“I really believe that one day, if he wants, he can change the world.”
This assertion could have described a wealthy philanthropist, a Nobel Prize winner or perhaps a gifted medical researcher working to cure a terrible disease.
Its subject, however, was none of the above. It was Kevin Durant, a mere basketball player, and the prophecy was uttered by his college coach.
Durant is no doubt a great player. The 6-9, 240-pound forward has been fabulously successful on the court during his seven years in the National Basketball Association. But it is neither the offensive gifts he possesses nor the work ethic he has demonstrated that creates such high praise and expectations. It is not the scoring titles he has won or the All-Star teams he has made or the numerous awards he received in college that lead to superlatives.
It is Kevin Durant, the man, the leader—only 25 years old but already a humanitarian who sees a social picture much larger than the global sport he plays.
His example is a lesson in the power of humility for the front man or front woman of any organization.
“This is obviously one of my favorite subjects,” says Scott Brooks, Durant’s coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder, following a practice. “He’s such a special young man, way beyond his age. And he’s been that way from the moment we drafted him. He’s not self-absorbed like a lot of athletes can become when they’ve had the success that he’s had.”
A quiet sort who maintains his cool at all times, Durant doesn’t have the demonstrative personality that locker-room captains so often feel entitled to take on.
“There are so many different ways to lead,” Brooks says. “Sometimes, people get confused—you might think the fiery guy is leading, but what is he saying? With Kevin, what he is saying is how he is acting and how he acts every day. He leads by his work ethic, and when he speaks up, he has something worth saying.”
Durant doesn’t lecture teammates or get in their faces. He doesn’t have to.
“He’s very grounded and he works hard,” says point guard Reggie Jackson. “When your star player is like that, no one can really act up. He’s humble. So that keeps everybody else humble.”
The humility comes from the sum of Durant’s experiences. Even at his young age, he has had his share.
“One of the things that he has been able to do is travel, and that has enabled him to see things in a worldly sort of way,” says Rick Barnes, Durant’s head coach for one season at the University of Texas before Durant left for the NBA draft. “I don’t think, when he finishes playing, that Kevin is going to stay in the U.S. and try to help just one country, even though it is his country. He wants to make a difference.
“I really believe that one day, if he wants, he can change the world.”
Durant has not heard this from Barnes before. That is evident after a regular season practice. Durant is standing next to a wall in back of one of the baskets, covered in sweat from the two-hour team workout. Told of his former coach’s praise, he reacts with silence, taking a moment to think about it.
Durant looks down shyly. He rubs his chin with one elongated hand, shakes his head and says, “Man.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he explains after a long pause. “That’s like the ultimate compliment. That’s ultimately what I want to do—change the world [one person at a time]… one by one.”
The goal is… ambitious. Apart from forming a charity—the Kevin Durant Family Foundation—to support children’s and family causes, Durant has yet to outline a grand plan. That is understandable at this point. This is a guy who has been out of high school only eight years. He’s got at least another decade, maybe more, to play basketball in a career that has Hall of Fame written all over it.
But even with none of the specifics scheduled, he has his goal for achievement off the court, and some of the means. That’s a start. He may still be a young man, but he sees a larger picture.
“I’ve always wanted to help people,” Durant says. “I learned that from my mother. But it elevated when I finally realized so many people were watching me—meeting different people, people sending me fan mail and saying I inspired them, saying our team inspired them when they were going through a tragedy—that meant a lot.”
Durant has been motivated by his travels. He has been on tours sponsored by Nike and the NBA to places such as China, Turkey, Italy and the Philippines, so he is well aware of how the other half lives. But it was the events of one year ago in his own backyard that allowed the public to see what Barnes and others close to Durant already knew about him.
On May 20, 2013, a monstrous tornado more than a mile wide hit Moore, Okla., a suburb on the south side of Oklahoma City. It killed 25, injured almost 400 and caused an estimated $2 billion in damage. Only five days earlier, Durant and his Thunder teammates had endured the pain of being eliminated from the NBA playoffs. In 2012 their postseason run had taken them to the NBA Finals, where they were beaten by LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The team again had championship aspirations in 2013 but was short-handed with the loss of another All-Star, guard Russell Westbrook, to an injury a few weeks prior. Disappointingly, Oklahoma City was knocked out of the playoffs in only the second round.
A month earlier Durant had covered Sports Illustrated with bold comments about being personally finished with second place—he was the second-best player in high school, the second pick in the draft and a three-time runner-up for MVP—making the loss particularly crushing on a personal level. But the twister soon put everything in perspective. Basketball took a back seat.
One day after the tornado, Durant announced that, through his foundation, he was donating $1 million to the American Red Cross to aid in Moore’s recovery effort. Two days after the tornado, Durant visited the town and walked through the damage to speak with survivors in an effort to lift spirits.
“It was just so close to home,” Durant says. “I know people who were affected by the tornado. When you have compassion for somebody, it’s just like… you really think how it could have been your family. This is a big family here in Oklahoma City and the state of Oklahoma. So I felt that it was necessary for me to act accordingly, and I hoped it would help.”
It did. As Durant led his teammates through an area where two-story homes were reduced to piles of rubble, residents flocked to thank them for coming. They posed for countless photos, autographed basketballs, T-shirts and everything in-between, shook each hand that was extended to them and even helped unload supplies.
“When he and the other players went to Moore, they didn’t go down there to do a photo op,” says Michael Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They went down there to lift the spirits of the people. They didn’t stay 15 minutes just to get their picture taken. I know Kevin doesn’t care about that…. A lot of times when the media goes away, the players leave, too. Kevin and these guys, they didn’t care if the media was there or not.”
By the time he went to Moore, news of Durant’s monetary contribution had already made waves, and several residents thanked him not only for that, but also for the millions of dollars that followed because he had set an example. Within hours after Durant made his donation public, the NBA, its players union and the Thunder each announced plans to match the $1 million donation. Durant also persuaded Nike to donate $1 million in products plus three weeks’ profits from sales of the KD V Elite shoe to those affected by the tornado, and more major contributions rolled in, thanks to Durant’s lead.
“I just wanted to try and use [fame] to my advantage,” Durant says. “The world we live in, it’s like they wait for someone to start it off. And so I jumped in and did it first, and people started to follow. That shows how much love we have. Even though there is so much violence and hate and crime going around in our world, it shows how much love we have for each other. So I was glad I was able to do something to help people around here.”
When Russell Springmann heard of Durant’s donation and efforts to help in the recovery, he wasn’t surprised. A University of Texas assistant basketball coach, Springmann first saw Durant play in ninth grade and recruited him to play for the Longhorns.
Springmann got to know Durant’s family well and traces the athlete’s work ethic primarily to his mother, Wanda Pratt, a longtime postal employee. His parents divorced when Durant was a baby, and though he has a relationship with his father and speaks positively about him, he was raised by his mother and grandmother.
“That’s where he got his core values,” Springmann says. “His mother was a very hardworking lady, and Kevin saw that all his life.”
Born on Sept. 29, 1988, Durant was not yet 18 years old when he journeyed from his home in Maryland to attend college in Austin, but he was already seen as a millionaire-in-the-making. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement prevents high school players from being drafted—they must wait at least a year—and most can’t-miss prospects spend the interim with a major college program. For many players, that year is more about basketball than academics. For Durant, it was not. He enrolled as a freshman at UT in the summer of 2006 and returned after his rookie season in Seattle for more summer classes. (The Thunder played as the Seattle SuperSonics before moving to Oklahoma City in 2008.)
“The spring semester of his freshman year he made the academic honor roll,” Springmann says. “And he said to me, ‘Coach, this means more to me than winning a player of the year award.’ ”
Back in Austin during the 2008 NBA off-season, Durant showed uncommon leadership ability for a 19-year-old. He had won the Rookie of the Year Award in the NBA and signed an endorsement contract with Nike that was reportedly worth $60 million. Rather than revel in his success, he quietly became a role model in the Texas locker room. “At 6:30 in the morning, he would be in our weight room,” Springmann says. “Then he’d go through a workout, go to class, go to study hall, eat lunch, have another workout in the weight room, then come back that night so he could shoot. The next day, he’d do the same thing.”
His coaches recall that as the Texas players noticed how hard Durant worked, something fascinating happened. First one player started coming to the workout room early with Durant. Then several more joined in. Word spread. Within two weeks, the entire team was working out at dawn.
“They saw what Kevin was doing,” Springmann says. “He was living their dream, but he was working harder than all of them. So they got the message. The coaching staff never had to say a word.”
By that time Springmann had been around Durant for six years, seeing his growth from a gangly ninth-grader with a nice shot but little game into a bona fide star. But he also saw a person who never changed, who maintained his humility and his work ethic. And that had an enormous effect on Springmann, who decided to name his son, now 3, after the player.
“Durant Brown Springmann,” the coach says. “That’s my son’s name and that tells you everything you need to know about how I feel about Kevin.”
Many national media pundits often speculate on Durant leaving Oklahoma City for a larger market—following the examples of Carmelo Anthony and James, it is assumed that every star player seeks a bigger stage—but Durant has given no reason to believe he wants out of the Sooner State.
In 2010, when James was making a national spectacle of “The Decision” to sign with Miami, Durant quietly inked a five-year contract extension with the Thunder and announced it on his Twitter account.
Durant made another commitment to Oklahoma City when he opened his own restaurant, Kd’s Southern Cuisine, in December 2013. “I call this place home, so I just wanted to try something new,” he says. “I’m hoping people enjoy it.”
Joy is something Durant has spread generously in his young life and career. Those close to him have no doubt that he will continue to do so long after he has retired from basketball.
Colin Darretta is the founder of WellPath and co-founder and partner at DojoMojo, the partnership marketing platform where marketers from businesses of all sizes can connect with each other and grow their audiences at a fraction of the cost of traditional paid channels. Alongside these roles, he is also an active angel investor.