Late to the Game: What’s He Doing Here?


On a balmy night in May, as a storm brewed in Austin, I watched Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at a bar called Doc’s on South Congress Avenue. After jockeying for space in the surprisingly crowded bar on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I perched myself atop a barstool and grimaced as an elbow struck my back. Five minutes later, it was a drink tray that the waitress used to balance a bucket of Miller Lite bottles that jostled me. Right after that, another glancing blow from a shoulder. An “OKC! OKC!” chant broke out after a Kevin Durant dunk. A Warriors fan clapped incessantly behind me, so loud that I felt as if he were renting a $4,600 per month condo inside my brain. Like the grumpy, tired father of a toddler that I am, I realized, midway through the first quarter, that I was living my worst nightmare. I was at a crowded sports bar.

But … why? Who are these people? I incredulously asked my friends, the ones without kids not really bothered by the din and the bumping and the being in public. The only reason I was in the bar was because I am a cord cutter, and since the louses at TNT were broadcasting the game and I don’t know how to steal cable, they had me over a barrel. I also love great NBA basketball, and this series was turning out to be one of the finest in recent memory. But, at the end of the day, I didn’t have a dog in this race. I’m a Knicks fan.


So I knew why I was there, but I kept my trap (mostly) shut during the game. Why did anyone in Central Texas have a rooting interest in, essentially, San Francisco versus Oklahoma City? Locals loathe the Bay Area as the source of traffic and eyesore condominiums as a result of Austin’s influx of tech money this past decade.

And our neighbors to the north? OKC is a pestilential wasteland to nine out of 10 people you ask in Austin. Plus their beer laws are draconian. Then I remembered that I’ve written extensively on why Longhorns love Kevin Durant and the dichotomy of rooting for a Longhorn who plays in Oklahoma City.

As for the Warriors fans, that one’s easy: That tech money didn’t get here by osmosis. Tech bros brought it here, and now they live here, for better or worse. Case closed.

But there was one thing I’d never thought about when pondering Longhorns’ undying alliance with Durant: Why did he come to Texas in the first place?

Kevin Durant coming to Austin wasn’t likely. Growing up outside Washington, D.C., the high-scoring high schooler could have gone anywhere, and nearby basketball powerhouses like Duke or North Carolina would have made much more sense. Heck, if NBA commissioner David Stern hadn’t just enacted a rule disallowing high schoolers from entering the NBA before their 19th birthdays, Durant would have likely been a lottery pick in the 2006 NBA Draft. The Knicks had the second pick that year, which was traded to the Bulls for Eddy Curry and was used to take LaMarcus Aldridge and I think I’m having an aneurysm. But enough about my misery. Just know, Longhorn fans, that in an alternate universe, you’re rooting for Durant on the Knicks and the author of this here story is happy as a clam.

Texas, as it turns out, sent Durant his very first recruiting letter from a major school. He was recruited by former Longhorn assistant Russell Springmann, a native of Silver Spring, Maryland, who was on hand for a game during Durant’s freshman year at National Christian High School in Fort Washington, Maryland. Springmann was, according to Durant’s father, visiting another player when Durant caught his eye during a Delaware tournament called War on the Shore. Texas offered Durant a scholarship early, when he was still closer to 6 feet than 7.

An important recruiting concept is appealing to both the logic and emotions of the recruit and his or her confidantes. That can be parents, an uncle, or an unofficial agent—”family friends,” they are usually termed—on their behalf. In Durant’s case, it was his parents, Wayne and Wanda Pratt. Wayne left the family when Durant was one year old, only to re-emerge in his life in Durant’s early teens, when the youngster was catching fire in the AAU circuit.

Wayne Pratt’s friend, Earl Moore, played for Rick Barnes when Barnes was an assistant at George Mason in the 1980s, so the Longhorn head coach’s “tough but fair” style of coaching came highly recommended.

“That’s all I wanted for my son,” Wayne told the Statesman.

Additionally, Wayne knew Pinkney, a born-and-bred Washington, D.C. football player who was a tight end at Texas in the early ’90s. He couldn’t account for Barnes, obviously, but provided for the family a hearty endorsement of the school.

“Kevin’s very happy he didn’t have to make a decision to go to the league,” Wayne said in the same interview. “He’s really in love with Coach Barnes and his staff.”

Durant made his first official visit to Texas on May 19, 2005, at the end of his junior season. He also visited UConn and UNC, but less than a month later, he committed to the Longhorns. By February of his senior year, he had already signed his letter of intent. What made Texas stand out?

According to Durant, it was his connection with Springmann and Barnes, the 21 pounds that strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright helped him put on the summer after his senior year, and the chance to elevate Texas from a mid-tier team to a title team.

Durant’s mother Wanda—you know her as “the real MVP“—encouraged an independence in her son that led him to spurn the obvious schools nearby and trust his gut. It would have made perfect sense for Durant to play for Roy Williams at North Carolina, a team that had just won the NCAA Tournament. UConn and UNC compete for national titles every year, regardless of high roster turnover. At Texas, Durant could foster his own legacy, and stand out from the NBA-caliber talent already on those rosters.

But just before Durant committed to Texas as a junior, Springmann had a panic when he heard through the grapevine that Durant might be cooling on Texas. He had just transferred to Virginia high school basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, and his new friend and teammate Ty Lawson put a bug in his ear about joining him at UNC. Having recruited Durant since he was a freshman, he called Wayne to check in.

“I called,” Springmann says, “and his father said, ‘Russ, we gave you our word that we would visit before we made a decision.'” Two weeks later, Wayne and Durant were in Austin, and the rest is history.

In April 2015, during a Twitter Q&A session, a follower asked Durant where he considered playing in college before he committed to Texas. UConn and UNC were on the list, joined by Duke, Louisville, and Kentucky, all basketball powerhouses. Interestingly, all five teams have won the NCAA Tournament in the decade since Durant made his choice.

More tellingly, though, is the why, and the six words that Durant used to answer Twitter user @BallLikeMe12’s question will have an impact Durant’s mindset when he chooses his next destination: “Wanted to set my own path,” he wrote. Whatever that path is going forward, Longhorn fans are sure to follow.

Illustration by Melissa Reese


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