Kevin Durant is all over the news right now as he leads the Oklahoma City Thunder through the playoffs, but more interesting has been the recent mentions of his mother in sports news. The other night, ESPN and AP reported that Durant was struggling in a game until he spotted his mom dancing in the stands, enjoying herself, and something in him relaxed, and subsequently he turned his game around. The next day a post appeared on ESPN.com profiling Durant as a humble hard worker, raised by a strong single mother who taught him the value of hard work and family. Successful athletes routinely have the spotlight on them, but the recent attention to Durant’s mother, Wanda Pratt, is refreshing because it takes more than one person to make a career, and in Durant’s case, his mother’s dedication and sacrifice for her children helped make him into a success. Wanda Pratt deserves applause as much as her son.
The back story begins in a not uncommon place: a single mother introduces her sons to a local rec center and basketball as a way of keeping them busy and out of trouble. The abbreviated version would jump to young Kevin’s skills quickly being noticed by a coach, who helped guide him to college and the pros, but that would ignore the heart of the story. Wanda never thought about the pros, she wanted to get her sons on a path toward college, while giving them a safe refuge after school. Wanda worked nights, while Kevin’s grandmother and aunt helped out. She paused while stating what sounded like a simple childcare fact to a group of Sports Moms gathered by Gatorade, but the tears she fought back expressed more about the story. Wanda worked nights loading heavy mail bags into postal trucks to help support her two boys. She worked hard and it was a lesson taught to her sons, as well.
Kevin decided at about age 11 that he wanted to play basketball professionally, and he knew from Wanda that he’d have to work hard to achieve his dream. This meant working beyond standard practices and sacrificing a normal social life. Wanda said he didn’t go to the movies or out with friends much until his later high school years. While his friends may have been hanging out after school, Kevin took a bus, plus a 15 minute run to get to meet with is coach every day. That doesn’t mean he didn’t want to give up. There were times he wanted to skip practice or give up, but quitting wasn’t made easy for him. Wanda told a story about a day where his coach asked him to do a considerable amount of crab walks. Kevin balked. His coach didn’t back down, and Kevin quit. He grew more angry during the 15 minute journey to his grandmother’s house, but in the meantime, his coach called Wanda, who called her mother to let her know what had happened. Once at his grandmother’s, Kevin sat down and stewed, when finally his grandmother said he’d had enough time to calm down and it was time to return to the court. He refused, and said he was finished with basketball. Wanda said that his grandmother calmly told him that was fine, but asked what he’d do instead, adding that maybe he should take up piano lessons. After sitting for an hour on his grandmother’s couch, Kevin got up, said he was sticking with basketball, and returned to the court.
There are times as a parent of an athlete where it’s unclear whether to push or let go. It takes a lot of dedication to forgo playdates to practice and as a parent, to walk the line between pushing too much and pushing not enough. The two extremes are hands-off, possibly allowing the child to make decisions they may later regret, or pushing ahead, possibly forcing kids to continue with a sport they’ve exhausted. If the child does stick it out, whether they are a star player with pro potential or the player who comes off the bench when there’s a huge lead, a lot of dedication is required from the entire family. Only one person may be out on the field, but it’s taken much parental work to get them there. There is driving or working out carpools, equipment that can get pricey, time off from work to make it to early or away games, making sure uniforms are clean on game days, packing snacks, concern for proper nutrition and hydration, and cost, because other than a pick up game in the park or backyard, sports are rarely free. Parents are also part-time coaches themselves, giving tips on improving a game, and part-time counselors, listening to team politics or how awful it is to be in a slump.
As parents, sometimes it’s more clear when to step in and make a decision. For the Durant family, that time was college, which had been Wanda’s goal for Kevin all along. She said they had him list his top five college choices and explain why he picked them. From there, the list was cut down to three, all schools Wanda felt were academically solid, allowing the focus to shift to skills. She looked at what she wanted Kevin to gain from college and concluded it was leadership skills. At the same time, Kevin decided he wanted to go to college with his high school friends, none of whom were headed to Texas, the Durant family’s top choice. Wanda explained that this is where they stepped in and said it was a family decision based on what was best for him, which was the University of Texas. And the rest is history – truly basketball history.
Kevin Durant is lucky to have had coaches and family who believed in him, supporting him along the way. Without his mom’s sacrifice and work, his path may have been very different. What is endearing about Kevin Durant is that from reports, he seems to know that and carry it with him. He’s frequently reported as being one of the hardest working players, first to practice, last to leave, and he’s not too proud to stop calling his mom “mommy.” It’s no surprise that Wanda says it was all worth it. She tells moms that the hard work and effort put into helping kids become successful adults may not be appreciated by our kids now, but some day the thanks will come. Wanda Pratt is getting her well deserved thanks right now.