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For the love of the game: Inside Kevin Durant’s commitment to Team USA

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2021 USA Basketball Training Camp: All-Access Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

When you’re a hooper, nothing gets in the way of the next basketball opportunity. For Kevin Durant, there are never too many opportunities to play for that love of the game.

With two NBA championships, four scoring titles, an NBA MVP, and three international gold medals — two Olympic and one World Cup, Durant didn’t need to play for Team USA in the Tokyo Games to prove something. Not after a rigorous 18 month recovery from a usually damning injury, a condensed regular season, bouts with injury and illness as well as a lot of minutes in a glorious, if shortened, postseason.

“I had no doubt in my mind that he was playing here. I’m sure everyone tried to talk him out of it coming off an Achilles injury, all the minutes he just played in the playoffs, had some injuries throughout the year. What I knew, in knowing Kevin is that you’re going to have to talk him out of playing as opposed to talking him into playing,” Draymond Green said after Team USA’s camp Thursday.

“He just loves hooping. That what he lives for. He just wants to play basketball. You give him an opportunity to play basketball on this stage, he’s never turning it down because he just loves playing,” Green added.

Indeed, he does and the Tokyo Games will give KD a chance to join Carmelo Anthony as the most decorated Olympic player in men’s basketball’s 85-year history. But to him, it’s just hooping ... and he believes there will be benefits for his NBA team.

“I committed to USA Basketball when I was coming out of college and every chance that I can get that I’m healthy and my mind is in the right place to play basketball. I’m going to go out there and play,” said Durant during Team USA’s fourth camp practice in Vegas on Friday.

“[I] finished the year off healthy, the regular season and the playoffs, so I felt it’d be cool to get a kickstart on next season by getting in shape a little earlier in the summer with Team USA. [I’m] fortunate to be around the best players in the world and around the best athletes as well, so I just wanted to take in the experience.”

USAB Team Jerseys Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

This Olympic run — his third — is much more than taking in a moment. It’s a chase to cement his claim as one of the best to wear the USA across his chest. KD is chasing his third Olympic gold medal — tying him for Carmelo Anthony for most all-time for a men’s basketball player and one more than LeBron James Diving deeper, Durant is on track to pass Anthony’s all-time Team USA Olympic scoring record, trailing Melo by only 25 points. That shouldn’t take long.

Although Durant is chasing monumental history, that’s not what it will be about come July 25 in Tokyo, Japan. Durant stated his passion for playing with and against the world’s best hoopers as the catalyst to the offseason sacrifice, but don’t overthink it, according to Gregg Popovich, who said he would have “begged, cried, done anything’ to get Durant on Team USA. Of course, he didn’t have to.

“As far as those specific goals or rewards or beating someone, I really have no idea what’s in his head. But, I am totally convinced the reason he’s doing this is because he loves to play. He loves the competition. He loves the camaraderie with the guys. He wants to win. And when he’s playing basketball, he’s happy. That’s the bottom line common denominator why he’s here,” Popovich said Friday.

“I might add that it’s amazing, and fortunate for us that he does feel that way because he’s a heck of a player. To make that sacrifice again, what he’s done in the past, I think is pretty laughable. And he deserves a lot of credit for that,” Pop added.

Although it may be “laughable” to see Durant fueled to gun for his third Olympic gold medal after his record of NBA accolades and achievements, his teammates see playing with him as a privilege.

“His leadership is terrific. He’s 39-0 in USA basketball and that’s crazy,” Bradley Beal said Wednesday during the second day of Team USA camp. “We definitely want to keep that going. It speaks volumes for him to be 10+ years in the league and still wanting to come back and be a part of this prestigious fraternity. We definitely look up to him to push us and lead us, but at the same time, he’s very unselfish. He’s very encouraging. He wants everyone to do well.”

2021 USAB Mens Practice Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Training camp out in UNLV in Vegas included a special guest brought in by Popovich — Doug Collins; a former Team USA player who played in the 1972 Munich Olympics and the controversial loss to the Soviet Union. Team USA boycotted the medal ceremony and Collins never picked up his silver medal.

Collins came in to speak to the players to stress the importance of valuing their overseas opponents. Other than passing along valued words of wisdom to the players, Collins took notice of Durant, and the sacrifice he’s taking inspired by that love for basketball.

“He was especially effusive about Kevin Durant because even though I’ve already said about his love of the game and the sacrifice he’s making, he’s also been injured quite a bit in the last couple of years,” Popovich said Friday. “He’s gone through a tough time, and he’s still here. And Doug [Collins] really made sure that that was appreciated by everyone in the basketball world,”

This Olympic run motivates Durant differently, he told reporters Friday. It’s the memory and legacy of Kobe Bryant that adds a special fuel to the fire.

“It’s going to be important for a multitude of reasons, and that’s definitely one of those. We got so many ‘Kobe disciples’ in here who learned from him for so long, had relationships with him,” Durant said. “You want to go out there and want to win the gold just like he did. So, looking forward to it.

Olympics Day 12 - Basketball Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“Guys that had close relationships will understand how he’s approach every single day, especially with Team USA. He really took pride in being a part of this group, and a part of his team. We all feed off that type of energy, and Kobe always brought that,” Durant added. “So he’s always big to every one of us here. We miss him. We miss him dearly because he would be here supporting us.”

Fans will get to see Durant and the others play for the first time at 8 p.m. ET Saturday night vs. the Nigerian national team. The game, which begins a five-game exhibition schedule, will be televised by NBC Sports.