MINNEAPOLIS — Kevin Durant turned all kinds of heads Tuesday when he donated $1 million to aid disaster relief in the tornado-ravaged town of Moore, Okla.
But Minnesota Lynx utility woman Monica Wright wasn’t among the wide-eyed.
“I’m not surprised,” said Wright, a close friend of Durant’s since their final high school days. “He’s got a heart of gold, and anytime (something like) this happens, he’s the first one who wants to help. He’s a really compassionate guy.”
Wright speaks with the perspective of someone who knows Durant well, having maintained a relationship with the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar throughout their college and professional careers. The two first met at the 2006 McDonald’s All-American high school all-star showcases in San Diego, and have remained tight since.
Close enough that Durant, fresh off the Thunder’s Western Conference semifinal defeat against Memphis, made the trip to Minneapolis earlier in the week to watch Wright in Minnesota’s final preseason game — even in the wake of the deadly storm that hit just outside of Oklahoma City.
“I’ve known him for a long time,” Wright said.
Amid the hubbub surrounding their final organized prep action, Wright and Durant spawned their friendship more than seven years ago in San Diego. The two clicked instantly, sharing stories of their East Coast upbringings — Durant’s originally from Rockville, Maryland, while Wright hails from Woodbridge, Virginia — and giving out basketball pointers.
Then, for the first time on a national stage, they went out and exhibited the skills that eventually would carry them to professional stardom.
Wright scored a team-best 13 points in the East girls squad’s 80-76 loss, and Durant poured in 25 points and shared boys game MVP honors with current Timberwolves player Chase Budinger as the West boys rallied from a 20-point deficit to win.
Durant went on to Texas for a year before being drafted second overall by the Seattle Supersonics, who relocated to Oklahoma City and changed their name to the Thunder a year after Durant’s rookie season. Wright, meanwhile, starred at Virginia for four seasons and set the Cavaliers’ single-season scoring record during her senior campaign. The Lynx took her second overall in the 2010 WNBA draft.
All the while, she and Durant kept in touch.
“A lot of it has to do with basketball,” said Wright, who scored a team-high 25 points in Minnesota’s two exhibition games, including nine Tuesday in a loss against the Connecticut Sun. “That’s how we’ve known each other. But he’s helped me, coached me. He’s actually a type of player I want to be like.”
Especially if she wants to meet coach Cheryl Reeves demands for versatility.
At 5 feet, 11 inches with a smooth shooting stroke and keen ballhandling skills, Wright’s been asked to man both guard positions as well as the small forward spot for the Lynx this season, her third in the WNBA. That gives Reeve all kinds of rotation options in spite of the league’s 11-player roster limit.
Wright called it “a learning situation.”
“I think her decision-making has to improve,” Reeve said. “She has to experience the ups and downs. When she does well, she needs to understand why she did well, and when she doesn’t, she needs to know what she can do to improve.
“I’m not worried about Monnie.”
Neither is Durant.
“I’m just excited for her, stepping into a new role,” the four-time all-star and 2007-08 rookie of the year said. “I’m looking forward to watching her play.”
Durant’s appearance at Tuesday’s game was his latest gesture toward acknowledging the women’s game. Since his name’s grown in popularity, he’s made a point of trying to hype female hoops.
“No matter who’s playing, I love basketball,” Durant said. “These women, they come out here and play hard every single night, and they deserve some credit. That’s how I look at it, so as many games as I can get to, I do.”
In a world where the WNBA’s grown in popularity but is nowhere near that of its brother league, a voice like Durant’s can make a big difference, Reeve said.
“Prior to his friendship with Monnie, I think KD is known as somebody who is extremely supportive of women playing basketball,” the coach said. “Unfortunately, we are still trying to gain the respect of the average fan — the ESPN guy — we are going to need someone like Kevin Durant that’s going to put his stamp of approval to legitimize who we are.
“I think it’s genuine, and I appreciate the heck out of him.”