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.'"
If Pratt had instilled anything in her two boys, it was the no-quit attitude that she learned growing up on these same streets. Her mother, Barbara Davis, raised her three kids alone in Seat Pleasant, a rough neighborhood where, as Beasley described it, "one decision can change your path" and "it's not really known for guys who make the best decisions."
Durant's father, a federal police officer named Wayne Pratt, was separated from the family for most of his childhood, though he and Kevin have a relationship today. So Wanda took on the role of two parents, using the tough-love approach with the older Tony and younger Kevin so as to ensure they made it out -- and made something of themselves.
She played a part in this entire process, often applying the very pressure that drove Durant to question his desire, only to remind him why it was all worth it and bring him back from the brink. When Wanda wasn't hollering at Kevin's coaches to take him out if he didn't play well enough or give a good enough effort, she was working as a Postal Service mail-handler to pay the bills. The overnight shift was a regular part of the routine. Sympathy when times got too tough, however, was not.
"I worked so many hours that I remember Kevin asking me, 'Mommy, when are you going to quit that job?' " she said.
But Durant's work ethic never would have wavered if he had been discovered sooner. After all, this is the AAU generation, with players like Durant being discovered earlier than ever and brought into the club system that has streamlined with the most elite high schools, colleges and -- should the skills warrant it -- the pros. When James was nearing his high school years, for example, the hype surrounding the Akron, Ohio, native was already growing steadily. It wouldn't take long until he was considered the best prep player in the country, aka "The Chosen One," a nickname that went national when he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated during his junior season.
Meanwhile, Durant was merely hoping someone would choose him for their high school roster. It's the root of the reason he's such a different superstar, a 23-year-old who is often described as humble and grounded. Playing college basketball was the goal, and a lofty one at that.
Yet unconscionable though it might seem that he was overlooked, a number of factors played a part. The most obvious was his stature, as Durant was nearly a foot away from becoming the human mismatch he is known as today.
The scoring skills were there, as evidenced by the fact that Beasley, a top-level scorer in his own right, was relegated to rebounding duties in their younger years together on the Jaguars. (Beasley once had 30 rebounds, including 15 on the offensive glass, and no field goals in a game.) But still, no one -- not even Durant -- had him pegged as the sort of youngster who would play under the NBA lights one day.
As he neared his freshman year of high school, he hit 6-foot-3 but remained under the radar. When Durant joined his next AAU squad, the talent-rich, D.C.-based Blue Devils team with current Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson, he was reportedly a reserve on the second team during his first season.
"He was obviously going to be a good player, but he didn't have that 'can't-miss' label on him," said Stu Vetter, who coached Durant as a senior at Montrose Christian Academy in Rockville, Md., and had NBA players Dennis Scott, George Lynch, Linas Kleiza and Damien Wilkins before him. "You know with a young player if the pro potential is there, but he wasn't a guy when he was a freshman that you said, 'He'll be a pro.' "
Durant's poor grades were a major obstacle as well. And coupled with his underwhelming physique, it was enough to make him a risky recruit for most of the area's prominent programs. All the high-profile, local private schools missed on him -- Dematha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., Gonzaga College High School in D.C., Paul VI in Fairfax, Va., and Bishop McNamara in Forestville, Md.
But Durant, who spent his first few weeks attending his local public school, Suitland High, wound up at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Md., only because of a chance connection with the basketball coach. Charlie Bell, Durant's longtime friend who trained with him, Beasley and Taras Brown inside the recreation center that was a second home to them all, was already attending National Christian when he decided to spread the word on his friends.
Bell, now Durant's personal assistant, pestered the school's basketball coach, Trevor Brown, to visit the Seat Pleasant center and scout the largely unknown talents. Trevor Brown eventually marshaled one of his assistant coaches to take a peek, and then he had to see for himself.
"The first thing I said was, 'Man, these kids right here are pros. We need to try to get them in school,' " he said. "I talked to their moms, and they were having a hard time getting them into the so-called big private schools around here. So I talked to [Durant's] mom, and said, 'I think we can help you out. We're a school that kind of gives kids a second chance with academics, and I think I can help your son out in basketball.' Then she enrolled him."
Brown started Durant on the junior varsity team, but promoted him to varsity just five games into the season. The accolades that Durant desperately wanted soon followed.
"In Kevin's case, I was telling people, 'Man, I've got a ninth-grader here and I'm telling you right now, he's going to be the best player in the country by the time he's a senior,' " Brown said. "It was his skill set, the fact that he already wore a size-17 shoe, and it was a no-brainer that the kid was getting ready to be 6-9, 6-10. He could already shoot the three and handle the ball."
As a sophomore, Durant's genetics did wonders for his motivation when he grew another five inches. He stood nearly 6-8, meaning he could play small forward and guard on offense and center on defense for the varsity team. He led the team in scoring en route to a 27-3 record, all while seeing his national ranking on a well-known scouting site skyrocket from the low 100s to No. 9, according to Brown.
Predictably, the famed Oak Hill Academy -- home to Carmelo Anthony, Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Beasley and many more NBA players -- wooed him away during his junior season. Durant transferred again as a senior, to Montrose Christian.
In body and mind, he had finally arrived. But his level of commitment still waned sometimes.
By Durant's own admission, the doubts about his basketball future were prevalent until his sophomore season. He continued to long for more normalcy in his childhood. The dirty politics of youth basketball were coming into play, too. This wasn't just about the game he loved to play. And after Stink and his mother talked him out of quitting during middle school, he said the temptation arose again during his freshman season at National Christian.
"I was on the way to that bad path," he said during an interview with SI.com last season. "I just didn't care. Once you don't care about anything, that's when it starts to go.
"I don't know why [I didn't care]. With basketball, and everything that surrounds basketball, I was working so hard and I wasn't seeing any results, so I was like, 'Man, I can't keep working this hard if nothing is going to happen,' so I was like, 'Forget it.' ... I was going to quit, and be a so-called street guy. I would go to practice, but I would slack off. I would take plays off. I would just be there just to be there. I was happy I was just on varsity. I didn't want any more from myself."
Once again, however, his mother did.
"She could see it in my eyes and she pulled me to the side one day, and she slapped it out of me," he said. "She talked to me, gave me some good words and kind of revved me up a little bit, so ever since then I've been on the same path."
Pratt knew the pitfalls that came with their neighborhood. In her mind, the end result was all that mattered. Regardless of how hard she had to push.
"My ultimate goal for him during that time was for him to get a scholarship to college and for him to be able to choose where he wanted to go," Pratt said. "And there were so many kids playing basketball, so many tournaments, so many opportunities for kids to get to college, and I knew that he had to push his way through.
"I wanted him to learn that life is not easy. Life is not handed to kids from the area where he grew up. So if he wanted to excel, you had to fight internally, to push yourself. That was just a part of who we were, who I was."
It was all a distant memory by the time Durant was a senior.
Then, like now, he was known as the model athlete who can outwork opponents just as easily as he can outplay them. Montrose was nearly an hour from his home, so Durant, who didn't have his license, found rides or took the subway before sunrise to meet Greivis Vasquez (now a Hornets guard) and Taishi Ito (a student from Japan who played guard) for 6:30 a.m. workouts.
Vetter, who had looked past Durant just a few years before, was among the many who changed his stance.
"To have that kind of dedication right away showed me that this kid was special," Vetter said. "Now I tell people without any doubt that when all is said and done -- if he stays healthy and with his work ethic -- he could be considered one of the greatest players who ever played."
This is the only Durant the NBA has ever known. He's the coach's dream, by all accounts, the rarest of team-first talents, whom Thunder coach Scott Brooks says has yet to have his first "dog day" in their time together.
"Never once was I ever concerned that he would turn his back on coaching or work," Brooks said. "That doesn't even cross my mind. I go to work every day knowing that I get a great opportunity to work with a guy who wants to work, who is striving to be a special player. He brings it every single day."
And the NBA, make no mistake, is better off for it.