by Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Nearly 1,000 readers across varied platforms posting or publishing my work viewed a question I posed on Facebook: “Is Kevin Durant the most powerful man in Oklahoma City?” A few dozen wrote in response.
Answers were uniformly positive about the Thunder basketball star, leading with the first – “He could be, but he is a man of God and chooses to be humble” – and the last: “He’s ‘The Man’ to me.”
Some had an edge, jabbing at city or state politicians, or musing, “He’s not trying to sway anybody about anything – he just is, and we are all drawn to him.” One city official commented, “Around here, we just call him the NEXT President. … We plan to give him liberal time off during basketball season.”
Folks here in the heartland already loved the guy, both for his remarkable ability and the manner in which he handles celebrity, not to mention the astonishing wealth that accompanies modern professional sports.
Within hours after a devastating tornado struck Moore last year (http://watchdog.org/86222/wealthy-donors-dont-need-edict-or-government-order-to-give-money-time/#sthash.4Qr0D8Os.dpbs), he and teammates walked through the neighborhoods, encouraging survivors. Then, he gave $1 million of his own money to assist the clean-up.
Affection deepened during and after the speech he delivered on May 6 in Edmond, when he was presented the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player award.
In reaction to that heart-felt speech, one national sports commentator said it was the greatest American sports speech since Lou Gehrig’s farewell to baseball in 1953, after doctors told him he was dying. Despite a terminal illness, Gehrig described himself as “the luckiest man in the world.” The address can be viewed online, and it remains one of the most emotional public orations of the Twentieth Century.
An old sports hound – the first news reports I ever wrote covered high school basketball – I put one other just ahead of Durant’s narration: Gale Sayers’ tribute to Brian Piccolo, recorded in his book, “I Am Third,” and immortalized in the made-for-television film “Brian’s Song.”
After a fabulous college career at Kansas, Sayers, a black man, was a running back in the National Football League for the Chicago Bears. Piccolo, a white man, was his roommate when the team traveled.
Piccolo was a skilled but not super-star player, and the two men slowly bonded.
After Piccolo contracted an incurable disease, he was presented an award honoring his fortitude. Sayers delivered a speech in his friend’s honor, saying, “I love Brian Piccolo, and I want you to love him too.” He asked the audience to pray, “when you hit your knees tonight,” that God would also love Brian.
What made Durant’s MVP speech so notable was that it came to us in the prime of his life, at a moment when he is on top of his game. Like Sayers, Durant consistently deflects attention to others. In his speech, he methodically (and with remarkable efficiency and no prepared text) praised those who had helped him along the way, including every one of his current teammates, the franchise owner and management, and his coach.
In that address, just a few days before Mothers Day, he focused on the sacrifices his Mom made, and the discipline she instilled in him and his brother in days of poverty and struggle more than a decade ago.
Durant understands the power of words. He uses them deftly, with seeming ease (http://capitolbeatok.com/reports/appreciating-kevin-durant-okc-s-mvp-most-valuable-person-and-the-power-of-words).
Giving the speech great authority here in Oklahoma is the widely held belief that every word was authentic, a reflection of Durant’s personality, generosity of spirit and consummate decency. From the core of a kind heart, these were words of self-effacement, a tribute to others, an extension of … power.
There are shades of gray in every life, jolts that flow from errors, shortcomings, failures to live up to all the good things we profess. In Durant’s example and in tender words of love and appreciation – win or lose, at the summit of achievement, or in the valley of the shadows in life – we see and honor strength, humility, endurance and wise use of God-given skills.
Not a politician but a most impressive person, Kevin Durant is for now — and likely some time to come — the most powerful man in Oklahoma City.