Editor’s note: Yesterday, SportsCenter reporter Shelley Smith was in Oklahoma City neighborhoods devastated by Monday’s tornado. Smith and producer Shari Greenberg were with Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant as he toured the area. She shared some thoughts on the visit with Front Row.
Producer Shari Greenberg and I were headed to San Francisco for 49ers OTAs when we were re-assigned to Norman, Okla., to cover the devastation and its effect on the area’s sports teams. While we were in the air, ESPN got an invitation (shared with select media outlets) from the Red Cross and Kevin Durant’s foundation director, Emmanuel Bailey, to tour the destruction with Durant.
Police told us only four cars would be allowed into the area, so in a refreshing example of media togetherness, journalists from all the outlets piled into vehicles — stacking people onto laps. An Associated Press photographer climbed onto the middle console of the SUV I was driving, crammed beside Shari, our two-man camera crew, and a reporter from The Oklahoma Daily, Joe Mussatto, whom we enlisted the night before via email to be our runner/navigator/photographer.
Because of Durant’s status, and his $1 million relief donation, we had a police escort. I realized as we approached the designated site we were following the storm’s path. First we saw trees down, then shingles from houses, then complete roofs, houses and utter wreckage. There were trailers on top of houses, cars on top of cars, tons and tons of debris and wires, homes in total disrepair.
“Where,” I kept asking myself, “do you even start cleaning up?”
When Durant got out and began to walk, residents slowly plowed through what was left of their homes and inched toward him, at first, incredulous that one of their sports heroes was really sharing in their grief and supporting their strength and resilience.
He seemed sad at first, but he fought to smile. Durant posed for photographs, signed every autograph and listened to every story. After walking about a mile to a flattened Briarwood Elementary School, Durant said his heart was broken knowing children had been killed in other schools, but also that children at Briarwood were cowering in utter fear as the storm went through.
He promised he would return, and return again, to the school and the entire area to do what he could to lift spirits in the state he calls home, whose residents he considers family.
“Kevin has always talked about the Thunder being part of the community, and he really showed that today,” Mussatto told me. “It wasn’t him doing something physically necessarily, it was his presence — I think it really helped those kids who came up to him.”
Durant didn’t do this for publicity. At first, he didn’t want anyone to know, but in the end, he said he wanted to call attention to what athletes can do, and should do, for communities they want to support, as much as they are supported.
Today, Smith will provide a special report on the Oklahoma softball team, currently No. 1 in the nation, as they compete for a spot in the Women’s College World Series (WCWS). The team plays tonight against No. 16 Texas A&M in the Norman Super Regional airing on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET. ESPN also will air every game in the WCWS from Oklahoma City, Okla. May 30-June 5.
As told to Dan Quinn