Late to the Game: Just Deal With It.

 

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When the new Nike apparel deal with UT was announced last week, it came with a surprising caveat. The deal, the richest in college sports history at $250 million over 15 years, includes a provision for co-branded Kevin Durant Nike gear, and a $15-million contribution from Durant. Pretty sweet, huh? Everybody wins. But the Durant portion gave me pause. As an outsider, all I could think was, why is Durant involved? Sure, he’s the most popular Longhorn athlete right now, but of all the great Longhorns who’ve excelled on the professional level, he spent the least amount of time as an actual Longhorn athlete.

The announcement coincided with the beginning of NBA season, which somehow overlapped with the World Series, college football, the NFL, and something called “hockey,” giving me zero days off from watching sports and ensuring the dissolution of my marriage. This is what is known as “a shitty situation.” Alas, I welcomed the return of the NBA, with storylines like a geriatric Kobe Bryant’s tyrannical return to a dumpster fire of a Lakers team, the Warriors owner boning the O’Brien trophy, and the tenuous future of Kevin Durant as he enters the final year of his contract with Oklahoma City.

The latter is the most intriguing. Durant is at a crossroads in his career. His Thunder squandered the last half of the decade, the team’s billionaire owner flailing under the duress of potentially—gasp—paying the NBA luxury tax and thus trading James Harden to the Rockets for a pack of Little Smokies, continually employing inept head coach Scott Brooks, and whiffing on almost every draft pick. If the Thunder aren’t careful—and honestly, maybe even if they are—Durant is headed to his hometown Washington Wizards this summer.

But again, why is Durant involved in this Nike deal? He was at UT for about as long as that one kid from down the dorm-room hall who never went to class and has seen Phish almost 100 times, and that was almost a decade ago. Sure, he was a national sensation while he was here, but then Texas exited the 2007 NCAA tournament early, Durant entered the NBA draft, and seemingly, that was that.

Like Dig Dug  an angry badger a Planet K cashier who has just been handed a pint of Blue Bell, I got to the bottom of this. Here’s why, in my estimation, you’re about to see a bunch of burnt-orange Durant-branded shoes and shirts all over the damn place.

First things first: Durant is a Nike man.

Last summer, Durant turned down a $250-million endorsement deal with Under Armour, instead remaining with Nike, exactly what UT did in negotiations once its old apparel contract was up on October 1 of this year. It could be a coincidence, but if KD left Nike in 2014, this would have been an impossibility.

Durant has had an unprecedented amount of success in a sport that hasn’t produced a great Texas player in a long time.

Sure, LaMarcus Aldridge is a perennial All-Star who now plays down the road for the Spurs, but no Texas basketball player has ever done what KD has. He was the first-ever freshman to win Naismith College Player of the Year in 2007. He’s the first UT player to win the regular-season MVP award. He’s made First-Team All-NBA five times in eight seasons; it took Michael Jordan nine years in the league to reach that.

You may have heard this obscure saying that goes something like: What Begins Here Transforms the Earth. I’m not quite sure on the wording; it’s not a very popular phrase in campus literature. Regardless, Longhorns recognize alums who make an impact more than any other school in the country. Certainly more than where I came from. The only Rutgers alum I can think of off the top of my head is Ray Rice, and … well … let’s move on.

Durant is a visible Longhorn.

He’s a conduit for recruiting. He donated backpacks to the football team. He shows up to football games during the NBA offseason. And I have a sawbuck on him winning a Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2035. Believe me, he’ll look incredible in the longest burnt-orange blazer ever produced. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of life is just showing up, and if you’ll forgive the source from which this quote springs, you’ll appreciate its poignancy when applied to these examples. Making an appearance simply requires some time and minimal effort, but it means the world to college sports fans.

Durant constantly denigrates the University of Oklahoma.

Many of Durant’s diehard fans are also Sooner fans, due to his current proximity to Norman. No matter. After Texas upset Oklahoma at the Red River Showdown in October, he tweeted and deleted this burn. NOklahoma is pretty good, actually.

He also doesn’t like his teammates jumping on the OU bandwagon. When New Zealand import and possible maniac Steven Adams tweeted his support for the local Sooners, Durant had some words for the seven-footer: “I hate you.” Brevity is the soul of wit, KD.

Longhorns are Longhorns forever.

This one is probably the most important, and it’s written into the style guide of this very publication that we never use the phrase “ex-Longhorn” to describe an athlete who has left the university. We may make an exception for Garrett Gilbert, but alas, once you’ve played here, you’re a Longhorn whether you’re playing professionally on the Gulf Coast or the Gold Coast, and whether you were in Austin for four years or just one semester.

Bryan Curtis, BA ’00, Life Member, wrote an article for Grantland (RIP) in 2012 titled “Is Kevin Durant Really a Longhorn?” with some interesting nuggets on Durant from an alumni perspective—read it here, it’s worth it—but perhaps the most interesting morsel from Curtis’ piece centers on the impression the superstar player left on the man who recruited him, former assistant coach Russell Springmann.

“We’re watching Kevin play [in the NBA] one night,” Springmann told Curtis. “We didn’t know we were having a boy or a girl. I don’t even know if my wife was pregnant yet.”

That there was a child named Durant Springmann dressed up as Rocket Raccoon or a pumpkin or something from Frozen last weekend wandering around Southern California with a pillowcase full of fun-size Skittles should tell you all you need to know about the lasting impression Durant left on the university, its fans, and even its former coaches.

Sure, Durant is essentially investing in his own brand—paying his way, even—in kicking in $15 million of his own cash. But Texas Athletics clearly still values the Durant name, a fortuitous blip on the Forty Acres radar that burned itself onto the screen—and a name that will be (literally) woven into the fabric of UT apparel until 2031.

Illustration by Melissa Reese

 

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