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Whitlock: Basketball star Kevin Durant is this Olympics’ Charles Barkley

Op-ed
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The hunt for Kevin Durant's basketball legacy and identity is over. We know exactly who Durant is and what he means to the game. The Tokyo Olympic Games clearly defined Durant.

In an era of fraudulently packaged, corporate-handcuffed professional athletes, Kevin Durant is the realest one playing. He's skinny Charles Barkley with championship rings.

When he was on the court, you couldn't take your eyes off Barkley. Built like a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, Barkley exploded up and down the court like a triple jumper. Off the court, you couldn't avoid Barkley either. His mouth and deeds courted controversy.

The same is true of Durant. His rail-thin, 7-foot body belies his playing style. And his authenticity and transparency keep him in the news cycle.

Thirty years ago, the force of Barkley's personality and playing style overshadowed Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird at the Barcelona Olympics. Barkley was the leading scorer on the Dream Team and the biggest attraction.

In perhaps the weirdest and most disappointing Olympics in history, Kevin Durant was the lone star and biggest attraction. He came across as the only star athlete who actually wanted to be in Japan. Gymnast Simone Biles, the face of the Games, sure didn't want to be in Tokyo. Naomi Osaka? U.S. track and field sprinters?

Leading this Olympic basketball team to the gold medal was important to Durant. He accomplished his goal Friday night, scoring 29 points in an 87-82 victory over France. It's Durant's third Olympic gold medal. He draped himself in the American flag and celebrated like representing his country meant something to him and his teammates.

Durant is a "real one," which is urban slang for someone who values their authenticity. That's the connection between Barkley and Durant.

Kevin Durant wears his flaws. He feuded with Draymond Green when they were teammates at Golden State. Durant traded Twitter barbs with his former OKC teammate Kendrick Perkins. Durant once had to apologize for explaining his authentic reaction to visiting India and being shocked by the country's primitiveness. Everyone remembers Durant getting busted with a burner social media account. Durant's nasty Instagram exchange with actor Michael Rapaport featured some very regrettable language.

Durant, like him or not, tells people exactly how he feels. He engages with people he probably shouldn't. Durant is real.

Let me tell you the realest thing about Durant — his hair. We've seen LeBron James drop a fortune trying to fix the bald spot at the top of his dome. Durant's bald patch is worse. He doesn't care. He owns his George Jefferson. It reminds me of the way Barkley owned his weight problem.

Kevin Durant is relatable.

When he entered the NBA 13 years ago, he had loftier goals than being the most relatable superstar of his era. He wanted to define his era. He had a chance to unseat LeBron James as the heir to the throne vacated by Michael Jordan a decade earlier.

When the Seattle Supersonics selected Durant with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft, James had yet to win an NBA title or MVP trophy. Despite a four-year head start, he was still within Durant's reach.

Five years later, Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden — playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder — met LeBron's Miami dream team in the NBA Finals. Had the Thunder won, it would've ruined LeBron's legacy and catapulted Durant to the top of the NBA food chart. It would've been the second consecutive year that James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh failed on basketball's biggest stage.

The Heat won the series 4-1. Durant and OKC never made it back to the NBA Finals. Westbrook refused to defer to Durant, who was clearly the more talented and transcendent player. Frustrated and desperate to make ground on James, Durant bolted Oklahoma City for a Western Conference rival and championship-proven Golden State. His goal of defining his era ended when he left Oklahoma.

By the time he won his first title with the Warriors in 2017, James held three championship rings — two with Miami and one with Cleveland.

Kevin Durant will never be regarded as the best player of his generation. That title belongs to LeBron James. Durant likely won't be regarded as the best shooter of his generation. His former Golden State teammate Steph Curry owns that distinction.

Durant will be Charles Barkley with championship rings. Barkley seems much happier than Michael Jordan.

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