Is Kevin Durant the best Washington, D.C., basketball player ever?

Mike Wise
Columnist June 13, 2012

It’s nice and all that Kevin Durant is locked in a mortal hoop battle with LeBron James for the title of Best Player in the Universe. But a more pressing regional concern has arisen:

Is the pride of Prince George’s County, the guy who was named Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year at Montrose Christian just six years ago, the best ’baller to grace a District playground? Ever?

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“That means a lot,” Durant said, smiling at the thought. It was Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after he used his 6-foot-10, corn-silk-thin frame to slither through Miami’s defense for 36 points and an Oklahoma City comeback victory in his first NBA Finals game. He thought about the question some more.

“My goal as a kid was to be the best player ever in my area,” Durant said. “That was my first goal before even thinking about going to college or the NBA. So that means a lot to me.”

And?

“But I don’t think I’m up there with those guys — Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing and Adrian Dantley and guys like that yet. I’ve got to keep working and hopefully I’ll get there. That’s always been a goal of mine and hopefully I’ll achieve it.”

As much as I wanted to put him at the top of the pantheon already, the old heads also talked me down.

Morgan Wootten and John Thompson Jr., two of the most influential men in the history of Washington basketball, agree with the humble kid. After all, they saw Elgin Baylor spin D.C. on his fingertips in person.

“It’s almost like trying to evaluate the Triple Crown before the last two legs are run,” Big John said Wednesday morning. “Kevin is being evaluated by others with total bodies of work — at 23 years old, which is saying something.

“The thing about Kevin is, people keep talking about his skill. It’s his heart. He’s got heart to match his skill level. They talk about his numbers and whatnot. But it’s not how many he scores; it’s when he scores. Those buckets at the end of games say more to me about him as a great player than anything.

“But all-time greatest D.C. player? Not yet. Look, you asked me what’s the most amazing thing I saw Elgin Baylor ever do on a basketball court. Everything Elgin did was amazing. Remember, he only played in the league after he had his kneecap taken out. I totally idolized him. He impacted everybody in Washington. Now, Kevin is definitely in the conversation, that’s for sure.”

Wootten, the legendary DeMatha coach, said Durant is on his way to starting-five inclusion, if he’s not already there.

“Kevin is a great one,” Wootten said, “but if I look at our guys in Washington — the greatest five — you have to start with Elgin Baylor. How you get ahead of Elgin, I don’t know.”

Still, Durant in his fifth year has already led the NBA in scoring one more time (three) than Dantley, a 15-year pro, Hall of Famer and the best player Wootten ever coached at DeMatha. Bing was an all-star seven times in his NBA career, but Durant already has made three all-NBA first teams to Bing’s two.

The consensus college player of the year in his only season at Texas, Durant won the NBA rookie of the year award — like Baylor, Bing, Dantley and Reston’s Grant Hill — playing in Seattle before the Sonics packed up and moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Humble, comfortable enough in his own skin to re-sign with the small-market Thunder, seems ready to steal the baton from LeBron as the best wing player after Kobe Bryant (who took the baton from Michael Jordan, who took it from Magic and Bird, who took it from Julius Erving, who took it from, among others, Elgin Baylor).

Comparing Durant to Hill is one thing, of course. But comparing him to Baylor is like chasing a ghost. The playgrounds of Turkey Thicket and Barry Farm just don’t intersect in time. There is no Goodman League in the continuum. Besides, because there was no film of Baylor’s exploits as a youth, his aura only grows. He scored more than 23,000 points in his career and made 10 all-NBA first teams.

But consider the scene last August at Rucker Park, the famed Harlem courts across the street from where the Polo Grounds once stood, where Wilt, Kareem and Dr. J went up and down the blistering asphalt with playground legends Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond, who holds the Rucker record with 74 points in a game, and Earl “The Goat” Manigault.

After he scored his 66th point in the Entertainers Basketball League last summer, Durant was mobbed by the crowd, a moment he called one of the best in his life when asked about it on Tuesday. “Only thing I remember was that everybody ran on the court,” he said.

K.D. has his own playground-lore moments. Shouldn’t he get consideration as the greatest?

My friend Josh Barr, who covered local basketball at The Post for almost two decades, is coming out with a book in the fall called “Capital Kings,” which details the 25 greatest D.C.-area schoolboy stars ever. Surely, as a relative youngster, he would put Durant No. 1.

“I got him at No. 4 right now behind Baylor, Bing and Dantley and ahead of Grant Hill,” Barr said. “When all is said and done, could Durant be there? Sure. But he’s just so young.”

Not even Troy Weaver, the Thunder’s assistant general manager who is a Prince George’s native and coached the D.C. Assault, would put Durant at No. 1 yet.

“Kevin is up there,” Weaver said. “To me, though, it’s still Adrian Dantley and Dave Bing. I saw film of Bing and remember Dantley. I never saw Elgin Baylor, so I can’t say.”

Either way, Jack George (St. John’s High, 1948) and Austin Carr have been surpassed. Len Bias, too, whom Weaver said could have been the best ever had he not died so young.

I would put Durant ahead of Dantley, because as relentless as A.D. was backing down his defender in the post he was never thought to be a perennial top-five player in the game during his career. That leaves only Bing and Baylor, who once averaged 38.3 points per game in a single season and dropped 71 points in one NBA game.

But he never won an NBA championship, which Durant is just three victories from at 23. If I were called “The Rabbit,” as Baylor was during his Hall of Fame career, I’d start running because within three years, if not sooner, Durant is going to catch him and be forever viewed as the greatest ballplayer to come out of the Washington area.

As Thompson said, cackling, “He sure ain’t on the bottom rung of the ladder, that’s for damn sure.”

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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