Last Fan Standing

They burned his jerseys and called him a traitor. But as Kevin Durant returns to Oklahoma City, he's still got a friend in an 11-year-old superfan named Charlie

By Howard Beck

Photography by Jonathan Burkhart

February 9, 2017

They say Kevin Durant has departed, that he's gone for good.

But here he is, smiling atop a bedroom bookcase. And over there, nearly life-size, forever elevating on a Gatorade poster. His signature shoes are on the floor. His Oklahoma City Thunder jerseys, four in all, are hanging in the family room.

Nothing has been burned, defaced or otherwise defiled—unless you count the dirt stains on the white, sleeved jersey with the bright blue "35" on the back.

Somewhere, in another house, in another neighborhood, they are cursing Durant's name, scrawling insults on poster board and priming their vocal cords for the loudest, most malicious taunts they can muster.

Not here, though. Not in Charlie Rico's bedroom.

Everything here is, more or less, as it was on July 4, when Durant announced he was leaving the Thunder—the franchise he anchored for eight seasons, spearheading an NBA Finals run and four trips to the Western Conference Finals—to join the Golden State Warriors, the team that crushed Oklahoma City's title dreams last spring.

Here, there is no bitterness. Just a wistful 11-year-old superfan with floppy light brown hair who wishes his basketball hero were still here, greeting him with a "What's up, Charlie?" before home games, electrifying Chesapeake Energy Arena with those quick-hit threes, stretching out that lanky frame and soaring toward the rafters.

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Here, Durant is not a villain, or a traitor, or a coward. Just a guy who chose a new path.

"Look, I am bummed," Charlie says, sitting in the midst of his personal Durant shrine. "But I'm like, 'Well, this will be a new experience.'"

Durant, the Warrior, will be back here Saturday, for the first time since his stunning departure. For Thunder fans, a group that has existed for less than a decade, it will be a strange and unsettling evening.

Everything the Thunder have evoked since their arrival—all the thrills and triumphs and heartbreak—has been because of Durant, the slinky 6'11" giant with the skills of a guard. Russell Westbrook gave the Thunder their edge, but Durant made them elite.

With Durant, the Thunder were a swaggering powerhouse in the brutally competitive Western Conference. Without him, they are a second-tier playoff team, and likely years away from title contention—no matter how many triple-doubles Westbrook puts up.

So the anguish was palpable in July when Durant declared his intentions to leave in a five-paragraph post on The Players' Tribune.

Within hours, there were multiple videos of fans burning Durant jerseys, fans firing rifles at Durant jerseys and fans generally melting down over his decision.

Then came the backlash to the backlash—a collective scolding by various media voices, who lectured Durant's critics about the virtues of personal choice, professional freedom and the finer points of free agency.

It's true, of course. Durant, who devoted nine years to the franchise (including one in Seattle), owed nothing to the Thunder—not to the players, or the coach, or the front office or ownership. He earned the right to choose his own path, wherever it took him.

Intellectually, there's no dispute.

But it's fair to ask, too: What about those ranting, jilted, brokenhearted fans? What about the family who spent thousands of dollars a year on tickets, cheering through good times and bad?

What about the fans who flooded Durant with get-well letters during his season-long recovery from foot surgeries? Who camped out at the airport at 2 a.m. to welcome the team home from playoff games?

What about the kid who bought all of Durant’s jerseys and his signature shoes, who put his posters on the wall and his oversized head cutout on the bookcase? Whose greatest thrill in life was just meeting Durant, getting an autograph and snapping a photo?

What about Charlie Rico?

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The news arrived mid-morning in Oklahoma City, where Charlie and his family were enjoying an Independence Day parade.

"I was like, 'Dang it!'" Charlie recalls, his voice turning to a whisper. "And just like—not cussing or anything—just like, 'Oh my gossssh.'"

No tears, Charlie says. Just "pouty" for a while.

Reactions around the neighborhood were much more harsh.

"He turned from hero to villain in about 30 seconds after The Players' Tribune report came out," says Charlie's father, Jonathan. "I was surprised that people were so negative and how quick they flipped around on him."

The moment stung, but the Ricos, season-ticket holders for four years, chose their own path, too. They chose to stay true to Durant, even if he chose to go to the Bay Area.

They snapped up two more Durant jerseys, taking advantage of the half-off sales. Charlie kept proudly wearing his navy blue "KD" Nike high-tops, no matter how many Thunder fans chided him for it. When the Warriors are on national TV (and playing any team but the Thunder), the Ricos unabashedly root for Durant.

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And when the family moved into its new house in this northern suburb in November, Charlie reconstructed his Durant tribute—right down to the Lego basketball court with the Lego Kevin Durant and the Lego locker stall (MVP trophy included).

And there, on the bulletin board, a photo: Charlie and KD, arms around shoulders, looking into the camera, each with circled fingers over one eye—their "three-noculars," Charlie explains.

The shrine is intact.

"First of all, he's a heckuva player," Charlie says. "And second of all, I just like him on and off the court. His attitude's good."

And this: "He's just somebody that can do what he wants."

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Charlie Rico knows exactly what to expect Saturday night when Durant takes the court in Warriors blue and gold: big, bold, full-throated boos.

"Big time," he says. "And I'm just going to be like, Whatever!"

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The hatred and calls of "traitor"? Charlie calls them "ignorant." He wishes his fellow fans would appreciate the eight years Durant gave to the city, the thrills he provided, the lives he touched.

"He helped the community," Charlie says, adding, "he still does"—alluding to Durant's $57,000 donation in December to an Oklahoma City school for homeless children.

If this seems a remarkably mature and resilient stance for a fifth-grader, perhaps it's because Charlie has endured much worse. He was born with epilepsy, spending the first three years of his life in and out of the hospital. He still has the occasional seizure, freezing in place, his expression blank.

"It is what it is," he says. "I don't let that stop my dreams."

He plays in multiple basketball leagues and will eagerly regale you with his repertoire of moves. A Kyrie Irving crossover. A Kemba Walker through-the-legs step-back. A KD clutch three from the wing. A Steph Curry-Russell Westbrook mashup.

Charlie dreams of growing to 6'11"—Durant’s height—becoming a top draft pick and the first person in recent history with epilepsy to play in the NBA. He wants to start a basketball camp for kids diagnosed with the disorder. Then, maybe a career in sports broadcasting.

For now, Charlie just wants a few more autographs. It's 90 minutes before tipoff on a recent game night, and he is perched in his usual pregame spot—a corner of the arena where the Thunder players and coaches come and go during warm-ups. Nearly all of them recognize him.

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Cameron Payne stops to sign an autograph. Joffrey Lauvergne pauses to take a picture. Assistant coach Maurice Cheeks comes over to chat. So does longtime assistant Mark Bryant.

This is where Charlie, as a second-grader, first met Durant. And where Durant would, routinely, come say hello, check in, ask Charlie how he played in his latest game.

"He always was very kind," Jonathan Rico says. "Always came over and took the extra 30 seconds, a minute or whatever."

When the game starts, Charlie and Jonathan will be in their usual seats in Section 322, the top deck, known as Loud City. And that's where they will be Saturday night, when Durant makes his long-awaited return.

It will be awkward, bittersweet. But Charlie still believes in Durant and believes that, perhaps, the final chapter here has not been written.

"I sort of think he'll do a LeBron, like leave and come back," he says.

Charlie plans to wear his KD high-tops, one of his Durant jerseys and his standard orange OKC cap. Eighteen thousand people will surely boo when Durant is introduced. Charlie says he will clap and yell, "Come on, Kev!" just as he always has. Then he'll root for the Thunder.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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