May 6, 2019

On this Day: The Real MVP

On This Day , Public Speaking , Great Speeches , Seen|Read|Heard


It is the speech that launched a thousand memes: Kevin Durant making his acceptance remarks after receiving the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award on May 6, 2014. 

Durant was with the Oklahoma City Thunder at the time. In the speech, he describes the hard work his mother put in and the hardships she endured to help him reach his goals. Then he sums it up with a reduction, essentially giving his award to her: "You’re the real MVP." 

Off-the-cuff Remarks

In an interview with GQ magazine a year later, Durant revealed how he got his thoughts together to give a speech with one of the most-quoted lines in recent years. Zach Baron writes

He didn’t practice it. Had a piece of paper. Before going onstage, he wrote: "Mom. Teammates." 

"Then I had, right under ’Teammates,’ there was another bullet point that said ’Russell. [Thunder coach] Scott Brooks. Thank the media. Thank the fans.’ "

Gets up in front of the cameras with no real idea of what he’s going to say. Looks down at the paper, sees Mom. "And it was like, all right."

I come from a small county outside of Washington, D.C., called PG County....

The tears came pretty soon after that. "I didn’t know I was gonna cry. But I never cried as a kid." 

Public Speaking Lessons: Humor, emotion and the power of stories

The speech lasts less than seven minutes, and it’s hard not feel some emotion while watching it. Durant does seems surprised that he is fighting back tears. But he keeps going and does a number of things worth noting:

  • He uses humor: Even as he’s tearing up, he counters with gentle humor and self-deprecating humor. It puts the audience at ease and helps him keep some composure.
  • He creates snapshots we can imagine with his use of concrete details: A slip of paper in a locker with the letters "KD MVP" written on it, his mother screaming from the sidelines at youth basketball games are just two examples.
  • He is opportunistic in the best sense: He tells us how he just saw Grant Hill on his way in, gives us a bit of the conversation, then tells us how he wore a Grant Hill shirt when he played basketball as a small boy--a technique that connects his past to this audience in this place and time.
  • His conversational approach is genuine but he doesn’t ramble on too long: Often when someone "speaks from the heart," the audience suffers. But not in this case. Durant has a sketched out a plan. He uses stories and makes the bulk of his speech about the other people in the room. And he keeps it short.
  • He uses his personal story to show us why his mother is "the real MVP" rather than tell us how to feel: All memes aside, this is probably the most powerful part of the speech. Durant’s history of overcoming challenges is similar to stories we've heard from other successful people. He could say "we had it tough," as so many people do. But he makes it striking and original by telling us his experience with specifics uniquely his. For example, the image of the young family moving into their first apartment, no bed, no furniture, but they sit in the unfurnished living room and hug each other because "we thought we’d made it" shows everything you need to know about Durant, his mother, and the hardships they overcame.

As for the most famous line in the speech, we swear we hear a "you're" in there, making it "You're the real MVP." But pop culture, through the rhetorical device enallage, has made it into: You the Real MVP. 

From Heartfelt to Meme-sploitation

Whether you go with "you" or "you're," neither interpretation has won much favor with Durant according to the GQ article:

You the real MVP_._ People repeating it in awe at work the next day. And then in a week, less than a week, people repeating it with heretic glee, joking about it even….

"I was like, man, that was a real emotional moment for me, and you making a joke about it!...You don’t have no morals or nothing. You don’t care about nothing but just making fun."

How are you supposed to act in the world, when people feel entitled even to a moment like that?

"I was serious as hell saying that, you know what I’m saying?"

The guy who’s supposed to be the nicest guy in the league exhales.

"But after a while, it’s all good."

Learn more

Find the complete GQ article here. Below, you can watch Durant’s full speech:

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