By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY – This was no standard-issue award news conference held in a sterile gathering space inside the receiving player’s home arena in front of media, family and friends.
This was a music-blaring, carnival-like civic celebration attended by the city’s mayor and the state’s governor; a crowning of sorts in which a thousand or so members of this close-knit community felt compelled to watch the indoor proceeding outside on video screens in the parking lot of the team’s original training facility during the middle of an unusually warm Tuesday afternoon. A giant banner draped the side of the building with a photo of Durant surrounded by children and big, bold letters that read: “OKC’s MVP”.
They arrived in droves because around here, Kevin Durant, the 2013-14 Kia Most Valuable Player, is one of their own.
Best of all, Durant considers himself one of them. He delivered an impassioned acceptance speech for the ages: thoughtful, sincere, genuine. Without the use of note cards, he spoke from the heart through a mixture of smiles, sniffles and tears.
“I don’t know why I’m crying so much,” Durant said midway through his 30-minute speech.
Wearing a blue suit and black shoes with white soles and his now-trademark glasses, Durant, 25, passionately expressed why he thrusts himself into the Oklahoma City community, professed his love and appreciation for his mother and addressed each of his teammates, all of whom were seated to his left on the large stage, with detailed anecdotes of appreciation.
After he was introduced as the MVP, a video was shown on the movie screen behind the stage. It showed police officers and teachers and children and arena workers praising Durant’s decency, and even at times his basketball prowess. It showed Durant active in the community, most prominently his grief-stricken walk through the devastation left behind by last spring’s tornadoes that leveled the nearby town of Moore. Durant donated $1 million to the relief fund and made himself a genuine fixture of the relief effort.
“Well, like they said in the video, there’s so many things trying to bring us down here in Oklahoma, from natural disasters to the Oklahoma City bombing,” Durant said. “There’s just so many things trying to bring us down, and I feel as though us being here as the Thunder, we just try to shine a bright light, bring life to people. And having something like this represents what we’re about. We fall down, we fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. We may finish second, but we keep fighting until we finish first.
“That says a lot about this city: Perfect place for me. And I enjoy…”
He had to stop right there. Applause overtook the cavernous room that used to serve as the team’s practice gym when it arrived from Seattle in 2008. He continued.
“I enjoy being a part of something like this, knowing that when we come into the arena, they’re going to love you no matter what — Losing by 25 in the playoffs …”
Laughter erupted at Durant’s reference to Monday’s lopsided home loss to the Clippers in Game 1 of their second-round series.
“… Or winning a Game 7 on the home floor — they’re going to always feel the same way about us. You don’t want to take that for granted, because the grass is not always greener on the other side and you need to learn to appreciate these wonderful people here.”
Those comments, of course, will be clipped-and-saved for two summers from now when Durant’s contract is up and he becomes an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. The MVP award is sweet, but it can also be cruel. Durant and the Thunder barely escaped a burly first-round series with the Grizzlies.
If they don’t get by the Clippers, a 57-win team built on All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and an excellent cast around them, Durant’s season will be considered a bust. He will be criticized for failing to lead the team back to the Finals. He and co-star Russell Westbrook‘s relationship will again be micro-analyzed and coach Scott Brooks will be fired multiple times by the media.
But in this very moment, all we can do is judge Durant by his actions and his words, which only the most cynical can argue are not authentic or sincere.
“One of the things that I’m proud of in regards of the players, coaches and the staff that I’m fortunate enough to work with is that we mean what we say,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “These guys really do care about each other, there’s an authenticity to it. I think it’s a sign of tremendous strength and leadership on the part of Kevin to be able to share his emotions in today’s society where sometimes that is not looked at with the strength that it should be. But it doesn’t surprise me because he’s an authentic person and when you go through the ups and downs that we have as an organization, everybody wears the same scars, and I think it brings people closer together.”
By name, Durant singled out his teammates, looked at them and thanked each one for something different they do that he said makes him better. He started with the veterans, then thanked the young guys. Only one player remained.
“I know you guys think I forgot Russ,” Durant said, drawing more laughs from the crowd. “But I can speak all night about Russell. An emotional guy who will run through a wall for me, and I don’t take it for granted those days where I just want to tackle you, and tell you to snap out of it sometimes. But I know there’s days you want to do the same thing with me. I love you, man, I love you.
“A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player and I’m the first to have your back through it all. Just stay the person you are. Everybody loves you here, I love you.”
He looked back at his entire team: “I know we have a bigger goal in my mind, we have a tough game tomorrow, but this means the world to me that you guys are here celebrating with me.”
Also there to celebrate was Durant’s mother, Wanda Pratt, who was seated in front. Durant delivered the most emotional moment of his speech, one that carries so much weight as to why Durant is the humble superstar he is, why he immerses himself in the Oklahoma City community and seems to be one of the few athletes committed to staying where he is.
“And last my mom,” Durant said as he sniffled and his voice cracked. “I don’t think you know what you did. You had my brother when you were 18 years old. Three years later I came out. The odds were stacked against us, single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old. Everybody told us we weren’t supposed to be here. We moved from apartment to apartment by ourselves. One of the best memories I have is when we moved into our first apartment, no bed, no furniture and we just all sat in the living room and just hugged each other because we thought we made it.
“When something good happens to you, I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to look back to what brought me here,” Durant continued, speaking directly to his mom. “And you wake me up in the middle night in the summer time, making me run up the hill, making me do push-ups, screaming at me from the sidelines at my games at 8 or 9 years old. We weren’t supposed to be here. You made us believe, you kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry, you sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.”