Kevin Durant, the NBA’s unassuming superstar, remembers his D.C. roots

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that it was an NCAA rule that prevented Kevin Durant from going straight from high school to the NBA. It was an NBA rule. This version has been corrected.

February 24, 2012

There’s something undeniably wholesome about Oklahoma City Thunder basketball.

The entire arena stands before each game and prays together. The crowd goes silent for a video tribute of a community hero and is enthralled with the “kiss cam.” There was a marriage proposal between quarters at one recent game. And at the center of it all is the city’s squeaky-clean, 23-year-old superstar, Kevin Durant, who fist-bumps everyone he sees, kisses his mom following games and has turned the nation’s heartland into pro basketball country.

The television cameras don’t show this, but when Durant finishes another night of work — another big win, another big scoring night — he retires to the locker room and peels off his jersey. In uniform, he has no visible tattoos; they’re all covered up. But in here, you can see the six-inch block letters stretching across his shoulders: “MARYLAND.”

“It reminds me that every time I step on the floor, I’m carrying all those people with me,” Durant says.

Where he’s from couldn’t be more different from where he is. Born in Washington and raised around Prince George’s County, Durant will be a centerpiece in this weekend’s NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, entering the festivities ranked second in the league in scoring. More important, his Thunder team is tied with the Miami Heat for the league’s best record.

He’s doing it all from quiet, quaint Oklahoma City, where professional basketball didn’t even exist five years ago. In many ways, it’s nothing like the place he was reared. In others, it’s the same.

“I’m used to big buildings, lot of people, lot of cars, lot of traffic, lots of things going on,” he said.

But for Durant, everything still revolves around basketball. Then and now, that’s all that matters. “I’m like a chameleon. I adapt to my situation,” he said. “It’s very slowed down here. I like it that way. I’m a guy that’s very reserved, quiet and shy myself.”

* * *

No one in the NBA questions how good Durant is. The more intriguing debate is: How good will he be? Already among the game’s elite, the 6-foot-9 Durant is in his fifth season. He’s improved year to year — month to month, really — and presents a unique challenge for opposing teams.

“I don’t think there’s been a Kevin Durant. Ever,” Boston Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a comparison. Unless you say George Gervin — but taller.

“He’s 7 feet tall and he’s running around like a two-guard. He can handle the ball, he can take you off the dribble, he can post you up, he shoots over you. You can’t trap him because he sees right over you. I don’t think in the years that I’ve coached and played . . . there’s ever been a more difficult guy to prepare for. You really feel like you’re wasting your time doing it. He’s going to probably score anyway.”

* * *

As a child, Durant had no problem entertaining himself. He’d go to his grandmother’s house, race to the same spot, plop himself on the floor and disappear.

“It was just a penny and a clothespin,” said his mother, Wanda Pratt. “That’s what he was playing with. And he’d spend hours — I mean, hours and hours and hours — just sitting there, playing with a penny and a clothespin.”

This went on for years, and his mother eventually asked her young son what he was doing all that time. Making up basketball plays, he told her.

“He’s always been somewhat shy, little sheepish,” Pratt said. “He’s quiet around me still today and I’ve been knowing him all his life.”

The family moved around Prince George’s County — Capitol Heights, Suitland, Seat Pleasant — and Pratt worked an overnight shift for the U.S. Postal Service. That meant Durant spent a lot of time with family, particularly his grandmother, Barbara Davis.

“I used to take him to school sometimes and say, ‘Don’t you want to talk to Grandma?’ He’d talk a minute. Then before you know it, quiet again,” Davis said.

Pratt still remembers driving an 8-year-old Durant to get a haircut when she passed the Seat Pleasant Recreation Center and thought that might be a good outlet for her kids. There’s no way she could know how important it would be.

“It changed my life,” Durant said. “Every memory I have from when I was a kid involves basketball.”

Coaches quickly took note of Durant’s natural athleticism. Charles Craig and Taras Brown began logging long hours with Durant, who was willing to do anything they asked. He sprinted up the hills behind the center. He ran full-court one-on-one. He learned every position on the floor.

“Kevin spent all of his time on the basketball court,” said Brian Shivers, a longtime volunteer at the rec center. “The work he put in here is what groomed him to be an NBA player. He’d get down here at 9 in the morning and would do drills until 10 at night. They trained him like he was already in the NBA.”

Durant knew his father growing up, but Pratt thought he was in need of strong male role models. There was no shortage of father figures available at the rec center, she said, none more ubiquitous then Craig or Brown. In 2005, though, Craig was shot and killed. He was just 35 years old, which is why the basketball star wears No. 35 on his jersey today.

Durant calls Brown his godfather, and he’s played a role in every decision Durant has made since high school. Durant’s game kept improving, and he transferred from National Christian Academy in Fort Washington to Oak Hill in Mouth of Wilson, Va., to Montrose Christian in Rockville, where he was named The Washington Post’s All-Met Basketball Player of the Year in 2006 and became one of the nation’s top recruits.

“He was never a kid who needed to play in front of big crowds, who needed to be a star, who needed all the accolades,” said Trevor Brown, Durant’s coach for two years at National Christian. “That’s not him. He was always more concerned with being the best player possible.”

Said Durant: “I wanted to the best player in the state — [the best] the area has ever seen. That's always been my goal. Guys like Elgin Baylor, Adrian Dantley and Dave Bing, it’s tough to pass those guys. So I’m studying, working. My project’s not over yet. Hopefully, I get there.”

* * *

The week leading up Sunday’s All-Star Game happened to be one of the more memorable stretches of Durant’s career. The Thunder won four games in five nights, including victories over the Celtics and Lakers on back-to-back nights. Durant averaged 36 points an outing and poured in a career-high 51 last Sunday against Denver.

The next morning, as is his custom, Durant sat at home with Justin Zormelo, his personal trainer, and cued up video of the previous night’s game, pressing the rewind button over and over.

Durant and the Thunder lost to Dallas in the Western Conference finals last season, which served as daily motivation throughout the offseason. Because of the lockout, players were barred from team facilities and Durant enlisted the help of Zormelo, a 27-year-old Alexandria native, to keep him in shape. They’d start at 6 a.m. and wouldn’t stop until late at night, squeezing in three or four workouts in between.

“He’s just so hungry to get better,” said Zormelo, who visits Oklahoma City every few weeks and stays at Durant’s home. “He can do almost anything you can possibly do on the court, and he wants to do all those things and he wants to perfect them.”

Zormelo is only the latest to discover Durant’s drive. At Seat Pleasant, he had to be dragged off the court. Throughout high school, he never played basketball; he always practiced.

“The success he’s having right now — it’s because he’s still working like we were high school kids,” said New Orleans guard Greivis Vasquez, Durant’s teammate at Montrose Christian.

Durant transferred to Montrose for his senior season, taking an hour-long train each morning to Rockville. Beginning at 7:30, he and Vasquez would squeeze in a 45-minute workout before the first bell rang. Following afternoon practice, they’d often stay an extra 45 minutes, too.

“He could’ve played for us on Friday night and played for the Wizards on Sunday,” said Stu Vetter, the Montrose Christian coach. “And he was only 17 at the time. He was that talented.”

A new NBA rule forbade Durant from jumping straight to the NBA, and he spent one season at the University of Texas before the Seattle SuperSonics made him the second overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft. The franchise moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.

“He’s at the top and he hasn’t changed anything, his character, what type of person he is,” Vasquez said. “Sometimes you let that go to your head. But he knows his roots, where he came from. It’s not easy being where he’s at right now. Being one of the best, people expecting everything of you, but he’s still doing it all the right way.”

* * *

On the day LeBron James announced his intent to join the Miami Heat on national television, Durant opted for a more low-key approach to share his future plans. He tweeted the news that he’d agreed to a contract extension to remain with the Thunder through 2016.

So why Oklahoma? With other players clamoring to jump to big markets, what does an NBA player even do in Oklahoma City?

“We chill,” Durant said. “Play basketball, watch basketball, that sort of thing.”

“Everything’s pretty much closed after 10 o’clock here,” Thunder teammate Royal Ivey said. Sundays are particularly dead, but they’ll usually gather at the Cheesecake Factory or eat at a player’s home. A Dave & Buster’s opened this month, and players say that might be a good place to hang.

“People always ask us what we do,” said point guard Russell Westbrook, “and my answer is always the same: ‘We win.’ ”

* * *

On the northern end of Oklahoma City is an upscale gated community known as Gaillardia. And in one corner of the neighborhood, not far from the golf course’s eighth tee box, is a 3,460-square-foot home that houses Durant and a small cast of visiting family and friends.

When he’s not watching basketball, there’s one room in the home where Durant can usually be found. Durant had one of the rooms converted into a professional music studio. He raps and records tracks — “Best rapper on the team,” Westbrook said — but Durant also mixes music and makes beats.

“Music has always been a big part of my life. It’s kind of like a refuge for me,” Durant said. “I just use it to get away.”

It’s more than a hobby, he says, though his aspiration isn’t necessarily to stand behind a mike. Perhaps not surprising for a player who had to be urged to shoot more when he was younger, Durant sees himself working behind the scenes. “I want to be like a producer and engineer,” he said. “I want to have artists, a label, something like that.”

Durant’s home serves as a hangout for many players. They play video games, watch the NBA and hang out in the studio. It isn’t this way with other teams or in other cities. More than three-quarters of the Thunder roster is single. Ten players are 25 or younger.

“Chemistry is important. I think that’s one thing we all know here,” Durant said. “If you like your teammates, it’s going to be easier to play with them on the court.”

It’s why Durant feels like a perfect fit here, even though he has grown so much bigger than Oklahoma City.

Consider: Durant played basketball with President Obama. He has a starring role in an upcoming Warner Bros. family movie (“a hopelessly uncoordinated young fan magically switches talents with his hero”) and he has sponsorship deals with major companies, including Nike, Gatorade and Sprint. Forbes pegs him as the league’s eighth-biggest earner with an estimated $25 million in annual income.

The player concedes he thinks about what it’d be like to live and play in a larger city, but Durant says he’s pretty content.

“A big market is something that doesn’t really concern me too much. It’s cool to think about, it’s good for off-the-court deals. But I’m more of a basketball player,” he said. “That’s what I want to be known as. And this is the best place for me to play basketball. I’m glad I’m here.”

* * *

Barbara Davis looks around Chesapeake Energy Arena sometimes and can’t help but shake her head. The city is devoted to her grandson. Durant will still visit the mall here and local restaurants, and everyone in the arena seems to know him personally.

“I’m not surprised that everybody loves him because he’s that type of person,” said Davis, who keeps basketball cards in her purse to give to young fans. “But sometimes I look around and say, ‘Is this real?’ ”

Sam Presti must wonder that, too. Presti was 30 years old when he was named general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics, inheriting a dismal team with no head coach and the No. 2 overall pick. Had Portland selected Durant in 2007, Presti would have taken Greg Oden. Instead, Durant fell into his lap.

“We thought we were getting somebody who could not only be a player we could ultimately build around, but somebody who would personify the values we were hoping to establish with the organization,” Presti said.

Before the team moved to Oklahoma City, Durant won the league’s rookie of the year award, and Presti recalls telling him: “You didn’t win this award this season. This award was won in gyms in Seat Pleasant, in Austin, Texas, in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, in Rockville, Maryland. All of that work has accumulated and these are the results.”

In four years since then, Presti has watched Durant grow as a player. As a person, though, Presti said his young star has remained consistent, a good match for the Thunder and Oklahoma City.

“Everything here fits his personality and his temperament,” said Pratt, his mother. “He’s a low-key guy, not very flashy. I see him growing still, but you know, he's always been mature for his age. I've always felt he’s an old soul.”

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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