Stardom for Oklahoma City forward Durant almost never came to be
Kevin Durant has had a career year while leading the Thunder to the No. 2 seed
He almost quit twice because he put in a lot of work and was overlooked
His mother pushed him to stick with it, teaching him the work ethic he has now
The NBA would go on without Kevin Durant, but it certainly wouldn't be the same.
LeBron James would have a larger lead in the latest MVP race, the Lakers would be their relevant and theatrical selves and commissioner David Stern would still be hoping that all these compelling storylines -- from young Derrick Rose and his Bulls to the ageless Big Three and their Spurs to the Chris Paul-led Clippers -- were enough to take the stain off this lockout-shortened season. But something special would be missing without the willowy wonder from Oklahoma City, a unique talent who has all the makings of an all-time great and just became the first player to lead the league in scoring three straight times since Michael Jordan from 1995-98.
There were times during Durant's early years in Seat Pleasant, Md., when this was a possibility, when the gangly kid who wasn't sure he was good enough nearly gave up his future profession because, well, it was already feeling like the job he didn't want. It was a dark chapter in his otherwise-blissful basketball life, a stretch of about two years when he occasionally questioned if all the work was worth it and considered quitting more than once.
The first time, according to Durant, took place in seventh grade while he was at Drew-Freeman Middle School. His mother was pushing him into the Seat Pleasant Recreation Center, the local gym some 10 miles east of Washington, D.C., where he sometimes studied and slept in between training sessions. His coach, a man named Taras "Stink" Brown, whom Durant considered his godfather, punished him with grueling workouts that hardly ever involved the use of a ball. All the extra pain came with a price, and Durant decided it wasn't paying off.
"I told my godfather, who worked me out every day, I said, 'I don't feel like playing basketball no more,' " Durant told SI.com recently. "It took me a while to tell him, but I had come to the gym and I'd been at home thinking about it, and I thought, 'I can't go through this no more.' It was tough. God was testing me, and I was on my way to failing.
"As a kid, you want to play and have fun and go through things as a regular kid. But I wasn't. I was always in the gym, always training. I was running hills, doing 100 laps a day. Basketball was the fun part. I barely touched the ball, but had the push-ups and the sit-ups -- all of it. I was like, 'Why do I have to go through this boot camp when I see the other guys not working as hard as me and they're out there playing well on the AAU circuit?' They've got high schools looking at them, private schools, and it wasn't like that for me."
Brown, who worked in concert with Durant's mother during those developmental days, wasn't impressed with the decision.
"He said, 'If you can't play basketball, then you ought to be a ballet dancer,' " Durant said. "I was like, 'Nah, man, I can't do that. I'm just going to quit.'
"He said, 'Don't talk to me, don't come back, unless you want to be a basketball player.' After a few days, I changed my mind. My mom was on top of me, too, and I got through it."
Some six years later, Durant was taken second in the draft out of Texas and the thought of him making a living anywhere other than on a basketball court seemed unfathomable. He has made a quick ascension up the league's totem pole of stars, winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2008, earning his first of three All-Star nods in 2010 and capturing the last two scoring titles with his ridiculous range and repertoire. Now he faces his most important postseason yet with the Thunder, who won the Northwest Division title and enter the playoffs this weekend as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
If Oklahoma City had not dropped seven of its final 14 games and fallen out of the top spot in the West, all of Durant's work could have him leading the MVP race. Still, he edged Kobe Bryant for the scoring title with a 28-point average, and he set career highs in rebounds (8.0), assists (3.5), blocks (1.2) and field-goal percentage (49.6). While his first MVP would certainly be welcome, a third scoring title has put him in an elite group that includes Jordan, George Mikan, Neil Johnston, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob McAdoo and George Gervin.
"I'd be lying if I told you I never think about [the MVP]," Durant admitted. "Growing up, I didn't even think I'd be in the NBA, much less college. So to be one of the main guys on a really good team, with a great organization? I fell into a great situation. I'm so blessed that I'm here, but if I ever do become MVP? Man, individually that would mean a lot to me."
But the collective work is more meaningful to Durant. This is a new test for the fifth-year player, a postseason in which he -- along with Russell Westbrook, James Harden and the rest -- will no longer have the luxury of being the newbie on this block. There are expectations now, assumptions that they'll take the Thunder farther than ever before.
After going a combined 43-121 in Durant's first two seasons, the Thunder fell to the Lakers in the first round in 2009 before progressing to the Western Conference finals last season and being eliminated by the eventual champion Mavericks in five games. Durant, per his norm, isn't about to emulate LeBron James' ways when it comes to predicting championships either.
"I'm never going to say we can win a championship, or we're going to win a championship," he said. "I'm going to take it a day at a time, and you never know what will happen."
His path to this point proved as much.
Pro sports is full of athletes whose destinies were nearly derailed, none more famous than Jordan and his exclusion from the varsity team at Laney High in Wilmington, N.C. But Durant's is puzzling because it is a paradox, this idea that a player widely known now as a tireless worker was going to quit because he was tired of working so hard.
Even with an AAU résumé that included multiple national championships with lifelong friend Michael Beasley and the PG Jaguars, Durant was ignored by nearly every elite high school coach in his area during middle school. He was undersized and under-seen, standing some 6 feet tall but feeling even shorter in how he was viewed among his basketball peers. The disappointment, as his mother, Wanda Pratt, remembers it, began to eat away at his drive.
"There was one game [during the seventh grade] when a lot of the high school coaches from private schools were there watching the kids," Pratt said. "Kevin played well, but all the well-known schools and well-known coaches walked past him. Just thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes.
"There was one coach in particular, and if this coach was interested in you, it meant something to the kids and to the parents. He walked past Kevin, and I could see the hurt in his eyes. I could see him questioning himself. I remember telling him, 'He walked past you now, but he's going to wish he would not have. Don't you worry, just keep working hard. Just keep doing what you're doing, and he's going to regret it.'"