February 25, 2009

Durant brought to tears by jersey retirement

Kevin Durant said he feels like an "old 20."

He's been through a lot since leaving Austin two years ago. Seventeen-day road trips when living in Seattle. Playing shooting guard, small forward and power forward in the NBA. Guarding Kobe Bryant six times, including Tuesday night, when Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder cut a 10-point Laker lead to one in the fourth quarter before losing.

"I told my teammates in the huddle Kobe was going to shoot it every time - and he did," Durant said Wednesday night before having his No. 35 jersey raised to the rafters at the Erwin Center.

Durant has helped design a shoe named after him - the "KD1" priced under $100 (several Texas players wore them against Texas Tech Wednesday night).

"I wanted to pay homage to where I grew up and to all the people who helped me get where I am," Durant said of his shoe.

Durant lived with his mother, Wanda, on Mercer Island in Seattle last year, and now with his brother, Tony, in Oklahoma City. (I asked what happened to mom, and he said, "She's letting me grow up a little bit.")

Durant had to carry bags and get bagels as a rookie last year for the Sonics.

He was cussed out by a native Oklahoman for flashing the Hook 'Em Horns on the JumboTron at an OU-Davidson game earlier this year in Norman.

"I was glad to get out of there alive," Durant smiled. "I had to hear about our loss to OU every day until we beat them. And we always seem to beat Oklahoma State, so I'm not worried about that (on Saturday)."

But he's endeared himself to Oklahoma City fans by chairing a coat drive that resulted in hundreds of coats being donated to kids in the community, and by taking part in a shopping spree at a local Target.

"He was riding down the aisles with some kids on a dirt bike, wearing a Santa hat," said Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who accompanied Durant to Austin. "It's moments like that a community can really connect with a player. He's done a good job of being himself. People have really connected with that."

Was Presti worried about Durant on that bike?

"He barely fit on it because his knees were up awfully high," Presti smiled.

Durant said the most fun he's had on the court was scoring 46 in the Sophomore-Rookie Game at the NBA All-Star Weekend, and winning the game of H-O-R-S-E dubbed G-E-I-C-O because of the corporate sponsorship.

"I'm the greatest H-O-R-S-E player in the world," Durant smiled.

The most fun Durant has had off the court, he said, was playing a game in Charlotte and spending time at the home of former Texas teammate D.J. Augustin.

"D.J. is like a seasoned veteran already," Durant said. "He's steady and knows what he's doing on the floor with that basketball IQ he's got. It's great to see him in an NBA jersey. When we went to Charlotte, I went over to his house and we just hung out like we were in college. It brought back a lot of memories. I'm just so happy he's a part of the league. I'm excited for him and he's been doing well."

Durant was genuinely touched Wednesday night when the black covering was dropped and his No. 35 was revealed next to the retired jerseys of T.J. Ford and Slater Martin.

"I was only here a year, but I'll bleed orange the rest of my life, and I'm honored to be here tonight," Durant said. "I only played here a short period of time, but I think I made a little bit of an impact on the program. So I'm just excited to be here.

"I miss the fans here at the Erwin Center and running out of that smoke and also my teammates and coaches and I keep in contact with them as much as I can."

Durant said he'd be back at Texas this summer to keep working on his degree, working out with his former teammates and picking the brain of strength coach Todd Wright. Until then, Durant continues to rank No. 4 in scoring in the NBA, averaging 26.3 ppg, behind Dwyane Wade (28.8), LeBron James (28.5) and Kobe Bryant (27.7).

When asked if he considers himself among the best players in the NBA, Durant shows the humility that has endeared him to teammates and Presti.

"I've got a long ways to go to get there," Durant said.

Durant said he's not even the biggest star in Oklahoma City.

"That's Sam Bradford," Durant said. "Hopefully, when he leaves next year, I'll be up there."

Presti said Durant showed his maturity when he wasn't selected to play in the All-Star Game.

"He didn't let it affect him or his game," Presti said. "I think it's fair to say he's going to be playing in that game soon.

"The development he's showing is the result of getting to know the league. His persistence in practice. The success he's having is not the result of what he did yesterday. The success he's having is the result of a lot of shots taken at the Seat Pleasant Rec Center back in Maryland, at the University of Texas and with the Thunder. The discipline he's shown all his life is starting to manifest itself."

When Durant watched a video montage of his highlights at Texas and then watched his number retired, he no longer felt or looked like an "old 20." He was a little kid again, crying tears of joy.

"This is an unbelievable feeling," he said after wiping his eyes. He thanked DeLoss Dodds and thanked the fans. He said it was great to be back. And then he brought down the house.

"Even though I live in Oklahoma City in a land full of Sooners," Durant said, "I let 'em know every day I'm a Longhorn for life. Hook 'Em."

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