By the time he was a teenager, Kevin Durant was already sought-after by basketball programs. The summer before he began his senior year of high school at Montrose Christian School, he grew five inches reaching the towering height (for a seventeen year old) of six feet, seven inches. That year he would be the most recruited high school basketball player, eventually committing to the University of Texas where he played one season before being drafted by the Seattle Supersonics second overall.
His life’s dedication to hard work and improvement coupled with his natural gifts were evident from his NBA debut where he scored 18 points, collected 5 rebounds and had 3 steals. That year he was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year while being only the third teenager to average at least 20 points per game for the season.
Fast forward six seasons. The Supersonics have moved to Oklahoma, taking Kevin Durant with them. It’s the middle of the 2013-14 NBA playoffs and Durant continues to enjoy wild success both on the court and off. He is halfway through an $86-million contract with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, in 2013 he earned an approximate $35 million from endorsement deals and at the age of 25 has led the league in scoring four times.
He’s been selected to play in the NBA all-star game five times, been named the NBA player of the month and week dozens of times, hold numerous accolades from his one year in college including being the first freshman to win the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year award and led the USA men’s basketball team to their first FIBA world championship in 16 years.
Now, on an off-day during the first round of the 2013-14 NBA playoffs — where the Thunder are in tight competition against the Memphis Grizzlies — the league’s brass has descended on Chesapeake Energy Area, home of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant’s family, his teammates, the coaching staff and fans are there to celebrate the pinnacle of individual accomplishment in the NBA. Durant is receiving the NBA Most Valuable Player Award.
As he takes the podium to speak, there is no clock counting down and the orchestra is not going to play him off. This is his time to shine. It’s his chance to regale the audience with stories of the hours of work he’s put in, the deep, burning drive he’s had since a young child to be the best, the dedication he’s had to the game that has now finally recognized his skills and abilities. He’s the one who puts the hours in at the gym, he’s the one who gets up early to practice and he’s the one who forgoes hanging out with friends to watch hours of game film and learns the tendencies of his upcoming opponents.
This is his moment to bask in the glory. But he doesn’t.
In fact the spotlight that is meant for him, the spotlight that he has earned and does deserve; he turns it around.
He starts by thanking God.
Then he says he wants to single out the veterans on the team and thank them. And he does, he says the names of the seven veterans on the team.
“I just want to say thank you to you guys.”
But by singling them out he doesn’t just say their names. He actually singles them out and tells them why he’s thankful for them.
He tells Derek Fisher he’s thankful that even at 38 with nothing left to prove in the gam e that he is always up to shoot the ball and learn with him. He thanks Nick Collison who took him in when he arrived as an 18 year old in Seattle and for believing in him from day one. He chokes up as he thanks Caron Butler, who after a series of tough losses, left an encouraging note in his locker. He continues to specifically thank the other four veterans.
But he’s not done.
He names each of the younger players on the team and thanks each one of them by name including what he’s thankful for about them. He thanks them for their humility, for their spirit and for making him their role model.
“Just as much as you think I’m making you better, you’re elevating my game.” After 15 minutes of individually thanking each of his teammates he turns back to the microphone and the thought is he’s now going to wrap it up but he says “I’m sorry, I’m almost done, give me a couple of more minutes.”
He thanks the organization, the owner, the general manager and the assistant general manager. He begins to thank the staff from the team doctor through the strength and conditioning trainer and tells them “I wish I had a Sharpie so I could write all your names on here, because you had a hand in this. You made me believe in myself. You made me a better person; a better player. Your words of encouragement, your love, your positivity, it got me through. I thank you guys.”
He thanks the coaches and the fans and specifically thanks them for understanding they as a team are a work in progress but the city has embraced them nonetheless.
He turns to his family which includes his father who abandoned them when Durant was young but has since patched their relationship. He includes his friends as family, naming each one and his grandmother for making him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day.
Finally, he directs his thanks to his mother. A single mom at 18 with his older brother and was 21 when she had Durant. He thanks her for putting clothes on their back and food on their plates even when there wasn’t enough for her. For putting him in basketball as a young man where his first life’s aspiration was to be a rec-league coach so he could help kids.
He thanks her for making him do pushups, run up hills and keeping him off the street. He tells the now tear-eyed crowd she is the real MVP. The stadium erupts in cheers and everyone assembled stands and applauds. He thanks God again and the writers for voting for him and at 26 minutes, his acceptance speech concludes.
Forty-two. That’s the number of individual people Durant showed gratitude towards for being awarded the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
Durant was the clear leader of the Thunder. While he acknowledges the younger players who look up to him, surely the rest of the team looked to him to derive energy, understand team philosophy, work ethic and direction. Most MVP recipients don’t spend much time doling out thanks during their acceptance speech. Of course many of them recognize the contributions from their teammates and coaching staff but to call them out individually is something unique to Durant’s time behind that podium.
A series of TV commercials by one of his sponsors labeled him as the “nicest guy in the NBA.” So is it because he’s a “nice guy,” that he went to such lengths to show gratitude or does he know something more? Does he recognize the awesome power gratitude has when wielded as a leadership tool? Assuming Durant didn’t jump out of character during his acceptance speech it’s safe to assume he exhibits the same gratuitous behaviour all the time. But to show it on that stage; can you imagine the heightened levels of dedication his teammates would have to his cause, the trust his coaches and general manager would have in him going forward?
Durant’s speech doesn’t just pull at your heart strings, it lays down a foundation for his teammates to work harder, show more loyalty and feel just as good as if they had received a monetary reward.