Friday, May 26, 2017

Strength in Number 35: Why I Love Kevin Durant

One of the more interesting Sports in the News presentations in Sports and Spirituality was the topic of Player Loyalty. A group of four young men, all Golden State Warriors fans, questioned the ethics of building a super team. They raised questions like: Is it okay for a player to leave a team or city to pursue a championship? How does that change if they're leaving for more money? Does it? And to what degree does a player have a relationship and some sort of commitment to a city?  Given that relationships do not run one way...I would like to know To what degree do teams and owners in particular have a loyalty to a player? Do they?! 
Student artwork at St. Ignatius. Some kids think it's creepy...I love it.
The reason we discussed and debated "Chasing Rings" is because the hottest team in the San Francisco Bay Area is on the *winning* side of the issue. On July 4, 2016, the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a free agent out of Oklahoma City. And like Dubs fans everywhere, I'm glad he did. Kevin Durant is my favorite Warrior. 

I am sure the tenor of this conversation would be much different in OKC or in Cleveland after LeBron headed south in 2010. Some of my students' claims were interesting e.g. I think it's selfish for any city to want to keep it's players only to have another student admit that he would break down and cry if Steph Curry got traded. A day later I asked him if he would take a bullet for Steph. "During the play-offs?" he asked...."maybe." 

The timing of this conversation maintained relevance as the Yankees retired #2 for Derek Jeter, a player who spent his entire career in one city, with one team. Meanwhile, back in Oakland—a city that will only be the home of the Dubs for but one more season—this super team steadily and easily made its way to their third straight Finals appearance. The opponent will be the same...that's right, hit repeat on the 2015 and 2016 series and we shall see what unfolds. "LeBron has never played better in his life" But what facts and stats won't let you forget, as much as he would like for you to, is that Kevin Durant is in his first NBA Finals since 2012. Here are but a few reasons I love him from the lens of Sports and Spirituality.

1. Closest thing to a 7-footer
Athletes are defined by their stats: height, weight, wing span, vertical leap...the list goes on. It's more than safe to say a given number of them are inflated. I would like to stand next to Isaiah Thomas to see how he and I match up. I have a sense that he stands 5'9" on a very good day. However, there is no need to single out the Celtics star point guard for I don't know a single player in the league who doesn't do the same...except for one Kevin Durant. Listed at 6'9" that is a lie. He's 7'0" or  rather a bit shy of it. 

I love what this indicates about who he is. In a culture and a league that up-sells, here's the guy that remains understated.

2. His ball-handling skills baffle me.
The fundamental skills of the game: dribbling, shooting and passing among these professional athletes has to be exceptional, and it is. Still, I often view the game through the lens of position oriented view: guards bring up the ball, forwards rebound down low and inside. But that's not true when Durant is on your team. When he first became a Warrior, I was surprised to see how often KD dribbled the ball up the court, swinging it high and low only to cut inside, dribble and shoot. He handles the ball with ease and with efficiency (even at 7'0"*). Why? I friend told me that KD played guard for many years. He had a growth spurt—about 6" in one year's time—and transitioned from one position to another. Those ball handling skills didn't go away...he adjusted them to his new frame and it's a joy for us to watch, and his teammates to handle.
3. Mom, Wanda Durant remains the Real MVP and a model of...
It's hard to miss Kevin's mom. Loud and proud, Wanda Durant stood court side to congratulate her second born son after the Warriors claimed the West. Dressed in a bright yellow skirt to reflect her loyalty, she looks like the inspiration that she is,

Aristotle said there are three requirements for humanity to acquire virtue(s). They

1. must be taught, 2. practiced and 3. we need role models. Resilience is a wonderful virtue and I dare say a popular one. We want young people to become resilient as they navigate the rough waters of adolescence into adulthood and beyond. 

Ms. Wanda is a good role model for what resilience means.  As stated on the mailer for the Support Circle event, "Durant, lovingly known as The Real MVP is an inspirational speaker who propels women, single mothers, and children to follow their dreams and set life goals. She is looking forward to sharing her upbeat message of resilience with us on April 12." Those of us lucky to hear her speak have a much better sense of what this virtue is all about, how to develop it and why it's worth having. 

4. His hero
Speaking of role models, I encourage all people—young and old—to have them. Maybe you refer to these folks as heroes or mentors. The need for examples of people who use their gift and talents AMDG for the greater glory of God never wanes. The Catholic Church recognizes this in naming holy men and women as Saints and saints. In sports, we honor certain athletes by memorializing them with an award or entry into a hall of fame. But I'd like to let people in on a secret I always consider when I think about my heroes: I want to know how THEY admire. Who do my role models look up to? Who inspires THEM. 
When I learned who that person is for Kevin Durant, I admired him even more. Is that possible?! The article, "You Can't Give In: Monty Williams on Life After Tragedya must read mentioned in this blog posting revealed KD's special relationship with Monty Williams. Chris Ballard writes: 
Durant, who worked with Monty for a season in OKC, says, “He’ll hate that I say this, but he’s the best man that I know. And that’s no slight to my dad, my godfather, my uncle or any coaches that I’ve had.” For Durant, lots of men have tried to fill the role of mentor. Most had lots of advice; few wanted to listen. Fewer still shared the hiccups in their own life. “Monty listens, allows you to vent,” Durant says, “but then he’ll bring you back in and keep it real with you.” 
Which is why when Durant needed advice last summer, while trying to decide whether to sign with the Warriors, he called Williams. A man most recently employed by the team he was considering leaving. (Williams didn’t try to sway him: “The only way I could help was to say, ‘Look, don’t let anybody else make this decision for you. Your family or your boys or your shoe company. It’s your decision.’ ”) 
Says Durant, “I was on the phone with him the second I made the decision, right after, right before. A lot of people keep their mind in this basketball bubble and he looked at the whole life. He was there for me as a friend first.”
5. He gave the Bay Area the best 4th of July...ever.
I don't know that gift giving is a part of Independence Day, but all Warriors fans got one on July 4, 2016 when Kevin Durant signed with the Dubs. I remember exactly where I was when the ESPN update came through on my phone. I was watching the 4th of July parade with my brother and nieces in Danville, CA only to have that ESPN ring tone followed by a deluge of text messages about the acquisition. The buzz in the air about the strength in numbers now was as loud and bright as the fireworks we saw later that evening. 

I suppose our freedom is the gift worth celebrating on our nation's birthday, but Kevin Durant signing with my team? Yay America!!!

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