In a world smothered by scripted interviews, entitled stars and vanilla soundbites, Kevin Durant – the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player – delivers a slam dunk speech that pulls back the curtain, transcends sports and inspires leadership, humility and perspective.
These days, I don’t expect much from post-game press conferences, sideline reports, superstar interviews and other sports speeches. Why? Because we rarely get more than a quick thank you to God, followed by a litany of canned sports cliches.
If we expand the scope, the same low expectations can often be applied to other arenas, with force-fed agendas, rhetoric and scripted remarks clouding our glimpses at the true character and opinions of our leaders, influencers and role models.
But every now and then, we’re treated to something genuine, something thoughtful, something inspirational.
Kevin Durant’s exceptional acceptance speech for the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player Award was one of those times.
Judged in a vacuum (in my amateur opinion), the speech stands strong as an organized address with a heartfelt and well-delivered story.
However, in the vanilla, lay-up context we’ve grown accustomed to in sports speeches, Durant’s MVP remarks deliver a posterizing slam dunk.
In this post, I’m going to break down why the speech is so special, and list a some of the lessons I took away after watching it a few times.
But before we get to my analysis, I want you to watch the complete 26-minute speech and jot down the themes and elements that jump out at you. Then compare your notes to the ones I listed below, and let’s see if we picked out the same themes and takeaways. Here’s the video:
Finshed? Alrighty – here’s what I noticed:
Durant leads off with a pretty standard, “Thank you guys so much,” and praise to God. But when he says, “Basketball is just a platform in order for me to inspire people,” I sense this is going to be something special.
Then, as KD describes his humble beginnings, we get a pseudo-overview of what’s to come: “I had so much help. So many people believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself…I failed so many times and got back up. I been through the toughest times with my family, but I’m still standing.”
The perspective is set when the global superstar, multi-millionaire, freak athlete describes his small hometown and original goals of being a rec-league coach.
This is where I’d like to point out that as great as the content of the speech is – it’s just as much about how it’s delivered. There’s no question that his words are coming from the heart.
At the 3:40 mark, KD turns the spotlight on his teammates. I’d expect a general thank you that quickly covers everyone on the team and the organization. Not today.
Instead, he spends the next 11 minutes singling out every player on the team, with sincere praise and specific appreciation. Durant shares personal stories, tells jokes and sheds tears with everyone from the rookies to the veterans, bench warmers to the all stars. Here are the ones that stood out to me:
Derek Fisher: “There’s never a point where you can stop getting better.”
Caron Butler: “I can remember when you first got here, you wrote a piece of paper in my locker…and said, ‘KD MVP.’ And that’s after we had lost two or three straight…I don’t really say much…in those moments but I remember that. I go home and I think about that stuff, man. When you got people behind you, you can do whatever. And I thank you. I appreciate you.”
Serge Ibaka: After describing how they almost fought in practice, KD talks about “nights where you make me look way better than what I am.”
Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb: “Knowing that you guys look up to me. And I can help you out so much…Just as much as you think I’m making you better, you elevate my game.”
Russell Westbrook: “An emotional guy, who would run through a wall for me. And, I don’t take it for granted…I love you, man. I love you. A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player. And I’m the first to have your back man, through it all. Just stay the person you are. You make me better. You set the bar, you set the tone. Thank you.”
At 15:00, after going through the entire roster, he wraps up his praise for his teammates with a final note of genuine appreciation: “This means the world to me that you guys are here celebrating with me. Thank you. Thank you. I can’t express it enough.”
Coaches, management and family
In this next section, I like how he continues to put basketball in perspective, emphasizing how his leaders help him grow “as a man first, and a basketball player next.”
Head Coach Scott Brooks: “You as a man, I’ve never met anybody like you. So selfless. You don’t take the credit for nothing, even though you deserve all of it.”
Last, but not least, KD addresses his mom. If you’d been able to hold off the waterworks until this point, I imagine this is when the floodgates opened:
“When something good happens to you, I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to look back to what brought me here…We wasn’t supposed to be here. You made us believe. You kept us off the street. Put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You the real MVP.”
Like I said earlier, slam dunk.
Key leadership themes
Aside from all the emotion and inspiration, I noted a few recurring themes and characteristics that offer a great leadership model:
- Humility, selflessness: He spent the majority of the time talking about others, with specific praise and appreciation. No sense of entitlement whatsoever (a rarity among superstars).
- Vulnerability: KD frequently pointed out his flaws and referenced times when he wasn’t at his best, when he doubted himself. Then he showed how others made him better.
- Sincerity: You can usually tell when someone is bs-ing, faking or flattering. Similarly, you can tell when someone is speaking from the heart. Good leaders inspire with sincerity, and KD’s speech is soaked in the stuff from beginning to end.
KD says “Thank you” a ton during his 26-minute address.
I think we all owe KD a big “Thank you” too.