Mother’s Day: Kevin Durant did more than thank Wanda Pratt; he showed what she had done

Oklahoma Thunder forward Kevin Durant was named the NBA's most valuable player Tuesday. He gave an emotional speech during the award ceremony. (The Washington Post)
Sally Jenkins
Columnist May 9

A very Happy Mother’s Day to Wanda Pratt, who demonstrates that it’s possible to raise a child prodigy of endearing modesty instead of swamping vanity. Kevin Durant hasn’t become so remote with stardom he seems interplanetary, and he doesn’t confuse his NBA prowess with despotic powers. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of other good guys around the NBA and the other leagues, but Durant stood out this week for his root-beer-eyed sincerity and sweetness of heart.

When Durant thanked his mother in that remarkable, handkerchief-clutching speech after receiving the NBA’s most valuable player award, it was an unmistakable moment of completion — not in the sense of a career, but of being a man.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Ma’am, your job is done, and what a damn good job it was, too. Please forward the blueprint.

Durant still has time to screw up his life, to offend or disappoint, or to become a soured, over-moneyed underperformer. But at this point it seems safe to say that Mrs. Pratt has fashioned a pretty solid human being out of her 25-year-old son. It’s hard to identify just why Durant’s speech struck such a chord that it’s still being viewed on the Web, but it has something to do with the fact that he was self-aware enough to recognize the woman who was the making of him. There was a lack of self-congratulation to the speech; it was replaced by humility, delivered with tenderness. Such qualities, by the way, could have been instilled only by his mother.

“Kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on the table,” he said, staring at her meaningfully. “When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.”

The speech was also a reminder to a smug audience that part of what we watch as paid spectacle — whether in the NBA or the NFL draft — is the passage from boy to man.

“We’re all a work in progress as men,” Durant said.

It’s easy for ticket buyers and media to see a player as just a high-definition avatar and to pass judgment on him and say he’s not a success unless he wins a championship. It’s another thing altogether when you meet his mother. Or in the case of the NFL draft, all of their mothers, moist-eyed and trying to remain composed as they clung to the arms of their giant sons in those smart new suits.

Durant drew the audience in close, introduced us personally to a coiffed woman with damp eyes who kept murmuring “my baby.” He gave us a startlingly intimate glimpse of his upbringing. Instead of generalities and cliches about hard times, he delivered specific images that shattered the abstraction of thankless single parenthood. He made us picture a young woman who had two small children by the age of 21, and who rose every morning at 5:30 to work multiple jobs to support them. Who fought a sense of being trapped by circumstances and the walls of tiny apartments.

“We moved so many different places growing up, and it felt like a box, and like it was no getting out,” he said.

With that sentence, the listener could suddenly feel something of the pressure, the caving fatigue, the rising tide of costs and the constant fear of economic catastrophe. It must have been harrowing. And yet there was apparently never a trace of defeatism in her.

Durant, his emotion bursting the bounds of the podium, said, “I don’t think you know what you did.”

For those who want to know how she did it, Durant has provided a few clues over the years. Back when he was a freshman at the University of Texas, he told me in an interview that she was a taskmaster who taught him unselfishness and mutual reliance by necessity: Because she had to be at work so early, he was responsible for every household chore. He cleaned their kitchen, washed their dishes, took out their trash, scrubbed their bathrooms.

Also by necessity, she taught him that she couldn’t want success for him more than he wanted it for himself. When he told her he wanted to be a ballplayer, she said, “Sleep on it and tell me tomorrow if you’re serious.” When his coaches assigned him a training sheet with 25 wind sprints on it, she would double his workload. “I think you should do 50,” she said.

But the main thing Pratt seems to have taught her son is unselfishness. In an interview with ABC on the morning after the MVP award ceremony, she said: “I was 21 with two small children, and I had to figure out how we were going to do this, how we were going to make it. I decided early on that my desires and wants and even needs came second to what they needed and wanted. That was my mind-set.”

Small wonder that Durant is the kind of man who not only thanked his teammates, coaches and trainers but said, “I want to single them out.” Only he didn’t just single them out. He devoted two thoughtful minutes to each of them, told a story that described his relationship with them, even weeping at times. Which would come as no surprise to anyone who knew him at Texas, where he reflexively credited and helped others — right down to the team’s student managers. He was famous for attending their intramural games, volunteering as their scorekeeper. When one sprained his ankle, he ran to get ice. His college coach, Rick Barnes, once said of him, “He doesn’t ever want to disappoint you.”

It’s hard to name an athlete more openly sensitive or unashamed of his feelings in public than Durant. And that too, is surely a credit to his mother. When he got his first tattoo, it was her name, etched over his heart. It would be easy to roll the eyes at these displays of sentiment, but somehow Durant manages to be regarded as genuine even by his opponents. L.A. Clippers Coach Doc Rivers complimented him for his earnestness in his MVP speech, shortly before the Clippers and Thunder met in the playoff semifinals.

“You can tell he obviously didn’t have notes or anything like that,” Rivers said. “It came straight from the heart.”

So Happy Mother’s Day to you, Wanda Pratt. The guess here is that your greatest satisfaction isn’t that your son is an MVP but the more character-defining qualities he demonstrated in picking up that award.

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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