Layne Murdoch sat camped under the basket, on the cusp of capturing a potentially picture-perfect portrait. He steadied his lens as the three-on-two fast break crept closer to him. He held his position even when the action became too close for comfort.
Suddenly, Kevin Durant slammed into him, the contact from two Charlotte Bobcats defenders sending him crashing to the floor following a reverse layup attempt.
Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar, banged his head at the end of the play. Murdoch was knocked over on impact. Durant rolled around in pain while rubbing the back of his head. Yet, with his noggin throbbing, and his team nursing a tenuous one-point lead in the second half, Durant still had the presence of mind to turn his attention to the well-being of someone else, something more significant than the scoreboard.
He asked Murdoch if he was all right.
“It kind of cracked me up because I was really concerned about him,” Murdoch said. “I was like, ‘Yeah I'm OK. Are you OK?'”
Murdoch is the NBA's team photographer for the Thunder. In his 31 years of taking NBA photos, he's been barreled over by everyone from Hakeem Olajuwon to Karl Malone. The Mailman actually sat on Murdoch with no regard while arguing a call with a referee. And Murdoch's seen much worse, like the infamous image of Dennis Rodman kicking a cameraman in the groin following a crash in Minnesota — and then laughing about it.
But after his collision with Durant, Murdoch joined a rapidly growing group that has experienced the kindness of Kevin Durant. It's a trait that Durant displays daily, but one that runs deeper than anything fans see on television.
Now in his fourth season, Durant's congeniality off the court has become as captivating as anything he's capable of delivering on it. His compassion is all-inclusive. Custodial workers inside Oklahoma City Arena receive the same respect as team chairman Clay Bennett. Fans have been extended the same hospitality Durant reserves for friends and family.
And it's no act. Ask anyone who's been around Durant about his genuineness and they'll assure you it's legit.
“He's always had a maturity about him of being that positive role model,” said Utah guard Earl Watson, a teammate of Durant's during his first two NBA seasons. “He didn't come into the league as an immature individual, which is rare for someone so young.”
Watch Durant work a room, taking time for strangers like they're old friends, and you'll forget the young man is still just 22. Most his age haven't been out of college a full year. Durant, meanwhile, has the weight of a professional sports franchise and, to an extent, a city on his back. And he's making carrying them look easy.
“He's such a great ambassador to not only our organization but the entire NBA off the floor,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Durant is a pro athlete without a sliver of a sense of entitlement. He has an admitted passion for pleasing and “wanting to see people happy.” Of the few times Durant turns down requests, he generally is being ushered away by his handlers. Even then, Durant apologizes and explains he has to go while being hurried away.
“I just tell myself that I need to do what Jesus would do,” Durant said. “He would do the same thing, go the extra mile just to please people. So I said why not me?”
‘I like to see people smiling'
Durant entered the NBA as the next big thing. He was the player of the year during his lone season at the University of Texas. He was the No. 2 overall pick in 2007. And while playing his rookie season with the Seattle SuperSonics, Durant often invited neighborhood children inside his home to play video games during his down time.
Today, as a scoring champ, a First-Team All-NBA selection and a two-time All-Star, Durant still caters to fans to an almost ridiculous degree. After sustaining an ankle sprain during a home game against Indiana, Durant had to leave the arena in a protective boot. With his brother, Tony, and good friend, Charlie Bell, by his side, Durant started to limp out of the arena. A member of the custodial staff stopped the three and made small talk. Durant, at the end of an exasperating evening, obliged.
Two nights later, the injury left Durant questionable to play at Atlanta. After testing out his ankle an hour and a half before the game, Durant began to walk gingerly into the locker room. A male usher on one side of the tunnel stopped Durant and inquired about where he was from. As Durant finished answering and resumed his trek to the locker room, an adult male fan rushed down the lower bowl on the other side of the tunnel. The fan asked Durant to pose for a picture. Durant did. The decision opened the floodgates, sending kids racing down the aisles like seagulls at the sight of bread. Durant spent the next five minutes posing for pictures and signing autographs — while standing on his still gimpy ankle.
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James aren't doing that.
“I like to see people smiling,” Durant said. “So I do whatever it takes.”
‘It didn't have to be you'
Durant's parents, Wayne and Wanda Pratt, instilled a sense of humility. Wanda Pratt has often told her youngest son, “It didn't have to be you,” a quote that has stuck with Durant.
“That's as simple as it can get,” Durant said. “But it taught me that it could be the guy living across the street that's in my shoes. I was blessed to be a guy that's been chosen to do something. I've been put on this earth to do something that I love and I can't take that for granted.”
Wayne Pratt often preached about having a small window to make a difference and impact lives. Each time Durant stops and shakes a hand or poses for a picture, that's what he's trying to do, knowing full well how much it means to so many to be able to meet an NBA player.
“He understands that it's a blessing. Everything that's given to you is a blessing,” said Wayne Pratt. “At the end of the day basketball is just a game. And you still have to be a person after that.”
That's why, after a 40-point performance, Durant still extends a handshake and a cordial “good night” to each male police officer and usher standing outside the Thunder's locker room. He might pull female officers and ushers in for a hug. Most all of them, Durant addresses by name. It's why during the game, Durant generally hands ball boys his sweats and towels just before he checks back in. Other players are notorious for dropping their warm-ups on the floor and making the ball boys pick them up, or, worse, throwing the gear at them. It's why Durant has a nightly routine for signing autographs at home games: robotically warming up early, then relaxing on the bench briefly before walking over to a crowd of fans who eagerly line up near the Thunder's tunnel behind the bench when the doors open an hour and a half before tipoff.
“They make time for us,” Durant said of the team's supporters. “They don't have to go out of their way to drive to the game. They don't have to go out of their way to buy our jerseys, buy tickets, come scream and support us every game. They can save their money. But they chose to come watch us play. So that's the least I can do, just showing them that I appreciate them.”
‘He hasn't changed'
Durant has signed sneakers and personally shipped them to fans who follow him on Twitter. He'll show up at local malls throughout the country and, rather than have security shoo fans away, he'll post a message on his Twitter account encouraging more fans to join him while he shops. Then he'll buy them shoes.
Teammate Russell Westbrook has been wowed by how Durant, no matter what time the team bus pulls in, routinely signs autographs for lines of fans waiting outside the team hotel in visiting cities.
“He's as humble as anybody as I've ever been around,” Brooks said.
Following a game just after Christmas, Durant pulled a necklace over his head. One teammate apparently deemed it unfashionable and unsuitable inside the superficial sanctuary that is an NBA locker room. As the teammate started to make a crack, Durant's face turned stone cold. He told the teammate his mother had given him the neckwear as a Christmas gift. Durant then asked the teammate if he had anything else to say. The teammate didn't. He backed down and backpedaled out of the locker room.
The scene was subtle but served as perhaps the closest the tightly-knitted Thunder locker room has come this season to having tension between players while reporters were present. And it showed the respect Durant commands from his teammates and, more importantly, the honor he reserves for his family, especially his mother.
Durant has given media members the same respect.
Durant politely pauses his music and removes his headphones whenever approached by reporters as he sits at his locker before games. Might not sound like much. But in today's NBA, many players have personal policies to not address the media before tipoff. Ears covered with headphones have become the leaguewide signal for “bug off.” Durant, though, will speak, even if he fulfilled requests by the same reporters at the team's morning shootaround. He'll slide off his headphones again if a straggler enters the locker room late.
“It's something that's just second nature to me,” Durant said of his compassion. “I don't plan it. It just happens.”
“He hasn't changed. That is the most impressive thing,” Brooks said. “In this league, players that have had success at the rate that he has, most of them have changed. Most of them forget what they've done to get there. Kevin has not changed one bit. And that's a credit to him and his family.”