Kevin Durant’s face turned hard and his eyes welled up. He gazed straight ahead as he reflected on the man he affectionately referred to as "Big Chucky.”
Charles Craig was supposed to be by Durant’s side — when he signed his letter of intent to Texas, continuing the basketball jones Craig first created, and when he sat in the Green Room on the night of the 2007 NBA Draft, eagerly counting down the final moments before he fulfilled his dream as the No. 2 overall pick.
"It just didn’t happen,” murmured a melancholy Durant last week.
Craig was Durant’s first basketball coach. He died on April 30, 2005, in Laurel, Md., the victim of multiple gunshot wounds. He was 35.
Since his freshman season at the University of Texas, Durant has worn jersey No. 35 in honor of Chucky.
"I just want as many people as I can to know why I wear it and the significance of the number,” Durant said. "That’s my goal is to get him out there and keep his name alive.”
Durant is forcing fans to take notice, as he continues to flourish into one of the game’s greats. The third-year forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder is the league’s leading scorer at 29.7 points per game. His 29 straight games of 25 points or more commanded daily headlines from mid-December to late February. Since 1986-87, only Michael Jordan has had a longer streak. And Durant, a first-time All-Star last month, has his team on an improbable pace to make the playoffs following last season’s 23 wins.
As Durant sat courtside following a recent shoot-around, he mulled over his milestones, how far he’s come and the man who initiated it all.
Durant’s speech slowed. His eyes began to mist.
"It’s a touchy subject for me, but I do it for him,” he said.
Durant met Craig as an 8-year-old newcomer to the Seat Pleasant Recreational Center, a one-level, multi-purpose building sitting in the Maryland suburbs that neighbor Washington, D.C. The want-to-be player instantly took a liking to the heavyset but jovial coach. Durant learned the game’s basics from Craig, and hours in the gym soon fostered a relationship beyond basketball.
"It was days where I spent the whole day with him,” Durant remembered.
They’d go to basketball games and to the movies. When Durant needed pocket money or a meal, Craig was there. Durant, now a multi-millionaire, drives a conversion van partly because of fond memories of piling into Craig’s van with teammates and traveling to games.
On one such trip, Durant’s youth league team journeyed to Charlotte, N.C. With Durant’s mother, Wanda Pratt, tied down with work, Durant slept over at Craig’s house the night before the team departed. The hospitality went a long way in Durant’s eyes.
Craig was the type of neighborhood coach who kicked in his own money to make up the difference for kids unable to cover the costs of jerseys. And the full-figured man with the braided hair always was positive. As one parent described Craig in the Maryland Gazette following his death, "He made every child feel like a star...He was the only coach I know that made you feel great even when you lost a game.”
Durant’s skills and reputation grew, but his loyalty to Craig never wavered. Despite evolving into a can’t-miss high school prospect, Durant always returned to Seat Pleasant to play for Coach Craig.
Until he didn’t.
When Durant got wind of the news of Craig’s death, he was a junior at prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in southwestern Virginia.