EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Kevin Durant’s deep connection to Prince George’s County shines with Suns
PHOENIX — When eager eyes finally got to see Kevin Durant in Phoenix Suns gear publicly working out at the team’s practice facility a few days after a blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see who was working him out.
Ah, of course. Prince George’s County.
Kevin Durant working with Jarrett Jack. Looks pretty good! pic.twitter.com/a0Drethxaz
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) February 13, 2023
Jarrett Jack, five years older than the 34-year-old Durant, had a 13-year NBA career before making his way into coaching with Suns head coach Monty Williams in 2021. Both coaches, like Durant, grew up in P.G. County, a region of Maryland right outside Washington D.C.
Jack’s family ran AAU programs in the area, tournaments that Durant played in year-round for much of his childhood.
“Seeing Jarrett and his brother Justin running around the gym, I’ve just been knowing them since I was a baby,” Durant told Arizona Sports on Tuesday.
Durant has a handful of NBA connections on his new team. But a few from back home naturally have closer roots. All of these are going to help Durant as he further assimilates on the sidelines with a left ankle sprain.
Durant in his senior year of high school attended Montrose Christian (more on that later), a prep school in North Bethesda, M.D.
Williams was not familiar with the prep school concept at a younger age back in the 1980s.
“Didn’t even know what it was,” Williams said in February. “I’m from the inner city, Potomac High School. I didn’t even know what prep schools were. I just thought of prep like ‘preppy’ to be straight. I didn’t know what a prep school was until I was older and then I realized it was a bit of a gateway to whatever.”
Williams, however, found that gateway regardless through the same high school Durant’s father attended. Durant’s uncles even played against Williams growing up.
Williams went on to play collegiately at Notre Dame before getting selected 24th overall in the 1994 NBA Draft.
Durant was 5 years old at the time. While he didn’t get to see that part of Williams’ journey unfold, there’s a local legacy his new coach had built.
“His name rung bells around our town,” Durant said. “You got somebody that can make the NBA from P.G. County that played in the public school system — that’s definitely rare at that time.”
Williams couldn’t have been aware of the example he was setting and the weight of it.
Little did he know, one day a 7-year-old Jack was dropped off after school at Marlow Heights Community Center in Temple Hills, where his father worked. There, Williams was getting shots up.
“I remember my dad walking me into the gym and he’s like, ‘You see that dude right there?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ He’s like, ‘That’s Monty Williams. He’s going to Notre Dame.’ And I was like, ‘Oh there’s people where we from that go to college?!'” Jack told Arizona Sports on Friday. “Obviously, I had a TV, right? And TV for me, like you had your shows or whatever, but I thought the NBA was this mythical place that these people (are at). You only see ’em on TV, you never see ’em in person. Like, you don’t see them walking around. You don’t be like, ‘Yo, you know he’s from around the corner?’ So when I did have somebody I could identify with, that he walked these same streets that I did.
“I used to go to basketball camp at Potomac High School. And you’re telling me he’s in the NBA? Really? Oh, so it is actually reality? It’s not this fictitious reality show that I think comes on every Saturday, NBA on NBC, with the music. And that’s what it was like to me. I would never see Michael Jordan. I would never see people that played for the (Washington) Bullets at the time. I would never see them where I grew up at. What I saw every day are the things that I thought were possible. This is with people that, where I’m from, end up being, end up doing.
“So now when I have examples like Monty Williams, Dickey Simpkins, Walt Williams and people enlighten me, ‘No, they’re from right here. Used to go to that school, he went to that church, his aunt lives over here.’ Brian Westbrook to flip to the NFL side with it. It was like, no, these things are really possible and you hold onto ’em and it kind of builds something in you that I want to be a part of this fraternity to ‘make it’ as well.”
If you are a true basketball fan, P.G. County probably sounds familiar. You’ve loosely heard it somewhere. You just might not know the why behind it.
That why is a population of just under a million that has undoubtedly produced the most high-end talent from that type of populous in the game’s history.
Looking at top-two overall picks in the NBA Draft since 1986, P.G. County has churned out six: Len Bias (1986), Danny Ferry (’89), Durant (2007), Michael Beasley (’08), Victor Oladipo (’13) and Markelle Fultz (’17). That’s not counting Adrian Dantley, Jeff Green and Ty Lawson, or some of the other few dozen draft picks in both the NBA and WNBA, plus hundreds of NCAA Division I players.
Showtime’s documentary “Basketball County: In the Water” has more on P.G. County and the bedrock of basketball there. It includes the story of Dr. Edwin B. Henderson, the first Black physical educator in the United States who helped pave the way for the sport in Washington D.C. He was labeled “the father of Black basketball” by learning it from the creator James Naismith in 1904 and teaching it to give Black kids an easier path to college.
How is that level of talent in one tiny part of the United States possible? Where does that come from?
“I think we’re extremely competitive,” Jack said. “I think we breed tough-minded people, whether it’s basketball or anything else. I think we have a mindset and a fabric that’s just a part of who we are and grows up how we are. … We kind of just have a presence about us. And it’s a self-owned presence. I like that I have this little piece to me to a degree. From there, whatever you’re curious about, that plays into it. And for a lot of us, it just happens to be basketball.”
In 1977, The Capital Classic became the first high school county all-star game, taking the best P.G. County and others in the DMV area had to offer against the rest of the country. Yes, it was essentially a handful of counties against a country.
In the early years of the tournament, the Capital All-Stars were beating the United States All-Stars. The latter featured some of the greatest players of their generations like Dominique Wilkins.
“The whole thing behind it is how do we from this very, very small piece of land compete with California?” Jack said. “We compete with Texas. We compete with New York and all of Florida. Baltimore is right there but we don’t necessarily equate that with each other and we respect them because they have a very rich basketball heritage as well but we’re very prideful.
“And this is our little box. And we bring whatever you guys with the big sandboxes (bring). We bring just as much and more.”
KD’s NBA, P.G. County connections intertwine
(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
Williams previously worked with Durant at both the NBA and international level, in Oklahoma City and with Team USA. Durant’s got a few former teammates from both of those sectors, like Damion Lee in Golden State, Landry Shamet in Brooklyn and Paul and Devin Booker in the Olympics.
Those are some of the handful of basketball links Durant has to aid the transition of his first midseason team change.
“Good to have some connects, man, when you moving teams and things might seem new and different but when you have these conversations with a Dame Lee, with a CP, Book — guys I’ve been on a team with — Monty, J-Jack, you start feeling more comfortable,” Durant said.
But there has to be an even bigger boost from the kinship through Jack and Williams.
“Everybody says their town is unique but once you go there it’s a certain accent we talk with, it’s a certain walk we have,” Durant said. “You can hear it from a mile away. Whenever I see anybody around the country from the DMV area, it’s like we always have to connect.”
“We’re of the same stuff, we speak the same language,” Jack said. “We probably have been faced with the same hurdles at times. Probably in the same place! … Someone speaks and your ears perk up and you’re like, ‘I know exactly what he’s talking about.’ I can [place] the setting literally right here in my face. It’s not foreign to me rather than other people.
“Case in point, guys from the West coast or from certain demographics, they deal with gangs and all that, right? We didn’t have gangs where we were from. We had very tough neighborhoods that people represent in a certain fashion. So when they speak about that type of stuff, it’s like you know exactly what I’m talking about. As to where other people, they might have a different familiarity with different sections of different regions. I think that familiarity process, I think it goes a long way.”
Williams spoke further on that.
“Pretty cool to have someone here that understands the grind of how we had to grow up,” Williams said of Durant. “I understand it for him, he understands it for me. And how many obstacles there are there to, not get out, because I think that’s a bad way to put it, but to have a bit of success.
“And what he’s done for the community back home is unmatched. When you think about the players from P.G. County — I mean you’re going to back to Len Bias, Adrian Dantley and many more — he’s the best. To watch him grow and then be with him in OKC, USA basketball and now (I) have a chance to coach him, I think it’s pretty cool.”
Durant does, too.
“To get to know him at this point, it’s just divine power I guess,” Durant said of Williams with a smile and a laugh.
Jack, given his life experiences already, expanded on what differentiates a bond like that in the NBA as a player and really shines a light on the culture Williams has instilled.
“This is from a player perspective: In college, I had teammates. Up here, I had co-workers. It’s different,” Jack said. “In college, we eat together, we sleep in the same place, we probably all got eight dollars in our pocket between us. We do everything together. Up here, I’ll see you at work. If I see you for an hour, and after that, I don’t really know much about you. I don’t really know your intentions, I don’t have a good feel for you. So having somebody such as Coach Mont’ where you know what he’s about. … He’s gonna care about your well-being, ask about your family, wants to get familiar with you as a person.
“And on top of that, we’re from the same place? And that’s just intimate inside things that you have a side conversation with that only you and him will feel it because you’re from there. You know exactly what he’s talking about.”
Jack got a front-row seat to watching Durant grow into an incredibly gifted young basketball player, the foundation and start that ends with Durant’s name littered across history books as one of the game’s all-timers.
“I came across a young Kevin Durant,” Jack said. “Very, very young (and) very, very thin. But skilled and capable. And saw that he had a knack and a love for the game at a very, very young age that was unusual. And then having the size mixed with the skill set he did. Then he just kept growing and growing and when his skills and his body caught up together, that’s when you knew you had a special mix.”
Sometimes, Jack witnessed that incremental yet rapid improvement happening by the day. He saw Durant in the winter look like a different player by the end of spring.
“We’re kind of seeing each other on a calendar year type deal, right?” Jack said. “Because you go from AAU watching each other, then you go right into the fall. Well, now you’re playing a four-year school or your middle school team or whatever, so we’re constantly seeing each other. We see the growth almost like a monthly or like a daily type thing. And you’re like, ‘Man, he’s getting better. And better. Oh, he’s getting taller. He’s getting stronger. Oh, he’s playing through contact. Oh, his athleticism is starting to rear its head.’
“With Kevin, when he was about 13 or 14, that’s when he really started to separate himself from local competition. Now you’re like, ‘Man, this kid got a chance to be like one of the top players in the country.’ And obviously, by the time he was 15 or 16, it was over with after that.”
As Williams mentioned, what Durant has given back to P.G. County is remarkable.
In 2019, The Durant Center opened as a state-of-the-art facility to help underprivileged kids get the right academic infrastructure and prepare for college.
This came a year after Durant won the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award for his efforts in the community.
Durant that year made a 10-year, $10 million commitment to bring a program called College Track to P.G. County. His foundation partnered with College Track and Prince George’s County Public Schools to create the Durant Center, giving a direct home to College Track’s work that starts helping kids in ninth grade — not only through high school graduation but their college graduation as well.
The class of 2026 that began in the program in 2019 just graduated high school last summer. Check out Durant and all the kids representing their new colleges.
Last night, the inaugural class at @KDTrey5 + @collegetrack's @DurantCenter walked across the stage at @NMAAHC as graduating high school seniors. Congrats and good luck to all 51 students as they head off to their colleges of choice! pic.twitter.com/9JK9ER1R92
— 35V (@35Ventures) June 28, 2022
Local legend of Durant has Suns links
(Photo by Preston Keres/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)
To return to basketball, Durant, like Williams in another way, unknowingly brought even more talent to the area.
When Suns forward Ish Wainright arrived from Kansas City at Montrose Christian School in 2011, there were two jerseys hanging up in the gym.
One of them was No. 3, for the guy we all now know as No. 35.
Durant’s one year at Montrose Christian set the legendary standard he would continue to meet in Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Brooklyn and now Phoenix.
“When I went to Montrose, it was because of those guys also,” Wainright said in February of alums like Durant and Greivis Vasquez.
Another player he mentioned was new Suns guard Terrence Ross.
The homegrown Pacific Northwest product spent two years of high school in Oregon but moved across the country to play in P.G. County at Montrose Christian.
“You always heard the legend of KD early on,” Ross said Wednesday of his time at the school.
When Durant won his first championship with the Warriors in 2017, he rode through Seat Pleasant, M.D., with the Larry O’Brien trophy.
🏆 @KDTrey5 & Larry celebrate in KD's hometown of Seat Pleasant, Maryland. #KDDay pic.twitter.com/s9hFtuAoFW
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) August 17, 2017
Time and time again, Durant has shown how important his home is to him.
Getting to take this next step of his basketball journey with two coaches who share that in common with him must be special.
“It was hard getting out of our neighborhoods and stuff that we grew up in, you know?” Durant said. “There’s not a lot of people that have explored the rest of the world and that was always a goal of mine. I wanted to play in the league, obviously, but I wanted to see other parts of the world.
“To be able to leave and learn more and bring it back to my town and introduce some of the people I grew up to a different way of living — I realized as I got older, that’s really what I’m living for. As much as I can invite them and have them experience what I experience is what I try to do.”