his marketing clout would be much greater in a city such as New York or Los Angeles.
He passed up even a shot at restricted free agency to quietly sign a new five-year deal with the Thunder, a contract that didn't even come with an opt-out clause — normally standard operating procedure for someone of his ilk.
While there are players who speak of themselves in the third person and act as though their needs come before the team's, Durant spends most of his time talking humbly about ways to get better, sounding more like a backup than a three-time scoring champion.
He truly seems to have no interest in the trappings of fame.
"There's just something about him. He's got charisma. He's the humblest superstar," said Mike Breen, who will call the series for ABC. "He's a special, special player, but he seems to have that charisma people are attracted to even if they aren't basketball fans."
No doubt, it's easy to get a big head playing in the NBA.
By its very nature, basketball is built on star power. One player can have more impact on the game than any other sport. One player can turn a bad team into a great team, or at least a very good one. Not surprisingly, the small group of athletes who take on these roles can get a very inflated view of themselves, which might lead one of them to, say, hold an hourlong TV special to announce where they're going to play.
But again, this is not about being anti-LeBron.
We're over The Decision, and it's time for rest of the nation to do the same (except Cleveland, which is allowed to keep fuming).
This is about being pro-Durant.
"He's a superstar player who's as likable off the court as he is effective on it," said another player-turned-NBA TV analyst, Greg Anthony. "That bodes well for the game."
The NBA finals, which begin Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, are certainly being viewed by many as good vs. evil, a story line that is largely rooted in James' 2010 decision to leave Cleveland and his lifelong roots in northern Ohio to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on a South Beach super team. The move represented all that's wrong about the NBA: a superstar turning his back on a worshipping city, three guys gaming the system to get on the same team, a glitzy franchise trying to ensure itself of a championship simply by pulling out its checkbook.
Never mind that these sort of tactics have gone on for years in all professional sports. James certainly deserved criticism for the way he announced he was dumping the Cavaliers in favor of the Heat, and the over-the-top ceremony that welcomed the Big Three to Miami justifiably left the rest of the league seething.
But it's time to get past it and recognize James for what he is: the No. 1 player in the game and certain to go down as one of the greatest of all time. His performance in the playoffs — especially after Bosh went down with an injury — was beyond spectacular. Anyone who doubted the heart and willpower of this guy was apparently not watching games 6 and 7 against the Celtics.
James, a three-time league MVP, stared down Beantown and took the Heat on his back, single-handedly carrying them to the finals for the second year in a row.
He is worthy of your admiration, if not your adulation.
"This guy is a great player who plays very hard, very unselfishly," said former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, who will serve as ABC's analyst in the series. "If the biggest mistake he's made in his life is how he announced that he was exercising his free agency decision and, then, the celebration that ensued because of it, I really don't get (why) for casual NBA fans or fans in other NBA cities, it provokes bitterness and animosity that's lasted this long.
"The way he goes about his business and the way he plays the game," Van Gundy went on, "are models for the way you should play the game."
But Durant is just so darn likable.
Sorry, LeBron, but it's hard to root against him.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.