Basketball origin stories often pit the protagonist against his childhood surroundings. Michael Jordan was cut from his North Carolina high school team, a rejection that fueled his Hall of Fame career. LeBron James missed 83 days of class as an Ohio fourth grader before his athletic ability lifted his family out of severe financial instability.
But Kevin Durant has a different view of his rise from Prince George’s County to life as an NBA MVP and a two-time champion. The Brooklyn Nets forward, who has endured two significant health challenges over the past year, views the Washington suburb as a basketball cradle with an infrastructure that has supported dozens of collegiate and professional players.
“Basketball County: In the Water,” a 50-minute-long documentary produced by Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures and Showtime, explores how and why Prince George’s County has evolved into a basketball hotbed. First-time filmmakers John Beckham and Jimmy Jenkins trace the area’s history and key basketball developments, noting that an extensive system of public parks and recreational centers provided safety and structure for a generation of athletes, including 30 NBA players since 2000.
“Without the rec centers and team sports, I don’t know where I would be right now,” Durant told The Washington Post by telephone this week. “I’ve definitely gone through that hypothetical, and I don’t see a good one coming out of it. I always felt like we are easily distracted in some of these neighborhoods. The rec center and basketball put me on a route towards something.”
No player from the county has soared as high as the 31-year-old Durant, whose roots there go back four generations. Durant first emerged as an AAU star with the PG Jaguars in middle school before earning All-Met honors and national recognition at Montrose Christian High School. After one season at the University of Texas, he was the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft by the Seattle SuperSonics. A 2016 move from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors produced two titles, and Durant brought the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Suitland for a parade in 2017.
“I’m always the first person Kevin looks to when it’s time to wrap up [a meeting] or it’s time to leave an event,” said Rich Kleiman, Durant’s longtime business partner. “When the parade was over, he was looking at me like, ‘This is incredible. Is that it? What do we do next?’ He didn’t want to be out of that moment. Even for his championship parades in the Bay [Area], he wasn’t like that ever.”
While “Basketball County” was first conceived during Durant’s Warriors heyday, the film’s Friday release coincides with a challenging chapter in his career. Durant’s three-year stint in Golden State ended with a torn Achilles’ that sidelined him this season, and he was one of four Brooklyn Nets players to contract the novel coronavirus back in March. The 10-time all-star is not expected to play for the Nets if the NBA resumes this summer.
“I’m alive,” said Durant, who was asymptomatic when he tested positive. “That’s it. That’s all I can tell you. I’m good. The unknown is always scary, but I had a lot of support. I knew if I needed anything, I could call someone. [As a society], we still haven’t figured this whole thing out, but having more information by the day helps.”
Like “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary about Jordan’s Bulls, “Basketball County” helps fill the hoops void created by the coronavirus pandemic. The documentary, which was screened by The Post, isn’t strictly focused on Durant, instead telling the stories of other NBA recent players from the county, including Victor Oladipo, Quinn Cook, Michael Beasley and Nolan Smith. Showtime Sports President Stephen Espinoza said the film aims to “dig in on the root causes” that turned the county into a professional pipeline.
“This documentary could have been strictly about the accomplishments of basketball players in this area,” Espinoza said. “But that would not have been as interesting.”
Indeed, “Basketball County” provides illuminating historical context on two fronts. First, it recounts how African Americans migrated from Washington after riots responding to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and how the crack epidemic of the 1980s gripped portions of the community. Then, it lays out the region’s basketball ties, including Edwin Henderson, the “father of black basketball,” and other local touchstones.
These arcs converge in the story of Len Bias, the University of Maryland star who died of a cocaine overdose in 1986, and the case of Curtis Malone, a prominent AAU coach and father figure to many local players, who pleaded guilty to federal drug trafficking charges in 2014.
For players seeking athletic scholarships and shelter from crime, Kleiman said, indoor gyms became “havens.” Durant, who recalled brushes with violence and drug-addicted “zombies walking around the neighborhood” during his childhood, eventually spent so much time at Seat Pleasant Activity Center that he slept behind curtains after playing all day.
“One strong takeaway is the long-term impact of building community centers and investing in the community,” Espinoza said. “As opposed to criminalizing an entire youth culture because of a burgeoning crack epidemic in the area.”
One of Durant’s early basketball role models was Chris McCray, a local standout four years his senior who played at Maryland. McCray’s collegiate success turned the NBA from a “far-fetched” dream into an attainable goal for Durant, whose “world was only as big as Seat Pleasant” before he had the opportunity to travel for AAU tournaments.
“I needed someone coming from my area,” Durant said. “You hear about guys from other parts of the town, and that seemed so far away. To have someone from your area make it out, from the same streets you’ve walked, made a difference. [This film] is about putting something in the universe that might help or inspire somebody.”
“Basketball County” moves quickly, and some of its best scenes are built around home videos of Durant, Beasley, Smith and Cook. An 11-year-old Durant drains jumpers for his AAU team with the same form he uses today, while Beasley and Smith engage in heated one-on-one battles as teenagers and gleefully describe going to go-go concerts at a young age.
Durant’s career has taken him coast to coast — with summers in Los Angeles and new business offices in New York — but Prince George’s County stays front of mind. A scripted series that’s loosely based on Durant’s childhood is in the works with Apple, and there are plans to host local screenings of “Basketball County” once the coronavirus passes.
Jordan returned to North Carolina in retirement as owner of the Charlotte Hornets. James went back to his home state in 2014, delivering the Cleveland Cavaliers their first title two years later. Durant has so far passed on the opportunity for an NBA homecoming with the Washington Wizards, preferring instead to bring memories of Prince George’s County with him.
“I never thought about playing at home,” he said. “I heard so many people wanted me to come back [in 2016 free agency]. I just felt like I did everything I wanted to do back at home. It’s nothing against the Wizards. At that time, my life was calling me somewhere else. I represent PG every time I step on the floor. Everybody who knows me, knows that. My game oozes PG County. I learned everything from this place.”