Flick & Role: Thunderstruck

For the remainder of the summer, each week we will take a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you know, some you don’t. We start this column with Thunderstruck, starring Taylor Gray, Jim Belushi, Brandon T. Jackson, Tristin Mays, and somebody named Kevin Durant.

The icy approach Kevin Durant employed to dismantle the Cavaliers was hypnotic. He went about his job with a quiet intensity, like Liam Neeson in Taken or my wife when she kills a bug. Michael Jordan had that same almost joyless quality in big games. To use more contemporary examples, so did Kobe and Tim Duncan. I’ll celebrate after the buzzer sounds. For now, I’m gonna dissect your team like a fetal pig in second-period biology. You won’t feel a thing. 

So watching the Finals MVP’s lone cinematic effort, 2012’s Thunderstruck, is jarring. And not because he plays for the Thunder. At the time of the film’s release, Durant was 23 years old and an overgrown kid, proudly sporting a backpack at postgame pressers. Art mirrors real life as Durant wears one in the movie at a postgame autograph session. (He’s also asked to sign a baby; moments later, his agent turns down a woman’s advances.) It made sense for the stringy hardwood genius to star in an unabashed kids’ movie, one where “pissed” is a curse word. The baby-faced Durant practically was one.

Maybe that’s why he so willingly portrays the fool here. The plot focuses on KD losing his basketball abilities to a clumsy 16-year-old superfan (Taylor Gray) in a Freaky Friday scenario involving a disastrous halftime contest, a beaned mascot, and an autographed basketball. Durant bumbles so thoroughly that Charles Barkley savages him on Inside the NBA. Durant’s mom, Wanda—yes, the real MVP—tries cheering him up by wearing a glittery cheerleading outfit. Meanwhile, the kid goes from serving as the high school basketball team’s manager to becoming its star, gobbling all the perks such status incurs. Or the ones that won’t cause mom and dad to cover junior’s eyes.

Think of the Durant you just saw in the playoffs: the one who not-so-politely told a mascot to scoot, the one who made LeBron James look gravity-bound. Nearly five years after its premiere, Thunderstruck is a sweet relic, a reminder of a gentler, goofier Durant.

That’s OK. Thunderstruck is a perfectly serviceable kids’ movie with appealing leads, a strong message about appreciating the gifts you have, and enough sly jokes for adults. Gray is a very good player, even without the Flubber effects of dunking. If I were 10 years old, Thunderstruck would be my Citizen Kane. Durant should be proud of this movie: it’s not a crime for kids to relate to their sports heroes.

Warner Bros.

Thunderstruck was the right movie for the 2012 version of Kevin Durant. For further proof, read Jackie MacMullan’s wonderful story in ESPN: The Magazine about how Durant flourished without basketball after his season-ending foot injury in 2015. In short, the young man finally got to experience life.

From the article:

“His normal routine in a big city was this: stay within the confines of his hotel, eat his meals, hunker down for a pregame nap. But in Montreal, Durant walked around uninhibited, spending two days in a hockey town window shopping and munching on Canadian pastries. ‘When I came home from that weekend, I felt so refreshed, and so different. Ever since then, my lens has widened.’

“With what he craved most—showing hoops—still forbidden, he surveyed his landscape and realized his world needed a jolt of reality. For the first time in his life, he would venture outside his basketball bubble. ‘Basketball was out,’ he says. “So I thought, Let me go out and see this world I’m in.”

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

To Durant’s credit, he has kept exploring. When he bruised his tibia this season, he learned about wines. He took in baseball, attending A’s and Giants games. He explored Oakland and San Francisco’s restaurants.

“I think it’s been liberating for him to be here,” teammate Shaun Livingston told MacMullan. “He’s living on his own terms, maybe for the first time ever.”

It’s easy to understand Durant’s late arrival to this kind of independence. Imagine your job required you to perform at the highest possible level—mentally and physically—for 48 minutes at an assigned time and place. And you were compensated millions and millions of dollars by very rich people who deem you an investment. You would do whatever you can to remain indispensable. Smart players are, at the very least, wary of the bubble. Thrift stores from coast to coast teem with the names of the ill-advised.

Durant has been a professional basketball player since 2007. He was drafted at 18 years old, an age when many of us are adults only in a legal sense. Before that, like many professional athletes, Durant probably didn’t have vast amounts of free time. He was working his way to today. With that comes immersive concentration, what writer Pat Jordan, a former minor league pitcher, calls “ocular block.” Imagine what is required to reach Durant’s greatness, where your departure deflates a city and your arrival turns a great team into a potential dynasty? You might be a little behind the curve, too.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Now that Durant is older, wiser, and closer to Los Angeles, I’d love to see what his next movie is. He (or Stephen Curry) would be ideal to lead Space Jam 2, though James reportedly has that honor. Whatever he’s in, I’m certain that Durant will be the indisputable hero. I’m certain the movie wouldn’t be released in late August’s cinematic graveyard, like Thunderstruck was. Kevin Durant isn’t just the same player he was in 2012, he’s not the same person. That’s good for a lot of people, especially him.