BY RAMONA SHELBURNE
ESPN Senior Writer
Feb. 14, 2017
The Saturday night before Valentine’s Day is always one of the biggest nights of the year for an upscale steakhouse like Mahogany Prime Steaks in downtown Oklahoma City. General manager Dave Osborn says couples from all over the state call weeks in advance to book a table.
But this night in Oklahoma City wasn’t about romance. It was about the love lost between a city and its once-favorite son.
Kevin Durant arrived at Mahogany with a group of eight to 10 friends and family members shortly before midnight. The restaurant was still packed with Oklahoma City Thunder fans and players who had walked over from Chesapeake Energy Arena after Durant’s first game back in town as a member of the Golden State Warriors.
It had been an emotional night for all involved. But now it was time to unwind. So Durant went to his favorite postgame spot as a Thunder player, the restaurant owned by his former business partner, Hal Smith.
Depending on whose version of events you believe, someone from Durant’s camp might have even called a few weeks in advance to inquire about renting the place out after the game, but both the Warriors and Durant’s camp disputed those claims. Nothing had been set up in advance.
“We didn’t know he was coming in,” Osborn said. “I was in the back getting [Victor] Oladipo’s room ready. But I heard the bar gave [Durant] a standing ovation when he walked in.”
Durant’s Warriors teammate Klay Thompson had called to say that he’d be coming by after the game too. So had Oladipo. And so had Russell Westbrook, who was sitting in the back of the restaurant with his wife and a few friends.
Durant and Westbrook didn’t interact. Like they have throughout the initial stages of their very public breakup, they mostly avoided direct contact or conflict. That will all change this weekend, when Westbrook and Durant will team up on the Western Conference All-Star team.
But if this dinner — or the game that preceded it, a Warriors victory but a hard-fought one by both teams — is any indication, there is still hurt on both sides. And it’s not going away anytime soon.
This game had been publicized (and likely circled on both players’ calendars) for weeks, but no one on either team quite knew what to expect. Would this night be filled with hate — or hurt? Westbrook acknowledged swirling emotions — and uttered Durant’s first name for the first time in months — after the Thunder’s morning shootaround.
“It’s up to [the fans] what they want to do,” Westbrook said, without making eye contact with anyone standing around him. “Obviously, Kevin’s done a lot for Oklahoma City and our team when he was here, so it’s kind of up to them. It doesn’t really matter to me one way or another.”
The Warriors handled it like they do every other moment of high drama: with equal parts humor and camaraderie.
Right before the game, the team sat together for a final meeting and film review. The room was tense. Durant was clearly feeling the weight of the moment.
The pregame video began to roll, with scenes of Oklahoma fans reacting angrily to a betrayal. Warriors.com TV host Laurence Scott interviewed a local man who described how upset he was.
“How could he leave?”
Then came the punchline: The video featured Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams, who had previously coached with the Thunder.
“A++,” Warriors guard Steph Curry said. “It was the perfect setup. It got everybody. You thought it was a real fan Laurence interviewed outside.”
Adams, the Warriors’ professorial, curmudgeonly defensive guru, was the perfect man to spoof.
“I had a good time here years back,” Adams said with a laugh. “But I think it was meant to be a KD relaxer. We do a lot of laughing together. This [game] was like an NBA reality show.”
The Warriors had gotten a sense of how surreal this game would be as they left the team hotel and boarded buses to the arena. About 300 fans waited outside the hotel, with Warriors fans along one side of the driveway and Thunder fans with disparaging signs on the other side. A dozen police officers were in place to ensure safety.
When Durant finally emerged for the 20-foot walk from the hotel to the bus, he was met with a chorus of boos. Then, it was strangely quiet. The vitriol was loud but short-lived. Durant looked around, turned toward the group of Golden State fans who had congregated behind the rope line and signed autographs for about 60 seconds before getting on the bus.
A few minutes later, Durant walked into the arena in which he had starred for the past eight years. A fan dressed in a life-size cupcake costume walked alongside him. It was a clear reference to Westbrook’s now-infamous Instagram post after Durant announced he was leaving. A Sports Illustrated feature hinted that the cupcakes in Westbrook’s Instagram post were a reference to former Thunder player Kendrick Perkins having said that meant a player was soft.
Durant kept his headphones on and his head down as he walked. The fan in the cupcake costume galloped along to keep up with him. It was truly surreal. Cameras filmed the whole scene. Within seconds, the GIF of KD and the galloping cupcake was all over the internet.
“It’s definitely emotional,” Durant said before the game. “I played here for eight years. There’s no getting around that.”
What kind of reaction did he expect?
“You plan for the worst,” he said. “I know how it is.”
Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser stood on the court, ready to warm him up as he did before every game. He would be able to tell in a few minutes how the pressure was affecting Durant.
Durant was roundly booed as he ran onto the court, but nothing penetrated his focus; as usual, he kept his noise-canceling headphones on during warm-ups.
Frustrated fans called him a coward, a snake, a cupcake, a sellout. They held posters that they had obviously channeled plenty of hurt into.
“I thought he was really focused and confident in warm-ups,” Fraser said. “I was really worried it could go the other way. Everyone’s human. Especially with someone who is so emotionally connected to people.”
Since he has been with the Warriors, Durant has developed a habit, early in his shooting routine, of purposely shooting an air ball. It’s a way of getting it out of the way. Letting go a little.
“So he makes his first couple shots, or two out of the first three, and then he shoots an air ball,” Fraser said. “All these people started yelling, ‘He’s scared!’
“He actually literally shoots an air ball on purpose. Maybe they should know, but I don’t know if he did that when he was in OKC.”
It’s a small detail, but it felt large in that moment.
Durant had changed more than his team since the last time he had played in this building. He had changed, and the Warriors had changed with him.
During a pregame prayer, a fan yelled out, “God bless Russ!”
It pierced through the heavy, silent moment. Curry put his arm around Durant.
“I don’t think any of us could imagine what he was feeling as they were screaming at him,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “But I thought our guys really rallied around him.”
Afterward, Durant thanked his new team for standing by him on such a difficult night.
The Thunder fans gave their team a standing ovation at the end of the game. Oklahoma City might have been outmatched, but it had never backed down.
Westbrook was relentless. His team might have been trailing, but he never yielded to the reality of his team’s talent deficit.
“I’m coming! I’m coming!” Westbrook yelled at Durant with a few minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Yeah, that’ll be on T-shirts all over Oklahoma City in a few days.
As for the cupcake T-shirts, worn by hundreds of defiant Thunder fans on Saturday night, the Warriors had designs on those. A couple of staffers were dispatched to barter for a few of the collectors’ items, so they could be, um, repurposed.
Curry and Draymond Green wore them proudly to their postgame news conferences.
“I kind of want a real cupcake right now,” Curry said as he sat in front of his locker afterward.
“It’s like you’ve been hearing about cupcakes all night; it makes you kind of want to eat one.”
Durant was within earshot at his locker nearby. He snickered to himself.
“What’s your favorite kind of cupcake?” Curry asked Green and Durant. “Chocolate? Red Velvet? Damn, I really do want one now.”
It was the kind of light moment that made you forget how heavy things had been just a few hours earlier.
Durant found his mother, Wanda, in the hallway afterward. She had been in the stands all night, listening to fans call him all sorts of “vicious things.” It didn’t sit well.
“It’s just a sad day,” Wanda Durant said. “I understand that they loved him. I do understand it.
“But the name calling. The people with the cupcakes on their backs — it was hurtful.”
Durant hugged his mother. She had tears in her eyes. A Warriors security staffer held up a light that kept onlookers from taking photos.
If Durant had simply gone to the Warriors’ team dinner after the game, that would have been the end of it. Instead, he walked into Mahogany Prime Steaks after the game, just like he used to when he played in Oklahoma City.
It was just dinner. And yet, after what had happened the day before, it felt like a larger statement.
On Friday, Osborn told ESPN’s Steve Levy that he turned down a request from Durant’s representatives to rent out the entire restaurant for the Warriors after the game.
It had all the makings of a viral story: Local man stands up to the former favorite son who thought he could just march back into town after spurning the team and city over the summer. The rich team from Silicon Valley thinking it could buy the best of what this plains state had to offer, just like it had plucked its best player in free agency.
Yes, Osborn said, he appreciated what Durant did in his eight years in Oklahoma City — but this was Russell Westbrook’s team — and city — now. After Durant left, everybody had to choose sides. That’s what happens after a bad breakup.
So if Westbrook was going to carry himself with a chilly defiance in regard to Durant, everyone else had to follow suit. No way was Osborn going to insult Westbrook or the Thunder players by closing down their favorite postgame spot after the biggest game of the year.
Within a few hours of the story taking off, both Durant’s representatives and the Warriors offered sharp denials. Durant’s manager, Rich Kleiman, tweeted, “False,” in response to Levy’s first tweet. Warriors officials said they had always planned to have dinner at the restaurant in their hotel and never even called Mahogany, because they already had been turned down there last year during the playoffs.
The Warriors already had hired extra security for this emotionally charged trip. Why, they asked, would they expose themselves to more public rancor by booking a restaurant across the street from their hotel when they could just as easily eat at the fine-dining establishment inside the hotel (where they also had enjoyed a team dinner during last year’s postseason)?
So what’s to make of this whole caper?
Osborn said he doesn’t remember who the person was from Durant’s camp who called him, but “I know it was the right person. I talked to him twice that day.” Asked if it could have been someone misrepresenting their association with Durant, he said, “I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a prank call.”
In the end, Durant came without a reservation. But was his appearance at Mahogany a hope for a reconciliation or an act of defiance?
“KD is always welcome here,” Osborn said. “I just couldn’t close the whole restaurant and shut it down for our players and fans.”
The saga continues this week in New Orleans as Durant, Curry, Green, Thompson and Westbrook will be teammates for the Western Conference team, coached by Kerr.
It could be awkward or it could be nothing.
“Maybe we’ll sing a song together,” Kerr joked. “To be honest, I haven’t read much about it, so I don’t know what they’re saying to each other or at each other.
“I think if anything, this might be a great opportunity to sit down and talk. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily going to happen [in New Orleans].”
Curry hopes it does.
“I think common sense will take over to point where everybody will be able to enjoy it and everybody else’s accomplishments,” Curry said. “It’s never a place really for extracurriculars.
“Russ is an amazing player. Everybody that’s on the team, including our four guys, should appreciate the opportunity to be there. At the end of the day, everybody gets their shine.”