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Last word on the NBA Finals

LeBron’s reign as King may be nearing an end, and Kevin Durant has ascended

Minutes, hours, days — and GAMES — before ending the NBA finals by hugging his supposed nemesis affectionately and whispering sweet nothings into his ear, Kevin Durant had already made his very necessary and profound statement to LeBron James. Courtesy of one crossover dribble after another, one sweet stroke after another, one 3-pointer after another, the Warriors had become champions again. Durant became a champion for the first time, legitimately challenging James for the crown as Best Player in the World.

Finally!

While pronouncements of the end of the King James era may be exaggerated, the fact is, it’s at least on a respirator right now. Clinging to life. In need of constant supervision. Mere heartbeats away from last rites.

It may have taken 10 years, 10 seasons and the most suspect move ever made by a superstar in any sport for Durant to ascend to this point, but it doesn’t matter now.

Durant is a champion. He’s an NBA Finals MVP. And after averaging 35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists, at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, guard-like skills and sniper-like abilities, he’s officially cemented his status as one of the greatest the game has ever seen.

Yet, truly catching up to LeBron is an entirely different matter.

Three titles by LeBron to Durant’s one (and eight Finals appearances to Durant’s two) may be significant in the eyes of many, but that isn’t the only issue for those truly wishing to mention Durant in the same breath as James.

James, fresh off averaging a triple-double in the NBA Finals, is still around. He’s virtually declared that he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But even if he were inclined to do so, he’s all but stated publicly that Durant is the one individual to whom he doesn’t mind relinquishing the mantle.

Consider that this is the same James who wore a hoodie with his Miami Heat teammates to bring attention to the Trayvon Martin killing; who pushed to promote Obamacare during Barack Obama’s administration; who campaigned on behalf of Hillary Clinton; who’s spoken out about violence in the black community; who’s an accomplished businessman who never left his boys behind; and who’s shown no interest in fading into the twilight anytime soon.

His support for Durant is no small gesture.

It’s also no coincidence.

From James dismissing the notion of a rivalry with the Warriors to moments during Steph Curry’s two-year reign as MVP when it was James who candidly drew the distinction between the league MVP (Curry) and who he believed to be the league’s “best player” (himself), it was always clear that King James didn’t want to relinquish his crown to Curry.

That’s because the crown he sought was never just about basketball.

As one Hall of Famer specifically stated during the NBA Finals: “LeBron and other players in this league will never accept Curry as the best player. Never! Not only because they don’t consider him a physical freak, or even someone who’s better than them. But their refusal is also because they don’t view him as someone who had to endure the trials and tribulations they’ve endured.

“The public scrutiny. The negativity. Barely any of that. They view Curry as someone folks wanted us all to accept, not as someone like them you were forced to accept because of his greatness. They don’t dislike Curry at all. It’s not his fault. But they do look at him and society … and some say: He’s one of THEM. They would never say that about Durant.”

Translation: Nobody’s writing racial epithets on Curry’s front gate. Nor will anybody be talking behind his back about his family, his “posse,” his representation, his family background, pressuring him to conform to a definition of acceptability — or perform at such a surreal level that it simply doesn’t matter.

While aware of Curry’s conscientious statement (Yes! He has spoken out against President Donald Trump and has intimated he doesn’t intend to go to the White House), and although no one blames him personally for anything, it doesn’t matter.

It’s a real emotion. A real dilemma.

Enter Durant. The D.C. product. The man who “disrespected” Russell Westbrook. Who stifled the competitive fluidity of the basketball world by blowing a 3-1 lead to the Golden State Warriors last season, only to join them one month later and win the title this year.

Through the first three games of the NBA Finals, while Curry was averaging 28.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9 assists on 48% shooting from the 3-point zone, it wasn’t an accident that all the talk was about Durant. It wasn’t just because Durant had better numbers … but also because LeBron kept reminding us that Durant was THE difference, the only reason the Warriors were destined for another title. Not Curry.

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dribbles the ball up court while guarded by Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors in Game Five of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 12, 2017 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

James could stomach losing to Durant, as difficult as that is to imagine. As folks who were inside the Cavs’ locker room after the loss testified.

“We’re OK. We’ll survive,” one Cav told me. “We know they stacked the deck. They had to get the second-best player in the world to beat us this time.”

James and Durant trained together in the past. They were friends then; they are friends now. From the parenting they received through the years, to the brotherhood and more, to the multimillion-dollar Nike deals and both’s association with that brand, their differences don’t exactly outweigh their similarities. And LeBron, four years older than K.D., knows his time will run out eventually.

So when that day arrives — if it hasn’t already — King James wants to know he’s passed the baton to someone worthy. Not just someone who’s a physical freak of nature like himself, capable of dropping 40-plus points anytime he damn-well pleases, but also someone who aspires to the kind of greatness that not only carries himself to transcendent heights but also takes our society with him.

Someone who forces you to see his greatness while also seeing the greatness in athletes beyond their athleticism. Someone who’s unafraid to speak up, speak out, speak with conviction, with the character to garner support along the way.

LeBron has done that throughout the latter part of his career. So much so that even the great Jim Brown has paid homage. Essentially, treating him like a King: an iconic, conscientious figure who could’ve hung with his clique in the turbulent 1960s.

For someone else to claim that crown, he’ll need to be more than just a player. It’ll require him to be a champion not just on the court … but off it.

After all, the court is just one place LeBron has set a standard. One of many.

If Durant truly wants to be the King, he’ll need to do more than just win a couple of more rings.

Stephen A. Smith is a featured commentator on ESPN’s First Take and a regular NBA analyst for the network. He also hosts the daily Stephen A. Smith Show broadcast on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio channel and aired on ESPN stations in New York and Los Angeles. He is a former columnist and NBA beat writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.