Our tear ducts surrendered when he looked at his mother, dressed in white and prouder than any woman on Earth, and proceeded to sob his way through a tribute. This was not another acceptance speech for another Most Valuable Player award, a ritual repeated in sports every few months with a certain homogeny. This was a celebration of a tremendous human being who happens to play basketball very well and decided he would praise everyone around him, teammates and coaches and family members, to the point we were convinced they were the MVPs and he was the milkman.
“Single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old,” Kevin Durant said to his mother, Wanda Pratt. “Everybody told us we weren’t supposed to be here. We moved from apartment to apartment by ourselves. One of the best memories I had was when we moved into our first apartment. No bed, no furniture, and we just all sat in a room and just hugged each other. We thought we’d made it.
“You made us believe, you kept us off the streets, put clothes on our backs, put food on the table. You the real MVP.”
It has been called the most genuine, heartfelt, emotional MVP address of all time. Jeff Van Gundy, the ESPN analyst, called it the greatest sports speech since Lou Gehrig. And if it reminded us amid the Donald Sterling scandal that the NBA is blessed with a wonderful role model, it also taught us how an MVP can use such a ceremony to win a playoff game. The Oklahoma City Thunder were down and depressed, remember, accompanying Durant into his finest hour in a collective bummer mood after being blown out by the Clippers in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series. By the sheer force of character, Durant served to inspire his teammates during the speech by thanking them individually, taking particular time to praise Russell Westbrook for challenging him to be better. He didn’t intend the award ceremony to be a motivating tour de force, but almost predictably, it worked out that way in a 112-101 victory, with Westbrook producing his third triple-double in his past five playoff games while Durant was one assist shy with 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine dimes.
If it felt like he was channeling his appreciation into a desperate playoff moment, his teammates felt the same way. He wasn’t going to let them lose, not after their stirring moment together the day before, not when Durant proved that an MVP can do his finest work in a suit and tie. “We wanted to come back and respond,” Durant said after the victory. “So I think that’s what fueled the team tonight. We just went out there and played extremely well and left it all out there, and came out with a good `W.’’
When Durant and Westbrook are in joyful, potent sync, all is right in the world. Sometimes Durant must cede the spotlight to his talented, bullish sidekick, and in Game 2, Westbrook scored 21 of his points without passing the ball on a possession. So be it. Durant’s selflessness allows what could be a combustible relationship to thrive. “I love him like a brother,” Westbrook said of the MVP as they sat on the podium. “We’ve been together since I’ve been here. He’s taught me so much as a player … and things off the floor.”
Said Clippers guard Chris Paul, who wasn’t allowed to roam openly for three-pointers this time after picking up two early fouls: “I think Russ played harder than all of us combined. He was all over the place.”
The power of Durant’s MVP speech, followed by another dominant performance, shook a Bible Belt town to its core. They’re afraid in dusty Oklahoma that they’ll lose Durant in free agency come the summer of 2016. He didn’t sound like a player heading anywhere but his home in the suburbs. “It’s the perfect place for me,’’ he said. “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. 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.”
And to think that a week ago, a silly headline in a local newspaper referred to Durant as “Unreliable.’’ Yeah, he really let that bother him. “This is the first year I played when I didn’t put basketball first,” he said. “I put being a man first.”
Which is why Kevin Durant holds a trophy. Next, he wants one of a different sort.