By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – I was not initially enthusiastic about the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA franchise formerly known as the Sonics. I oppose the tax givebacks and special incentives that accompany professional sports ownership these days.
Still, daily reading and watching most playoff matches these past few years softened me toward the players, including Kevin Durant, the Texas Longhorn who moved from Seattle into our midst when businessman Clay Bennett brought the team here in 2008.
This season, when a television reporter asked Durant to explain a remarkable performance, he reflexively gave credit to Jesus Christ.
She laughed and asked if he really meant that. Not taking offense, he simply said yes. As the exchange wrapped up, he told her, “Appreciate you.”
That’s what he says to everyone. After he toured a family center and workout facility where I am a board member, everyone he encountered said the same things: He is soft-spoken, intelligent and kind, a gentle man who often says, “I appreciate you.”
Hereabouts and around the league, fans appreciate him.
After Durant had a below-average game this week and the Thunder lost game five (falling 3-2 behind the Memphis Grizzlies in the best four-of-seven series), a columnist for the state’s largest newspaper criticized KD’s recent performance. It was a little rough on the young man, but not beyond the pale of commentary.
It was the headline – “Mr. Unreliable?” – that really provoked.
Sure, these guys get paid well. Their wealth gives a certain entitlement to fans and critics, but “unreliable” was too much.
Words can lift up, explain, confuse or confound any issue.
I posed a question to readers on Facebook: “Oklahoma City Thunder fans: Tell me, what one word comes to mind when you think of Kevin Durant?”
Thousands of “views” later, the most frequent word used was “MVP” — for Most Valuable Player. Others included amazing, classy, winner, awesome and human.
And, of course, “reliable” (the second most common word, first submitted by reader Sean Turpen).
A couple of comedians asked, “Who?” And one hinted at a nightmare: “Lakers.”
Other words getting “votes” manifest diversity in emotion and perspective: Beasty, best, gladiator, courageous, kind, servant — and humble.
Thursday, the Thunder dominated and evened the series, 3-3.
Saturday’s 11-point home win propelled Coach Scotty Brooks’ squad into the Western Conference semi-finals. After, Durant told reporters that the game now is more mental than physical to him.
He admitted he had begun to overthink things. Criticism had started to gnaw at him. Still, Durant said that was his issue, not his critics’ problem.
He talked himself past a bit of a slump and into a place focused on the joy and fun of the game, including a friendly exchange with the Grizzlies’ head coach.
KD was fine – 33 points and a five-for-five night from three-point range.
Waiting for him as he entered that “zone” were not only fans in Chesapeake Arena, but in the national television audience and around the web.
Oklahomans see in Durant a player of remarkable skill at the top of his game, a most valuable player, a person who has retained the humility and decency with which he rose to prominence in our midst.
A quality human being, he is a unifier. He is reliable. And, at the moment, our most valuable person.
Another word for KD: Beloved.