Let me preface this piece by saying that I hate running ads as editorial copy. Nike created this commercial to go viral. If we run it for free, why would they or anybody else ever pay for advertising? And then how do we make money? That being said, it raises an interesting discussion that falls within the confines of my beat, so I’ll grudgingly talk about it.
It’s no coincidence that, from an intonation perspective, the debaters in the commercial sound an awful lot like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. In 2012, Durant saw a segment of First Take that he didn’t like and accused Bayless on Twitter of “brainwashing” the masses: “they think since you on espn you know what u talkin bout.” In 2013, Skip said he’d “overestimated” Kevin Durant, who was “not a superstar,” and that Russell Westbrook was the “new sheriff in OKC.” In 2015, Durant subtweeted Bayless on Instagram.
Stephen A. Smith has had very public skirmishes with Durant. In 2015, SAS reported that going to Los Angeles was Durant’s “primary objective.” Durant vehemently denied this. Stephen A. retorted with a threat: “You don’t want to make an enemy out of me.” When Durant joined the Warriors last summer, Stephen A. said it was “the epitome of jumping on the bandwagon.”
It’s clear that Skip and Stephen A. have been getting under Durant’s skin for some time, and that this Nike ad — which, since it ran last night, must have been recorded before Durant consummated his goal — reflected his belief that his championship was the final word in the debate.
But there are battles and there are wars. Debate, about Kevin Durant or otherwise, isn’t going anywhere. Since Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn launched in 2001 and 2002, more and more tonnage of debate has popped up on sports television.
In recent years, the iterations of the genre presided over by Jamie Horowitz — who launched First Take, and now runs FS1 — have time and again gotten a rise out of prominent athletes and coaches, who find themselves unable or unwilling to ignore real and/or perceived slights. Even at the pinnacle of success, the pundits occupy real estate in their brains. Dabo Swinney called out Colin Cowherd after winning a national championship. Could Dabo have possibly done Colin a bigger favor? We see Kevin Durant hug his mom, and then a Nike commercial pops up about purportedly winning the debate.
Perhaps that’s true for now. Up-and-coming FS1 personality Nick Wrong once said that Durant made the Warriors a worse team. He made repeatedly incorrect predictions about this season in which he had nevertheless conveyed an air of confidence like he was a trader in Billions who was “not uncertain”. Then he vaulted Durant up the ranks on his imaginary best NBA forwards of all-time list. CAN HE CLIMB EVEN FURTHER?
But if Durant thinks that winning this title means that Stephen A. Smith will stop implying that it was a soft decision for Durant to join the Warriors, he’s in for a rude awakening. Just because it’s apparent to most that Durant made a wise choice, doesn’t mean that there will be any halting of the debate industrial complex.
When ESPN moved First Take over from ESPN2, after years of defending the sanctity of SportsCenter against its critics who said that straight news and highlights shows were becoming outdated, it was a clear sign of giving the people what they want. Cable news has copied this format, to great viewership success.
It’s, no pun intended, debatable as to whether we are headed towards an inflection point, but surely Kevin Durant cannot believe that the debate has been settled for good.
Disclosure: The Big Lead’s editor-in-chief Jason McIntyre is an on-air personality on FS1’s Speak for Yourself.