Editor’s note: Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, the 2017 NBA Finals MVP, spent part of his offseason making his first visit to India, where he donated two basketball courts, hosted a clinic with local prospects and visited the Taj Mahal. Here is how his trip unfolded:
Durant visits Taj Mahal
AGRA, India — On the last day of his India tour, Kevin Durant is indulging in a personal wish — against the advice of friends and associates who have warned him of the three-hour journey each way, of the high levels of heat and humidity and of the weekend crowds that might prove more difficult to manage than the tightly controlled spaces he has been in over the past couple of days.
This is, after all, one of the wonders of the world and without a doubt the one symbol of India that’s instantly recognizable the world over. Privacy is at a premium, even with personal security guards.
It helps, though, that basketball and the NBA aren’t that familiar in India. As he walks through the ticket barriers, he’s just another face in the crowd, although one literally head and shoulders above the pack. “Yeh lambu kaun hain, yaar? Koi Hollywood star to nahi?” (Who’s the tall fellow, not a Hollywood star, is he?”)
He’s with a smaller team around him, no more than a dozen people, but the presence of the two guards in their regulation gray safari suits marks him out as a VIP and soon he’s outed. “Kevin Durant! Dude, that’s sick, bro!”, exclaimed Kevin McAllister of San Diego — not a very keen NBA fan, so he can only identify the star after the group has passed by.
As he walks past the Darvaza I Rauza (Great Gate) that serves as the main entrance to the tomb, he’s recognized by another group of American tourists. “Hey KD! KD!” they yell at him even, and he waves back at them. They keep their distance, but one Japanese lady is more intrepid: She breaks through the ring, walks up to him, exchanges a couple of words and walks away.
And this is what they all come for. The Taj. Whatever you’ve read and heard about it, the reality is even more beautiful. This visit was KD’s personal wish, which he insisted on even if it meant a three-hour journey each way. A good note on which to end his India trip.
As they move through the midday crowd, the buzz grows among the Indians; word spreads that this is someone important. There’s still little recall but they’ve finally identified his profession. “Kaun hai who (who is he)?” asks someone. “Arre basketball khelta hai (he’s a basketball player),” comes the reply.
The visit is meant to be a private one, but halfway to the Taj, at a spot where visitors use the illusion of perspective to pretend they are holding aloft the Taj by the finial atop its central dome, Durant is the focus of cameras.
A must do for a tourist at the Taj Mahal is to take a picture of Kevin Durant taking a picture of himself “holding up” the Taj Mahal.
Security personnel try to prevent curious bystanders from taking pictures. Some go to the extent of confiscating phone cameras, but it is to no avail. “Taj udhar hai. Yahan kaunsi photo khinch rahe ho? (The Taj is that way, why are you taking pictures of here?)” one bodyguard chides the crowd.
An hour later, they are done. It hasn’t been easy walking in the open, in the muggy monsoon heat, but this is actually a relatively pleasant day; there are clouds overhead, a light breeze and the Yamuna river that flows alongside the Taj is full. The perfect way for Durant to end his India trip; maybe a memory that will prompt him to return.
A visit to India isn’t complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal. KD gets his first look at one of the seven wonders of the world.
Durant takes to the court
NEW DELHI — Kevin Durant‘s first engagement on Friday was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at New Delhi’s Ramjas Public School. The school had big plans to welcome its most high-profile guest, including a blue carpet — still in plastic wrap to protect it from dusty shoe prints — rolled out. The carpet, with kids lined up on either side, led to the two basketball courts that Durant’s foundation had relaid this summer. There were another 100 kids on the newly painted gray and blue court — two of them with prepared speeches. The school’s basketball team was there, awaiting a few tips from the 6-9 superstar. Some less lucky students peered out of their classroom windows.
Students at New Delhi’s Ramjas Public School have been waiting for Kevin Durant to visit since January when they first learned he was coming. “It’s unbelievable. I can’t even imagine someone as big as him is coming to see us,” says grade 10 student Tushar (standing in front)
But, as the clock steadily ticked by, Durant was nowhere to be seen. He arrived around noon, already late for his next assignment, but the enthusiasm among the kids, in the form of “KD” chants, was unabated. His planned hourlong stay was cut to 20 minutes; there wasn’t time to sign autographs, give tips to the team or stick around for the speeches. But he did shoot a few baskets from the free throw line and posed for pictures with the teams. It was a bit less than the kids expected, but it didn’t seem to matter to them.
“Wow! I can’t believe he actually came to our school,” marveled the 11th-grade Mihir Rastogi, even as Durant departed for the next stop.
Kevin Durant was .875 from the free throw line for the Warriors this season. At New Delhi’s Ramjas Public School, on a court he has donated, KD sinks 2 of 6.
The next stop is the NBA Academy in Greater Noida. Lesser mortals like us covered that distance in close to two hours; KD’s convoy did it in less than an hour. He’s back on schedule, but the schedule itself is about to go for a toss, as we find out. The kids get time with him. First up is an interaction with some of the brightest Academy prospects in the training hall; there’s some shooting, some dribbling, some words of wisdom. Then he moves on to the next item on the agenda.
KD and the kids shooting hoops and hanging out. More or less. At the NBA academy in Greater Noida.
Durant speaks! Not too much, and very softly, but what he says — especially when he’s speaking about the game — isn’t the same puff and spin of some of his star athlete peers. Although he spoke for less than 20 minutes, it was worth it.
He opened up when asked about the role of parenting in making sports champions. The famous son of a now-famous mother, his face lit up as he spoke about the game.
“Basketball is such an energetic, bright sport that it will draw a lot of kids,” he said.
There was humor, too. When asked how finally winning an NBA title had changed his perspective:
“It just makes me more paranoid,” he said. “You don’t want nobody to take this spot. But that’s a good crazy to keep me on edge.”
Finally, the part with a cast of (literally) thousands: an attempt to break the record for the world’s largest basketball lesson (multiple venues) ever held. It involved 831 kids at the NBA Academy and about 2,600 others via live link from Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata, doing basic side steps (punctuated by chants of “KD” and “MVP”). Leading them is the energetic Carlos Barroca, a senior official with NBA India, with Durant by his side fighting off what seems to be jet lag. It goes on for a bit, and by the end, the kids are clearly in need of some lift. It comes in the way of a few words of encouragement from the hero; then, with a wave, KD jumps off the dais and he’s gone
The record-breaking practice session. 831 kids at the NBA academy and 3459 overall – from Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru – join Kevin Durant in mobility drills. The previous Guinness record was around 600 children so safe to say it’s been broken by a distance.
Saturday will bring a visit to the Taj Mahal, something we’ve been told Durant’s really looking forward to. It calls for a special kind of curiosity to want to drive three hours (minimum) each way for a 30-minute visit to the world’s greatest tomb; then again, with his record of covering distances, maybe he knows something we don’t.
KD greeted by local celebrities
NEW DELHI — The buildup is excruciating. “We can’t tell you where he’s staying,” say his PR people. But we have our ways and means of figuring out where Kevin Durant will be checking in here Thursday afternoon. He’s due to land at 12:45 p.m. local time, and given his VIP status, it shouldn’t take him more than an hour to negotiate immigration, fans and Delhi’s midmorning traffic to reach his hotel.
Normally, VIP entries at Indian five-star hotels are marked by high ceremony. But this is almost imperceptible — a whoosh, if you will, of KD 10 stealth and speed (for the uninitiated, the KD 10 is Durant’s signature Nike sneaker). The only way you know the big man is in the house is because he stands, literally, head and shoulders above everyone else. Otherwise, in his T-shirt, red shorts and Vans sneakers, he could be any other college kid walking in. Except, of course, he’s immense, so large that his backpack hangs around his shoulder blades.
Kevin Durant’s in the house! He moved as quickly across the hotel lobby as he does on court, ducking to avoid the low-hanging lights. Just a glimpse of that tattooed left leg but there’s two days to go.
There’s a brief welcoming ceremony (he barely breaks stride), and before I can identify the tattoos on his left leg, he’s whisked off to the elevators and up to the posh floor.
I’d waited 90 minutes; this took all of 90 seconds. Never mind, there’s the red carpet at the Bollywood party in a few hours. That’ll make up for it.
Several hours later, a colleague and I find ourselves at the ITC Maurya hotel. The schedule that was circulated said the party would be at “approximately 6:45 p.m.” That seems optimistic; at the appointed time, the only thing that’s ready is a life-size basketball rim and net on a pole that’s 6 feet, 9 inches high. And it’s made entirely of chocolate. (We took the hotel’s word for it; we weren’t allowed a sampling.)
Quite appropriately for KD, a welcome basketball post made of chocolate standing six foot nine inches (or is it closer to seven feet)
But that’s inside. The red carpet is outside, in the muggy heat of monsoon Delhi. We take our spots in the media scrum and stand and wait. We know what to expect. This is Delhi, where being on time is infra dig. These are Bollywood celebrities, who follow the same code, and there’s a jet-lagged superstar in the mix, too. There’s no way this is happening anywhere close to on time.
So we pass the time trying to identify the B-listers who, poor souls, are reasonably punctual; Vijay Amritraj — tennis player, actor and commentator — comes along dapper as usual in his jacket and offers his thoughts in his trademark clipped tones.
The NBA has fans in Bollywood too. KD walks the red carpet with actor Abhishek Bachchan, (admitedly a Lakers fan) ahead of a party thrown for him on Thursday evening in New Delhi.
That takes the edge off things, but as the wait goes on the assembled TV cameramen, never known to mince words, make their feelings known. Someone organizes tea — there’s always tea in an Indian waiting situation, but not the delicate British cuppa; our tea comes in a large polythene bag and is poured into paper cups. The mood improves again.
And then someone spots Abhishek Bachchan, a Bollywood actor who is more famous as the son of Amitabh Bachchan, aka the Big B, the most famous Indian actor alive. Junior B has beefed up his CV by investing in sporting franchises, and he has stakes in a football (soccer) team and in the Indian sport of kabaddi. Could basketball — he’s a Lakers fan — be in the cards?
That’s for another day. Today, he’s the host, and his emergence into the humid evening can only mean KD is on the way. Sure enough, the SUVs glide in and nearly 7 feet of Kevin Durant (the 6-foot-9 superstar is wearing shoes) unfurls.
Virender Sehwag, arguably the most entertaining Indian cricketer of his time, arrives to pay homage to another maverick. Happily, Kevin Durant isn’t standing next to him in this picture.
Junior B and KD embrace and mug it for the cameras. The plan is for KD to say something, anything, but he’s not to be second-guessed and moves away. Junior B plays the good host and speaks. It’s 9 p.m. and it’s been a long day. Tomorrow will be longer, but there’s the promise of a possible Guinness World Records entry for the most youth attenders at a basketball clinic. And the chance to hear KD speak. Hope springs eternal.