When the NBA is an extreme sport
From KD to Jackson, Tuesday saw the highs and lows of life in the Association
The NBA is a large world, a place that can encompass sentimentality, scandal and palace intrigue. Whether you're inclined to be cynical or a sucker for sappiness, Tuesday gave you plenty of material, as two men got their walking papers, and Kevin Durant was handed the Most Valuable Player award.
The Durant MVP news conference, at the converted roller rink that served as the team's first practice facility when it moved from Seattle in 2008, introduced a rarely heard concept in the NBA: purity.
While hundreds of people had gathered outside the building, listening to loud music and staring at a giant banner that proclaimed Durant "OKC's MVP," the Thunder's staffers, business partners and early-adopter season-ticket holders were inside, along with the mayor and the governor. They applauded when Durant's teammates and coaches walked up to the stage, then stood when Durant came down the aisle, as if he were the bride at a big wedding.
A video spoke to Durant's impact on the region, with people from all ages, ethnicities and walks of life -- Thunder teammate, farmer, security guard, barber -- offering testimonial to what Durant meant to them.
Then the in-person tributes began, starting with Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
"I don't think it could be earned any more purely," Presti said of the MVP award.
"He does it with such a pure heart that it inspires all of his teammates and his coaches alike," coach Scott Brooks said. "I've been around him his entire basketball career. And what you see is what you get."
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Durant put the rest of it out there for everyone to regard: his hopes and dreams and fears and flaws. He talked of his early days of hooping at the gym, when he fell in love with the game and wanted to grow up to be a rec league coach. Mostly, he talked about his relationships with his teammates, each and every one of them, from the veterans who teach him to the new acquisitions who remind him of his entrance in the league and his desires to get better.
He saved his thoughts about Russell Westbrook, the other half of the most discussed and dissected partnership in the league, for last.
"There's days when I want to just tackle you and tell you to snap out of it sometimes," Durant told him. "I know there's days when you want to do the same with me.
"I love you, man. I love you. A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player. I'm the first to have your back. Through it all. Just stay the person you are. Everybody loves you here. I love you."
Not as much as he loves his mother, of course. Wanda Pratt was only 21 when she gave birth to Kevin, her second son. She's the one who worked long hours to provide the modest means of living that Durant came to appreciate -- even when they sat on the floor of an apartment without furniture. At least they had each other.
"We weren't supposed to be here," Durant said. "You made us believe. Kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on the table. You sacrificed for us. You're the real MVP."
It was the crescendo at the end of an emotional half-hour. By the end of Durant's speech, it was clear the Thunder had achieved another elusive element in the playoffs: unity. It's not that the franchise is normally rife with dysfunction. There may be quarrels, but rarely are there deep philosophical divides. It was just a unique opportunity to hear the appreciation for its most important player expressed, and for him to reciprocate the respect down to the least-used player on the roster.
It reminded you that while the Thunder might be disadvantaged in their series, down 1-0 in the series and suddenly without home-court advantage, they're in a fundamentally better place than their opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers.
The fallout from Donald Sterling's racially disturbing recorded conversations continued into Week 2, with the league announcing that Clippers president Andy Roeser will be taking an indefinite leave of absence.
Nobody "takes" a leave of absence in the middle of the playoffs with his team in contention for a championship, especially an executive who has awaited success as long as the folks in the Clippers' front office. But that was one of the things working against Roeser: He'd been by Sterling's side for three decades, and the NBA doesn't want anyone associated with Sterling to be associated with the Clippers anymore. It didn't help that Roeser signed off on the team's first official statement following the TMZ Sterling story, a press release whose tone came off to some as defiant and insensitive.
Roeser was the highest ranking person left in the organization, so his departure was decided by the league office in New York. The rest of the owners can't be comfortable with the NBA deciding it wants to run a franchise like Tony's crew taking over a business on "The Sopranos." It's another step down the slippery slope Mark Cuban foresaw. "If you look at the bylaws, they can do just about anything they want," a league source said.
There is one aspect of the Sterling story that made a reversal this week. Remember the player-power narrative that emerged in the wake of Adam Silver's announcement, when players felt their voices were heard and the rumblings of a potential boycott were felt? That phenomenon isn't universal quite yet.
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In Golden State, the one thing Mark Jackson had going for him was the performance and support of his players. They played hard for him on the court, and they advocated on his behalf in front of the microphones. It didn't make a bit of difference to the Warriors. Ultimately the only relationships that mattered were the frosty ones Jackson had with the people above him on the organizational flow chart. Jackson didn't connect with the man at the top, Joe Lacob, and there was no one in between to advocate on Jackson's behalf. On Tuesday, Jackson was gone.
Here's a warning for the Warriors: Of the six teams that made the playoffs last season and changed coaches over the summer, only two -- the Clippers and Brooklyn Nets -- went deeper into the playoffs this season. Another warning: Some people around the NBA have taken notice of the way things went down and view the Warriors as a team that doesn't prioritize winning.
You know who really won the day Wednesday? Wanda Pratt. Just as graduation ceremonies are really about the parents, Durant's MVP award was really about his mom.
"He's still my baby," Pratt said. "But he's grown into a wonderful young man. I'm proud of him. I'm proud of all his accomplishments. I'm proud of who he's become. He's always been this loving, humble person. I'm proud to see that in this world of the NBA and the celebrity that he has, that he's continued to allow Kevin to shine through."
The world of the NBA, the culture of celebrity. The way she mentioned them implied a bit of wonder that he had maintained decency and integrity in spite of inhabiting those two places. From her son's side, she has obtained a close enough look at both of them to know how difficult that can be.
Maybe it would have been harder if he'd spent the bulk of his career elsewhere. Oklahoma City isn't so obscure that companies can't find him to pitch their products, but it's small enough for him to absorb its community values, to feel close enough to the citizens that he took to the tornado-ravaged streets last year to offer his presence in addition to a seven-figure relief donation.
"There's so many things that try to bring us down in Oklahoma," Durant said. "From natural disasters to the Oklahoma City bombing.
"We just try to shine a bright light and bring life to people. Having something like this represents what we're about. We fall down. We get up. We may finish second. But we keep fighting, 'til we finish first."
I left the Thunder's building, but when you're in Oklahoma City, you never really stray far from the Thunder. On the way back downtown, I passed by a Thunder flag flying above a sign that read "Forklifts For Sale." There was a Thunder Up banner on a building and "Let's Go Thunder" painted on a window. There were more Thunder flags and billboards.
Durant turned this day into a celebration of his teammates. The city wanted to express its gratitude to him.
You didn't have to be sappy to get caught up in the sentiment of it all.
Of course, you didn't have to be much of a cynic to think this day could have taken place in Seattle.
It's the NBA. There's plenty of room for both views.