One by one, Kevin Durant went down the Thunder roster, talking about his teammates. This was supposed to be Durant’s day. Instead, he made it theirs.
Durant was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player on Tuesday, and the Thunder staged a press conference/pep rally at its old practice facility to honor the superstar who has ignited the Thunder’s remarkable success. But Durant’s humanity upstaged the coronation.
Durant talked about Hasheem Thabeet’s smile and Derek Fisher’s presence and Kendrick Perkins’ encouragement and Nick Collison’s respect and Thabo Sefolosha’s selflessness. Durant, fighting back tears, told the story of new teammate Caron Butler, after a tough stretch, slipping a piece of paper into Durant’s locker that simply said, “KD MVP.”
Durant talked about considering Serge Ibaka as a brother. About Reggie Jackson becoming one of his best friends. Talked about knowing that Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb look up to him, which constantly reminds Durant of the man he ought to be. Talked about the spirit of rookies Steven Adams and Andre Roberson, the latter of which again almost brought Durant to tears.
And Durant talked most about Russell Westbrook, his maligned sidekick “who will run through a wall for me.”
By day’s end, if not long before, Durant had 14 teammates who would do the same.
Durant lifted the veil on a mostly-closed society. This franchise offers basketball with a flair but rarely with anything other than stock answers on what makes it all work. No one allowed to peek into the holy of holies and see what makes tick this great mix of veteran leadership and maturing stars. Until Tuesday, when Durant spoke from the heart.
“We inside the walls of our building, we know what we have here,” said general manager Sam Presti. “It’s pretty rare, and we don’t take it for granted. One of the things I’m proud of, we mean what we say. These guys really do care about each other.
“It’s a tremendous sign of 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 a strength that should be. But it doesn’t surprise me, because he’s an authentic person.”
Durant’s speech lasted 25 minutes. Twelve of those minutes were totally dedicated to his teammates.
“I felt those guys deserved to be singled out,” Durant said. “They sacrificed for me. We don’t get to tell each other how much we appreciate each other. I thought this was the perfect setting to do so. We’ve grown so much as a team, I just wanted to let them know how much I love ’em, how much I care for ‘em, how much I appreciate ‘em.”
On Perkins, Durant’s voice cracking by the end: “I hated you before you got here. But the moment you got here, changed my whole perception. One of the best teammates I ever had. Late night calls after tough games. You texting me, telling me I’m the MVP.”
On Butler’s slip of paper: “I don’t really say much in those moments, but I remember that. I go home and think about that stuff. Man, I’ve got people behind me … I love you man.”
And on Westbrook, who he saved for last: “I know you guys think I forgot Russ. 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. I want to just 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. I’m the first to have your back through it all. Just stay the person you are. Everybody loves you here. I love you and I thank you so much … You had a big piece of this. You’re an MVP-caliber player. It’s a blessing to play with you, man.”
Collison, Durant’s longest-standing teammate, said he thought the day was “great … it’s not necessarily surprising that he would want to mention his teammates, because we all know him.
“We get caught up in the day to day, but it was a real nice moment for the team. Brought back a lot of memories for me, how far we’ve come as a team and how far he’s come as a person.”
The NBA awards season comes at a strange time. Right in the middle of the playoffs. The Thunder hosts a huge game against the Clippers on Wednesday night. For an honor like MVP, a day between games becomes a huge time commitment, with pomp and circumstance. The very definition of distraction.
Except Durant turned a trophy presentation into a bonding experience. He brought a close team even closer. He offered a glimpse into the kind of leadership he provides the Thunder.
I don’t know if peeling back that veil will help the Thunder in Game 2 Wednesday night. But I know this. If the Clippers are able to construct a wall, Kevin Durant won’t be trying to run through it alone.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.