Kevin Durant humble in the heartland

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- The future face of the NBA will be, or had better be … the tall skinny guy walking the mall in flip-flops. He never brings along a posse or a security guard. He usually drives there in a conversion van. He wears gym shorts just in case someone wants to play 5-on-5. His basketball and his high-tops are in the car.

They don't grow superstars like this anymore. On the team bus, his phone will ring and he'll say, "Hi Mommy." His teammate, Royal Ivey, will elbow him and say, "You could be a little smoother with it. Or at least whisper." But that's the one of the most revealing parts about him: He hasn't changed since he was 8 years old.

You'd think leading the NBA in scoring twice by 22 would have gone to his head. You'd think leading Team USA to last summer's FIBA World Championship would have had him sleeping in. You'd think taking the NBA's youngest playoff team to the conference semifinals would have lengthened his Q-rating. But half the time on the road, he's "what's-his-name."

He was walking through a Cleveland mall just this past March, along with Ivey and a team employee, when a man rushed up to say, "Kevin Garnett!!!! You're Garnett, right?"

"I'm Kevin," he said, politely. "But it's not Garnett."

And away walked Kevin Durant, not offended in the least.

The most unpretentious NBA superstar

Something has made him this way. Something has made Durant probably the least pretentious megastar in pro basketball. He'd rather have a key to the gym than a key to the penthouse. It may sound clichéd, but he really is usually first to practice and last to leave. He's not clamoring to take his talents to South Beach; instead, he just re-upped for five more years with Oklahoma City.

"Oklahoma City's got a basketball team?" he was asked during another stroll in the mall one day.

"Yeah, we're relatively new," he answered.

If the Thunder -- three years removed from Seattle -- can win Game 7 against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday, more eyes will get to see what they've been missing: the only 28-point-per-game scorer who's ever been called unselfish. His general manager knows he's lucky he got to draft him. His coach knows he's lucky he can critique him. His teammates know they're lucky he trusts them. And referees know they're lucky he won't berate them.

"Don't make him a saint; he's only 22," his mother says from her courtside seat.

But the oldest 22 around.

Learning the value of family at 5

What's made him this way is a mother who lifted 70-pound mailbags. Wanda Pratt worked the overnight shift for the postal service in Suitland, Md., loading letters onto a tractor trailer. And that meant while she was taking care of the mail someone else had to keep an eye on young Kevin.

The job often was left to Wanda's mother, Barbara Davis. But Barbara had errands to run sometimes, so her sister, Pearl, who lived with Barbara, would fix Kevin jelly sandwiches after school and watch cartoons with him. She doted on the kid, who at the tender age of 5 learned about family and sticking together.

But as he and his older brother, Tony, grew older, Wanda didn't want to lean so much on Barbara and Pearl. As she was taking the kids for haircuts one day, she passed the Seat Pleasant Rec Center and thought it might be the ideal place to drop them on a Saturday. She registered them inside and the following week she told them, "Get your clothes on, we're going to the gym."

When shy, gangly, 8-year-old Kevin walked in, having played basketball only occasionally, all he saw were kids and more kids. Someone said, "What's up, man? What's your name?" It seemed to him that all these kids, and their coaches, had been waiting for him, the way Aunt Pearl waited for him.

"Once I opened that door, it was like I was at an amusement park or something," he said.

He started shooting and dribbling, and a rotund coach who everyone called Chucky asked him if he'd like to try out for the center's 9-and-under basketball team. Kevin said, "Why not?" and that's how 27-year-old Charles "Chucky" Craig first began to mentor Kevin. He showed the kid how to use his bony backside to create space in the lane, taught him how to shoot a baby jump hook. Later, after the 9-and-under tryouts were over, Chucky posted the final roster on a rec center door. K. Durant was on the list. Chucky gave him jersey No. 24.

He took his uniform home and showed it off to his mom, his grandmother and Aunt Pearl. He couldn't stop grinning. He played a game a few weeks later and scored 25 points -- unheard of for someone that age. A woman he didn't know approached him to say, "You should change that No. 24 to No. 23 -- because you're playing like Jordan."

"For real?" he asked.

He told the three women he wanted to play in the NBA someday, that basketball was going to be his job. Wanda told him if that's what he wanted he'd have to put in the work, the same way she put in the hours lifting mailbags. In the sixth grade, after school, he'd take a bus to his grandmother's house then run 15 to 20 minutes to the rec center. Not walk, run.

He'd always wonder why Aunt Pearl never came to see him play, but little did he know she was fighting breast cancer. One night, the whole family was hanging out at his grandmother's house, when Pearl began spitting up blood. The paramedics were called, but by the time they arrived Pearl was dead.

The paramedics cleaned her up and laid her on her bed while they waited for the coroner to arrive.

Kevin lay down beside her.

Looking for father figures

What has made him this way is the refuge he found in the basketball gym. Wanda was still working interminable hours, and with Kevin's grandmother advancing in age, sixth-grade Kevin needed to find a father figure to lean on.

There was only so much Wanda, a busy, single woman, could do for her boys. On weekends, she'd take them to church, where she'd pinch Kevin hard if he fell asleep during a service. He said she could be a bear, that she wasn't afraid "to pop me in the mouth." But on work days, she needed someone to replace her. At the time, Kevin's father, Wayne, who'd long been separated from Wanda, was a police officer working shifts at the Washington Hospital Center in D.C. -- and Kevin always wished he could walk the beat with him. "I thought my dad was Superman," Durant said. But Wayne couldn't be his caretaker. So the logical answer was to spend more time at the rec center with Chucky and another effervescent coach, Taras Brown.

Taras was an AAU coach who took what Chucky had taught Kevin on the court and nurtured it further. He noticed that Kevin was passive during long stretches of games, wouldn't demand the ball. The kid had a feathery shot but often had to be begged to let it fly. So when Kevin told Taras what he'd told his mother -- that he wanted to rule the NBA -- Taras asked, "Are you sure?"

"Yeah," Kevin said.

"Then you got to listen to me," Taras said. "If you don't go out and play like Tracy McGrady every night, you're going to have to run the hill out back or run 100 laps. Destroy people."

Kevin watched McGrady play, but he couldn't fathom hoarding the ball that way. "I didn't want to be that guy to take a lot of shots," he said. "I didn't want my teammates to be mad at me."

Taras and Chucky took him to their homes to watch the pro games. Kevin liked the way Antoine Walker did a shimmy shake after a big bucket, so he started doing shimmy shakes before his free throws. He admired the way McGrady hit step-back 3-pointers, so he practiced step-back 3s. The coaches would feed him meals and either drive him home at night or let him sleep on their couches. He began calling Taras his "godfather." They were all family. One night, they watched the NBA draft at Chucky's place. Kevin told them both, "On my draft night, you two will be in the green room."

The rec center gym had become his safe haven, mainly because his life at school was maddening. He thought starring for the basketball team would make him an eighth grade celebrity, but instead he'd hear, "Why you so tall?" He became self-conscious from head to toe. His feet were size 11s, and the only sneakers his mom could afford were used Lisa Leslie or Cheryl Swoopes Nikes she bought out of an Eastbay catalog.

"I played well in those," he said. But the kids at his middle school were more impressed with gangbangers and dope dealers. He'd walk down the hallway with his head down, knowing that, at 6-foot-2, he couldn't hide. "I hated, hated, hated going to school," he said.

His only escape was the gym, though getting there could be perilous. As usual, he'd run the 15 or 20 minutes from his grandmother's house to the rec center, but one day some thugs started stalking him. He ran smack into the street in front of a slow-moving car to deter them -- "Like I was Rip Hamilton running around a screen," he said -- then sprinted up a median strip all the way to the rec center. "I knew I was cool once I was inside there," he said. "My boys wouldn't let anything happen."

Two summers later, he grew from 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-8. His grandmother had always told him, "Someday you'll like being tall." Now, he understood why. In high school, they held pep rallies, and as a sophomore at National Christian Academy the coaches would save him to be announced last. He got the loudest ovation. He got letters from Roy Williams, Jamie Dixon and Mike Kryzewski. He got men's sneakers.

He loved celebrating it all with his godfather and Chucky. But on April 30, 2005, one of Chucky's friends got into a scuffle in the streets. Playing peacemaker as usual -- Chucky was massive and strong enough -- he broke up the scrap. But later that day, his friend's adversary returned in a car. Someone had a gun and recognized Chucky.

Someone shot him dead in the back.

A short trip to the dark side

What's made him this way is that he never wore No. 24 again. Kevin and his godfather were looking for a way to honor Chucky, and they decided Kevin should wear No. 35 from then on, because that was Chucky's age on the day he died.

It made Kevin feel as if Chucky was on the court with him, but he could also feel himself getting angrier and edgier. "On the court, I wasn't letting nobody say nothing to me," he said. "Just kind of feeling myself. I'm automatically thinking, 'Oh, I'm better than you,' or 'I'm the best player here.' I'd be like, 'Man, I'm going to the League, anyway.'"

Maybe because of Chucky's murder, the summer after Kevin's sophomore year, he began trash-talking his opponents like he never had before. He told a talented player named Vernon Macklin that he and his AAU teammate, Ty Lawson, each would score 30 on Macklin's team in an upcoming Boo Williams Tournament game.

"We gonna kill you all," Kevin cracked.

It was everything Chucky was against, and when Kevin and Macklin faced off Kevin shot an ugly 2-for-17 from the field and had only 11 points. He'd been rated a top-25 player nationally before the game, but now the chatter was that he was overhyped, that he was too emaciated, that all he could do was run and jump. "I read the basketball sites saying that," he said. "And I was like, 'Man, my career's over. I can't show my face around here anymore.'"

For the first time since he met Chucky, he didn't want to be in a gym -- until, one day, he had an epiphany. "I was wondering, 'Why did I play so badly, man?'" he said. "And then it popped in my head: It was all the bragging and boasting. That's not the way to do it. It was a great lesson I was taught by God, man. It came that quick, that easy over a small basketball game. It could've been something worse. I could've been injured; basketball could have been taken away from me. So I'm thankful for that. Every day, I'm thankful."

He began writing "Keep It Positive" on his sneakers. He got back into the gym and stopped snoring in church. Going into his last two seasons of high school, he zipped his lip and ended his senior year rated as one of the top-three players in the nation. He played his freshman season at the University of Texas and averaged 25.8 points and was named national player of the year.

He then turned pro, which ended up being one of the best and worst days of his life. He was absolutely correct 12 years prior when he predicted he'd reach the NBA.

But Chucky hadn't lived to see the green room.

A bittersweet rookie season

What's made him this way is that he's still offended that Portland didn't pick him. He says he's not going to lie, he's imagined what his life would have been like playing with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. On the day of the 2007 draft, his agent told him the Trail Blazers were going to select Greg Oden first and the Seattle SuperSonics were going to pick him second, and he refused to believe it until David Stern broke the news on a microphone.

He knew little about Seattle, other than that they'd just traded Ray Allen to Boston and were about to deal Rashard Lewis to Orlando. Kevin was still a teenager, but the club was already clearing players out to make the Sonics his team. First-time general manager Sam Presti, who'd just arrived from San Antonio, had watched Kevin work tirelessly at Texas and knew he was getting an elite scorer. But on the other hand, had Seattle drafted first, it might've taken Oden, too.

"We're not taking bows for picking Kevin Durant," Presti said, knowing the better, healthier player fell to him.

It wasn't a textbook rookie season. Durant had a 42-point game, a buzzer-beater and a 20.3 scoring average, but he got knocked to his knees all year long. He got criticized for flopping, but the truth was he wasn't nearly strong enough to stay on his own two feet. There were reports that he couldn't bench press 185 pounds at a pre-draft workout, which wasn't surprising, since all he ate was chicken wings and candy. His buddies called him "Starvin' Marvin" and "String Bean," and Coach P.J. Carlisimo had little choice but to make him a 6-9 guard.

His role was to shoot and shoot some more. But after a season of taking 1,366 shots from the field -- and hitting only 43 percent -- his critics labeled him a chucker. He was only following orders from Carlisimo, who kept ordering the team to set screens for Durant. Presti made sure to walk out of the arena with him on most nights, to check his psyche, because even though he would wind up rookie of the year, too much of the franchise was on his teenage shoulders.

"Yeah, there was too much," said Durant, perturbed that the Sonics won only 20 games. "I would get guarded by the best guys every night and I had to guard some of the best guys every night. But Presti said, 'Tough times don't last forever. We'll get through this.'"

Durant remembers never being able to pay enough attention at pregame shootarounds -- "It's as if I had ADD,'' he said -- and recalls trying to stay out of Seattle's arena controversy. All season long, there were rumors the team was moving to Oklahoma City, and when that finally came to pass the 19-year-old Durant instantly became the face of his second franchise.

If only they knew what his face looked like.

Helping rebuild a grievously injured city

What's made him this way was his first day as a Thunder player in 2008. The team was opening its debut practice to the public, but first Presti brought every one of his players to the Oklahoma City bombing site.

Thirteen years earlier, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols orchestrated the explosion that killed 168 people at the Oklahoma City Federal Building. In the aftermath, the city's national identity became the bombing and the bloodbath; to change that, citizens spent the next decade voting for sales tax after sales tax to rebuild the downtown area.

About $120 million of that revenue was used to turn their arena into an NBA-caliber building.

On blind faith that Oklahoma City would be able to attract a team, the arena was upgraded. People such as Steven Taylor -- chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court -- are convinced that if not for the bombing the Thunder would never have existed.

"As a judge, I deal with the evidence," Taylor said. "The NBA team arriving in Oklahoma City was Exhibit A that Oklahoma City survived the bombing."

Durant already had visited the bombing site as a college player at Texas. But now as he walked the grounds and saw the memorial, he was almost overcome. He wanted to get in the gym right away, wanted to be someone the city could be proud of. At the first open practice, fans mobbed him and told him how good their players were.

"You haven't even seen us play yet!" he said.

"We're just glad you're here," some replied.

A bond was created at that instant. The Thunder started the season 3-29 and were on pace to be the worst team in NBA history. But the fans still showed up and cheered. They saw that before every TV interview Kevin thanked God for the opportunity to play basketball. They saw him in local churches. They saw him slap five every game with a little kid sitting courtside. They saw him pray at the scorer's table. They saw him hug his mom, his brother and his godfather before tipoff. When his dad was in town, they saw him hug him, too. Presti was told when he arrived in town that Oklahoma City preferred substance over style. That was Kevin. The fans knew he got them, knew that he understood their pain.

They knew it even better when they asked him why he wore No. 35. And they knew it beyond a doubt when they asked him why the name "Aunt Pearl" was scribbled on his sneakers.

Wannabe 48-minute man

What's made him this way is how he'd tug on his coach's sleeve. Durant was determined to get the Thunder out of their 3-29 hole, so he asked rookie coach Scott Brooks never to take him out of a game.

Brooks would look at Durant's wiry body and wonder how the kid could possibly play 48 minutes. But Durant wanted to try. The same player who had "ADD" at shootarounds in Seattle was now coming to shootarounds 90 minutes early. He'd take 100 shots, lift weights, eat breakfast at the facility, treat the shootaround like a real game then shoot some more. It was his gym. His teammates would walk in, after he'd already been lifting weights a half-hour, and he'd shout, "What's up, man'?' -- the way they used to shout, "What's up?'' to him at the rec center.


He seemed to care more than anyone else. And his body seemed more buff. Presti had hired chefs to cook meals for the players, and Durant, who used to eat only "Ho Ho's and Oatmeal Cream Pies" at Texas, was eating pancakes, waffles, turkey bacon and pork sausages for breakfast and baked chicken, fish and stir fry for lunch.

The other players, most of whom were close to Durant's age of 20, followed his lead. He would have them over to his house, where they'd watch his favorite movies, "Home Alone" ("I like how he tricked them bad guys.") and "Twister" ("I like natural stuff, because it's all works of God."). He and the other players began competing every morning to see who could arrive at the facility first. "I've only seen one other player like Kevin lead as a rookie or second-year player," Brooks said, "and that was Magic Johnson. Kevin's boring. He's either home or in the gym. But it's a good boring."

Suddenly, the Thunder began to prosper. They won 20 of their final 30 games to finish 23-59, and every game Durant was begging Brooks to play him every minute.

When the coach wouldn't budge and removed him from a game late that year, Durant said, "Come on, Coach, let me play."

As the game resumed, Brooks said facetiously, "Listen, Kevin, if I play you all 48, Sam Presti will fine me."

"Don't worry," Durant said, utterly serious. "I'll pay it for you."

Growing up fast

What's made him this way is that in the summer of 2009 he went back to his old rec center. Went back with a wad of cash.

Durant donated $25,000 to build a game room at the facility, complete with an Xbox 360, 55-inch televisions and plush couches, just in case a little kid with nowhere to go needed to find a place to sleep.

He also went back to Barry Farms in the D.C. area to play pickup games against other NBA players, expanding his game. He returned to Oklahoma City for the 2009-10 season and began lighting up the league.

He averaged 30 points a game, becoming the youngest player, at 21, to win a scoring title. But that's not all Presti and Brooks were marveling at. In a road game against the Utah Jazz, with playoff seeding on the line, the Thunder trailed 140-139 with seconds remaining. Durant launched a 3-pointer, and Utah's C.J. Miles clearly hacked him. But referee Tony Brothers never blew his whistle. Durant stomped around and said he remembers thinking, "I was going to rip the refs in the media. I was so mad."

But then he thought about Chucky and his mom and the Macklin incident. He told reporters, "It wasn't a foul -- because he didn't call one." That was that. The NBA apologized later for the error, but Presti and Brooks thought it was the day Kevin Durant really became the face of the franchise, the day he grew up. "He showed our players how we wanted to do things here," Presti said.

In the playoffs, Durant and his second-year sidekick Russell Westbrook took the No. 1 seed Lakers to six games. Durant blocked Kobe Bryant's shot to secure one of the victories, and after the series Bryant's version of a compliment was calling the Thunder "bad motherf-----s."

That next June and July was the summer of LeBron, and his free-agent overhype. But quietly, unceremoniously it was also the summer of Kevin. With James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh tied up with free agency -- and Bryant needing a break – Durant led Team USA to that FIBA World Championship, scoring 22 points a game and getting named MVP of the tournament. And around the same time, he and Presti were finalizing a five-year extension, locking Durant up through 2016.

On the same day James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, Durant released his signing on Twitter. That was it. And then he watched the Thunder play a summer league game in Orlando.

Asked if any inch of him wanted to someday experience his own summer of LeBron, Durant said: "You said an inch, so I'll take that inch. One inch of my mind just wants to experience that, see what it's like, you know. I've been through the recruitment process, of course, going to college, but I want to see how that is. I'm not saying that I want to go to another team or I want to go to a greater market. But just how much it was publicized this summer, I just want to see what that's like. I'm an interested person, I'm a curious person. And once again, I'm not trying to say I want to leave or anything. But I just want to see how that is.

"I'll be 27 when my contract's up. So maybe when I'm 27 … But you never know. Two or three years down the line, I might sign another extension here. So we'll see. We'll see. But right now, I'm happy where I'm at, I'm glad I'm locked in for five years."

Worldwide, Durant's stature was growing, and he knew it for sure when the White House called. President Obama wanted to play with him in a pickup game, and Durant, of course, had a ball and sneakers in his trunk. Teammates James Harden and Eric Maynor were visiting in D.C. at the time, so Durant asked the White House if they could run, too. The answer was yes.

"[Obama's] so serious," Durant said. "It was 5-on-5, he was on my team and he was like, 'KD, let's win this game.' I'm thinking, 'You're calling me my nickname, KD, like you you've known me for a while!' I missed a shot, and he's like, 'That's your shot -- you've got to make that.' I'm like, 'My fault. All right. I will next time.'"

And away walked Kevin Durant, not offended in the least.

The power of empathy

What's made him this way is his soul. He recently purchased a 3,460-square-foot home in the upscale Gaillardia section of Oklahoma City. Just when he was reveling in the scale of it all, he began talking with one of community's security guards.

The Oklahoma City bombing came up, and the guard mentioned he'd lost his wife in the explosion. Durant, who had a bible in his backpack, told the man he'd pray for him.

His goal was still to bring a championship to the city -- for himself, for the people of Oklahoma City -- and, just like the old days at the rec center, he found himself running to the gym. He ate at the Thunder complex, worked out there, surfed the Internet there. Hours after the team arrived back from a game in Orlando at 3 a.m. on Feb. 26, Kevin was in the facility at 9 a.m. Center Nazr Mohammad, who'd just been acquired from San Antonio, was there taking a physical. He saw Kevin lifting weights and said, "Seeing you here this early, I'm sold on this team."

The Thunder went on to win 55 games and clinched their first playoff series when Durant scored the final nine points of Game 5 to defeat Denver. But all Presti and Brooks could talk about was Durant's quick pass to an open Harden, which led to a game-tying 3-pointer. He was only in his fourth season but had learned to trust his teammates quicker than Michael Jordan ever had. When Thunder point guard Westbrook was being ripped by the media for ball-hogging, some in the organization wondered if Kevin would "throw Russell under the bus.'' And he had every right to -- through 10 playoff games, Westbrook had launched 209 shots compared to Kevin's 201. But Kevin pulled a Wanda and played the family card, saying they were all in it together.

"The thing I love about Kevin is he's still a young player," Brooks said. "Two years ago, he was a young player. Two years from now, he's going to be a young player. But not one time has he used the excuse of being young. 'Oh, I'm young. I'm going to be good in two years, I'm going to be fine in a couple years. We're going to be good in a couple years because we're young.' I've never heard him say one time when he was 19 or 22. He's still young! Three years from now he's only going to be 25!"

In this current series against Memphis, the Thunder blew Game 1 at home, Game 3 on the road and faced a must-win Game 4, also on the road. They trailed 18 in the first half and then led by five with 1:12 left -- and it still went to overtime. They were up 6 with 1:15 left in overtime -- and it still went to a second overtime. They were down 2 with 36 seconds left in the second overtime -- and it still went to a third.

At one point in the dramatic finish, Kevin went 9 minutes, 30 seconds without a field goal attempt. Where was he? His godfather had to be screaming, Tracy McGrady! Kevin turned the ball over twice in the final minute of the first overtime. He then took a ridiculously long step-back 3 trying to win the game at the first overtime buzzer, a shot that didn't come close.

But just when he was going to be confused with Kevin Garnett forever -- just as he was failing to make a name for himself -- he soared in the third overtime. He fed Serge Ibaka for a dunk, hit a shot over Shane Battier then hit the dagger shot over Battier, sticking his tongue out, a la Jordan. The Thunder won 133-123, saving their season.

Brooks went to hug Kevin. Their eyes met. They grinned. Durant had played 57 minutes. See, I'm right, Coach. Never take me out!

Three days later, Durant was named first-team all NBA. He thanked his teammates, Oklahoma City, his mommy, his Godfather, his grandmom, his dad, his rec center -- on and on. Then, the next day, in Game 6 at Memphis, he had maybe the worst pro game of his life, living and dying at the 3-point line, going 3-of-14 from the field. So he wanted to make sure he remembered to write "Aunt Pearl'' and "Keep It Positive'' on his sneakers for Game 7.

The world -- or at least anyone who had been staying up past midnight ET to watch the series -- had now seen the good and bad of Kevin Durant. But at least they'd seen him. Yes, he can dominate. No, he's not a saint. Yes, he's only 22.

The oldest 22 around.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com.