As a late February Brooklyn Nets practice wrapped up and players began to leave the floor, Kevin Durant hopped off a training table, grabbed a basketball and made his way toward a hoop.
With every shot he drained, any timidity to his steps faded and a familiar assurance took over. Eight months removed from rupturing his Achilles tendon, he wasn’t quite ready to be back — at least not yet.
Durant kept to his rehabilitation routine, oftentimes in a gray beanie, going from his scooter to walking, from walking to running, from running to jumping and from jumping to cutting with a ball in his hands. One of the greatest scorers in NBA history was building himself back up from the very basics.
“If I’d played last year, I would have probably been overwhelmed with just a quick change, switching teams and being in a different environment,” Durant told reporters last week. “But I think having a year under my belt definitely helped me coming into this camp because I know the training staff, the coaches and my teammates pretty well now.”
The only time Durant spoke to the media during the season was in the days after Kobe Bryant died. Durant’s teammate Kyrie Irving considered Bryant a close friend and a mentor. Following a film session two days after Bryant’s death, the Nets’ public relations staff asked Irving to talk to reporters, but he declined. Instead, Durant said that he would do it, allowing Irving to continue to mourn away from cameras.
Otherwise, Durant was a shadowy figure in the background of the Nets’ season, yet his presence loomed. He arrived at most games in Barclays Center less than an hour before tipoff and would walk onto the floor in a sport coat with his team. He was part observer, part coach.
Right before the starting lineups were introduced at those games, Brooklyn’s video-screen hype video concluded by cycling through each player on the roster in rapid succession, from Jarrett Allen to Joe Harris to Irving. The final image: a piercing close-up of Durant staring from the screen down onto the court. He’s been eyeing this comeback for more than 550 days.
Now he’s back. This is his team to lead with Irving, his friend and co-star. Kevin Durant is no longer the mysterious figure hanging over the Nets’ franchise.