Just Be My Son

“Just Be My Son,” New Era, Nov. 1980, 7

“Just Be My Son”

A quick shoulder fake to the right, and then with pistonlike force, his legs drove him down the left side of the foul lane. By now the opponent had recovered from his very slight disadvantage caused by the fake and with blinding speed had caught up sufficiently to block the shot. But there was no shot. It was a fake and then a pivot back to the left; a right-handed hook shot came off the glass into the net. The grueling tournament competition that had lasted all morning was over. Devin Durrant had just been victorious in the most prestigious high school one-on-one tournament in the nation. In so doing he had defeated, one at a time, five all-Americans.

There was little time to savor that victory in Louisville, Kentucky. In just a few more hours the big game between the United States all-stars and the Kentucky-Indiana all-stars would begin.

That evening as the game progressed through the first quarter, it was a see-saw battle all the way. But then, midway through the second half, the public address announcer shouted out in quick succession: “Devin Durrant with a jump shot.” “Durrant with a driving lay-in.” “A jump shot from the kid from Utah.” The United States all-stars now had the lead.

A few minutes later the game was over. As the excited crowd of 12,000 stood anxiously listening to the post-game announcement, the public address man shouted enthusiastically, “Tonight’s most valuable player is Devin Durrant.”

That was quite a day for young Devin. But it was not the first time he had been in the limelight. A few weeks before at Ogden, Utah, he had led his high school team to a 52 to 50 victory over Box Elder. Of Provo’s 52 points, Devin scored 38.

My career as Devin Durrant’s father began on October 20, exactly 29 years after my own birth. Marilyn and I rushed to the hospital. Our third child was about to be born. My wife went immediately to the delivery room and I to the waiting room.

I was startled after just a few minutes to hear the voice of our doctor, who said, “Hello, Mr. Durrant.”

Because he was there much sooner than I had expected, I wondered, “Is the baby born already?”

He spoke again: “Would you like to come in and be with Marilyn while she has the baby?”

I had never done that before, nor did I really desire to do so this time. I replied, “Well, I would but I am reading this Sports Illustrated magazine.”

He asked in a questioning tone, “Could you read that later?”

I gulped and replied, “I suppose that I could, but I’m right in the middle of an article.”

He was persistent, and I soon ran out of excuses. Soon I was at Marilyn’s side, and in a matter of several minutes the baby was born. I never did finish that Sports Illustrated, but that day the longest sports story I’ve ever been a personal part of began to be written in my heart.

From the time of Devin’s earliest days, I was buying basketballs for his older brother, Matt, and he was throwing them to his little brother. As those early years passed, Devin and Matt began a long series of athletic competition.

When these brothers were both in their preteen years, our family took a trip to the northwest states. We were to be gone three weeks, but after only a few days, Matt came to me one morning while I was shaving and said, “Dad, I want to go home.”

I asked, “Why?”

He said, “Because I can’t stand to be around Devin.”

I finished shaving and then called the two boys together. We sat alone in the middle of a room. I said, “Now, Matt, you tell me again right in the presence of Devin how you feel.”

Matt said, “I want to go home.”

Devin said, “Why?”

Matt said, “Because I can’t stand being around you.”

Young Devin, surprised and hurt, softly said, “Why not?”

Matt replied, “Because you get on my nerves and bother me all the time. I can’t stand it. I want to catch a bus and go home.”

Devin was silent for a few seconds and then spoke, “The reason I say things is because we’re always having contests and every time we play you win.”

Matt quickly replied, “Sure, I’m better than you.”

Tears were clearly visible in Devin’s eyes now as he stated, “Every time you win, I lose. And I can’t stand to lose.”

Matt was touched by these words from his little brother. He replied, “Well, I guess I won’t go home. But don’t keep saying things to me like you have been.”

Devin spoke with hope and he replied, “I won’t. I promise I won’t.”

Yes, Matt and Devin played a lot of games together, and Matt usually won. But this competition taught Devin to play and gave him a desire to never lose. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that Devin is a winner. I guess many winners had to suffer some defeats before they found the strength to win.

We moved several times as those boys grew up. In the backyard of each of our homes, we made it the first order of business to pour cement for a basketball court. I finished or smoothed the cement myself. It always dried before I had completed the task. That rough surface with its ruts and ridges is what made Devin a dribbler. He never knew which way the ball would bounce next.

When he’d complain, I’d say, “Just remember, you’ve got it better than I had it. When I was a kid, we played by the barn in the dirt, and the cow was right there with us. We learned to shoot but we never were much on dribbling.”

When I would say that, Devin would laugh. He always laughed at my humor. He always listened to my stories. From his earliest childhood he was always my friend. He used to help me do yard work and household chores. While we worked, I’d often say to him, “Devin, having you help me is like having another man.” He’d work all the harder.

When he was five and Matt was eight, Marilyn and I took these two aspiring athletes to see BYU play football. Shortly after the game began, a wet snowstorm blew in from the north. I took Devin in my lap and sat on the north. Matt was next and then Marilyn. The one blanket we had brought along didn’t quite cover us. The sleetlike snow continued on and on until we became cold, wet, and uncomfortable. But at the same time BYU was winning, and I could not bear the thoughts of going home. I knew that we would have to if young preschooler Devin ever started to complain.

To keep him happy, I would say things such as, “Watch that man. He will throw the ball to that man.” Or, “Watch that man kick the ball.” Amidst all this I would take out my handkerchief and wipe the water from his head. Then I’d wring the water out of the totally soaked handkerchief and wipe his head again. My tactics succeeded. Devin didn’t get discouraged, and we were able to remain.

Finally the game was nearly over. It was now obvious that BYU would defeat their arch-rivals to the north. Fittingly, at that point the storm ended, and the sun came out.

I could feel Devin stirring in my arms, and I sensed that he wanted to stand on his own legs. I undid my hold on him, and he moved away and stood on the empty seat just below our row. After he had stretched and looked around, he turned and faced me. Our eyes met, and his expression became very thoughtful. He then spoke: “Dad, you do so much for me. Isn’t there something that I can do for you?”

Emotion swelled within me as these sincere words entered my heart. Somehow it was hard for me to respond, but I was able to softly say, “Yes, there is something that you can do for me.”

His five-year-old eyes seemed much older as he asked, “What can I do?”

I put my hands on his shoulders and, looking deep into his eyes, replied, “Just be my son. Just be my son.” Somehow he seemed to understand. I pulled him close to me, and joy filled my soul. I knew then as I’ve known so many times that Devin was a winner in the ways that really matter.

In 1972, when Devin was 11, we moved from Salt Lake City to Kentucky. Two years later Devin led his junior high team to the county championship. In one of the crucial games, Devin came to the foul line after the game had ended to shoot a foul. If he made it, his team would win. If he missed, it would be an overtime.

I had made it a practice to not pray about the outcome of games because it seems to me there are more important matters to pray about. As Devin prepared to shoot, I tried to follow my previous practice. I didn’t pray as he came to the foul line, but just as the ball was about to leave his hand, I could restrain myself no longer. Within my soul I cried out, “Please, dear Lord, let him make it.” And he did. A few seconds later we embraced. Basketball isn’t that important, but sons are.

After Devin’s seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade years, we moved back to Utah. As we did, Devin left many choice memories in Kentucky. It was there that he formed the dream that he would be a star and someday, somehow, he would play in the Kentucky Derby basketball all-star game. The chances of ever doing that were minute, even if we stayed in Kentucky. But now that we had left Kentucky, the chances were a million to one, for no Utahn had ever been so honored.

During his high school career, Devin never questioned any calls that the officials made. While playing, his temperament never changed. He seldom showed any expression that indicated any displeasure with himself, others, or the officials.

He constantly carried on a winning public relations campaign with the referees. At every pause in the action he talked and laughed with the men in the striped shirts. Through these positive actions, he seemed to receive excellent treatment from the refs. The opposing players sometimes complained that the preferential treatment Devin received from the referees was what made him a winner.

Just as his star seemed to be shining brightest at the start of his senior season, Devin began to experience tremendous back pains that persisted for several weeks. Then tragedy struck. While going up for a slam dunk in his first league game, Devin came down hard and grimaced in pain. After some moments of silent concern, he slowly got up. Holding his hands on the small part of his back, he was barely able to leave the floor on his own power.

As I watched him sit on the bench during the remainder of the game, I thought to myself, “All the desire to be a winner and all the ability in the world is no good to a man with a back that cannot bear the stress and strain of competitive basketball.”

After the game I walked with him to the waiting bus. Even though he was in pain, he was happier than I thought he could be. His positive winning spirit left no room for discouragement. He sensed my concern and said, “Pop, don’t worry. I’ll be all right.” But I did worry. Only a father knows how I worried.

After arriving home I retired, but I was not able to sleep. I arose and sat alone in a dark front room, sometimes thinking and sometimes praying.

For the next several days, Devin’s back was in my every prayer and in his own. He asked for and I gave him a father’s blessing. With the faith of a winner and a strong back brace, Devin was again able to play and play and play.

Devin was often accused of never playing hard enough to sweat. And he seemed to forever remain calm. His smooth, effortless, nonchalant manner amazed everyone. His winning and friendly demeanor on the court far outshown his record-breaking scoring statistics.

As a father, I thrilled to have others come to know him. As his family, we knew that he wasn’t perfect, but we also knew that he was an unusual person. He kept his room spotless and his every possession in perfect order. Every job he had at home or at work he tried to do perfectly. His favorite story is of a boy who was told by a lady whose yard he was hired to care for, “If you do a good job, I’ll pay you $3.00. If you do an extraordinary job, I’ll give you $4.00, and a $5.00 job is impossible.” One day after the boy worked harder than he imagined that he could, the amazed lady agreed that he had indeed done a $5.00 job. Devin’s motto, taken from that story, was to always try to do a $5.00 job in everything he undertook to do.

One cold winter morning he arose at 5:00 A.M. so that he could get in some early morning practice at the gym. Hearing him move about the house, I too arose.

While he showered, I cooked his breakfast. I put more slices of bacon in the frying pan than would have been allowed had his mother been there to supervise. Three eggs soon sizzled in the pan. Toast was in the toaster. I then blended some milk, ice cream, and protein powder (I had heard that such powder contained “rebounds”). He seemed most pleased when I placed such delicious food before him. As he ate, I sat and looked on.

Washing down the last piece of toast with the protein milkshake he said, “Got to go, pops.”

As we both stood, I said, “Could we just take a minute to kneel down and pray together?”

Without responding with words, he quickly knelt. Kneeling very near him, I spoke for the two of us. I thanked the Lord for such a son and expressed my gratitude for the love that bound the two of us together.

After many heartfelt words, we arose from our knees. Feeling so close to him, I embraced him. Then before he knew what was happening, I pulled his head down and gave him a kiss on the forehead.

He stepped back and grinned and said, “Gee, pops, I wonder how many other Provo High players got a kiss from their father this morning.”

I struck him on the arm and said, “Get out of here or there will be at least one Provo High player who will get a kick in the pants this morning.”

I stood at the window and watched him until he had disappeared across the snow-covered landscape.

I recall one night at bedtime as Devin was headed for his bedroom we passed in the hall. He extended his hand and said, “Shake, pops.” I extended my hand. Then without warning, he squeezed my hand to the point where it caused me to cry out in pain, “Let go.” Regaining my composure, I said in a challenging tone, “I didn’t know you were going to do that. Let’s try it again and this time we’ll see who’s got the strength.”

He grinned. It seemed like he was always grinning at me. But I wasn’t grinning because I felt the contest required a stern expression. Our hands met and embraced. As I squeezed with all my strength, pain went throughout my hand. I shouted, “Let go!” His grin turned into laughter. After recovering so as to be able to speak, I said, “So what? So you’ve got strong hands. Who cares? Strong hands never have proven anything.”

Then looking at him with soberness, I said, “All I care about those hands of yours is that they break the bread at the sacrament table, that they never are used to bring any dishonor to yourself or to any young lady, that they hold the holy scriptures, that they fold together in prayer, that the knuckles become raw from knocking on doors while you serve as a missionary, and that they forever remain clean.”

By now he was no longer grinning. He was always willing to listen to me. The Spirit of the Lord was there and what a thrill it was. We shook hands again and this time there was only a firm grip and a great love between a father and a son.

During his senior year Devin served as the president of the seminary. After a youth leadership conference, which he conducted, he told me, “Dad, I receive a lot of thrills playing basketball, but my greatest thrill came today when I felt the Spirit as I was speaking to my friends about the Lord and his gospel.”

Some years before, as a deacon of just one week, he had been criticized by his mother for smiling too much while he passed the sacrament the first time. His reply was “Mom, I am so happy to be a deacon, I just can’t help smiling.”

Devin calls his mother his sweetheart. The other children feel that she and I both show some favoritism to him. Once I said to Kathryn, our eldest daughter, “Kath, there aren’t many families who have a Devin. We naturally talk about him a lot because people so often ask about him. Besides, it’s all your fault. If you hadn’t heard his faint cries from the refrigerator where he had hidden as a five-year-old and opened the door and saved him, he would have never been the center of attention that he is.”

After his graduation, Devin’s fondest dream to that time came true. He was asked to play in the McDonald’s high school all-American games, the third of which was a fulfillment of his dream—the Kentucky Derby Classic. I’ve never seen him more thrilled than he was at the news that he would return to his beloved Louisville.

Our family took the opportunity to return to our former home to see him play, and we rejoiced with him at the successes which I related earlier. The next day’s papers told the story of the boy from Utah, his dream, and how he had come home to Kentucky to make that dream come true.

A night later at a fireside, hundreds gathered and heard Devin explain his dream, his prayer, and his joy. It was at that time and on other such occasions that I realized that it wasn’t only the 2,476 one-on-one games with his brother and best friend, Matt, all of which he lost, that made him a class player. It wasn’t the daily summer run up the long hill near our house, aptly named “Death Hill.” It wasn’t the 20,000 shots that had to be made each summer. It wasn’t the hundreds of foul shots that left him and his little brother who retrieved for him weary. It wasn’t the endless hours of practice. It wasn’t those things alone, although they were all necessary. But the overriding quality that made him different was a spiritual awareness of his Heavenly Father and his blessings.

As a college player, Devin was asked what he considered to be the difference between high school and college ball. His reply, “In college I have to sweat and play defense.”

Yes, college play required more effort, but even among the nation’s best Devin continued to glide rather than run. One sports scribe put it this way: “Durrant, meanwhile, was curiously inconspicuous, particularly for a guy who played the closest thing to a perfect game. He scored a career high of 31 points on 13 of 15 shooting, grabbed 12 rebounds, and dealt 7 assists.” The writer added, “His style often makes him unnoticeable during a game. Durrant, you see, rarely looks like he’s trying. His face is the same sitting in church or driving for a lay-up.”

Of his relaxed nature, BYU Coach Frank Arnold said, “He scares me to death sometimes. He’s very nonchalant. He looks like he’s loafing because he is so smooth and plays so effortlessly. But to make him a gritty intense type of player would hurt him. It’s just not his style.”

Devin loved the fans, but he expressed to me that during his freshman year he sometimes grew a bit weary of the query, “Are you going on a mission?” He felt everyone deserved a sincere answer. His reply was usually, “I guess that is a bridge I’ll have to cross when I come to it.”

Although that question was asked more times than one can imagine, and although thousands seemed to wonder, I don’t think Devin ever wondered. He always keenly sensed that it was his Father who had helped him become a winner. The talents and opportunities which he had experienced had been gifts—gifts from a kind and generous God who had extended his hand to Devin and helped him become a champion.

I believe the decision to go on a mission was never really made at a specific time. Devin has said that while he was in China playing with the U.S. all-stars, he had a confirming feeling that he should go. On another occasion he said the decision seemed to come after a long talk with one of the Church’s great leaders. But somehow there was no specific time when he decided. I believe that his “spiritual awareness” left him no decision to make.

His finest moment on the court came in Laramie, Wyoming. The Cougars had just won their second WAC (Western Athletic Conference) crown, and he had been a starter in every game for those two glorious years. As the players were interviewed on regional television, Devin had a chance to respond to questions about his future. I don’t recall his exact words, but I’ll never forget his fervor as he explained, “Next week I’ll send my application in to serve a two-year mission for the Mormon church. I’m going to be a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

When asked why he would leave his most promising career, he replied, “God has given me so much. I just want to go out and do something for him.”

At that moment I remembered the words he had said to me as a little boy at the football game: “Dad, you do so much for me. Isn’t there something that I can do for you?”

And my reply: “Just be my son.”

As he stood on the basketball court in Laramie, I felt I almost heard the Lord say, “Devin, just be my son. Just be my son.”

A week or so later BYU lost to Clemson in the NCAA tournament. It was a heartbreaking loss. A few moments later as Devin showered and dressed, I sat watching Lamar play Oregon State. I forgot for a time the pain of the loss and was intensely interested in this new game. Devin came, and we walked to the lobby. Arriving there I said, “Devin, you go ahead and ride home with these people. I’ll go back in and watch the rest of this game.” It was then that he took me by the hand and said, “Pop, don’t go back in there. Come home with me.” I could see a longing look in his eyes as he said, “There are just some times when a guy needs his father.”

We walked out of the arena arm in arm. I’ve never been happier than to be with my son. As we moved farther away from the great basketball arena, we both knew it would be a long time before his legs would again send him high into the air, his wrist flick the ball, and the crowd cheer.

Devin’s winning spirit caused him to know that the people out there away from the crowd needed their Heavenly Father. His goal was to help them find that Father.

Arriving home, we retired to a quiet room, just Devin and I. He said, “Father, there’s much to do. I need some special help as I get ready for my mission, and it’s only a few weeks away. Would you lay your hands upon my head and give me a special father’s blessing?”

There in the quiet of that room I had the privilege of blessing my son. After the blessing we stayed in the room for some time. We talked more of the future than of the past. During that choice time together, I knew that everyone who tries forever to do a “$5.00 job” and who puts his hand into the hand of his Heavenly Father is a winner. I still don’t know whether or not we should pray about the outcome of basketball games, but I do know that we should constantly pray about the game of life, for in that game there don’t have to be any losers, only winners, for that championship on high is available to everyone.

A few weeks later at the Missionary Training Center, we stood in a small auditorium and watched Devin Durrant go out of sight through a door where winners go. He was on his way to Madrid, Spain. A dream far greater than the one to return to Louisville, Kentucky, had been fulfilled, for Devin Durrant was now ready to play in the greatest all-star game of all. He was on his way to be a missionary for a Father out of whose sight Devin Durrant would never go.

Photo by Mark A. Philbrick

As a one-year-old, Devin won hearts with his ready smile.

The Durrant family escapes every summer on a camping trip to one of Utah’s many beautiful canyons. Six-year-old Devin is at the bottom right of this photo

The unwelcome gap in Devin’s grin helped make him empathetic toward others

George Durrant, Devin, Dwight, and Matt at a district conference in Kentucky

In 1978 Devin led Provo High to a state championship, scoring 38 of their 52 points. His efforts were honored as the finest sports performance in Utah that year

Devin has a special relationship with “his sweetheart”

Devin was able to spend much of the last semester of his senior year of high school playing basketball at various invitational games because he already had enough credits to graduate

The Durrants are a very close family. Left to right from the top they are Kathryn, 21; Devin, 19; Dwight, 17; Matt, 23; Brother and Sister Durrant; Mark, 10; Merinda, 18; Warren, 15; and Sarah, 13

Devin is postponing his sports career to become Elder Durrant