“So many memories,” said Durant, now 30, who used to live in an apartment a few blocks away.
Things are a little different now: He plays for the Golden State Warriors, is earning more than $35 million this season and has pledged $10 million over the next decade so kids in the Suitland neighborhood have a place to learn and dream.
On Wednesday afternoon, Durant — back home as Golden State prepared to play the Washington Wizards on Thursday night — made his way southeast, back to the old neighborhood, to appear at the grand opening of College Track at the Durant Center, whose location the Suitland native selected largely because it’s next door to that familiar McDonald’s. The after-school program, whose inaugural class includes 69 students largely from low-income families, provides study space and guidance not only through college enrollment but through graduation.
“For most of us, most of my friends coming up, we either watched TV, music videos or played basketball,” Durant said in a recent interview, “for kind of a view for what life was like outside” the neighborhood.
Last July, NBA superstar LeBron James announced the opening of an elementary school in Akron, Ohio, his hometown. The I Promise School would use resources — in part through James’s charitable foundation — to offer underserved elementary students a safe and challenging learning environment.
“This skinny kid from Akron who missed 83 days of school in the 4th grade had big dreams,” James tweeted then.
It was a way, yes, to pay forward pro basketball’s riches and to provide assistance to youngsters who might otherwise not be exposed to it. But it’s also a way for James and Durant to make certain their names are associated with more than just basketball.
“Creating a legacy, creating something,” Durant said, “that’ll last for a long time.”
'He was pretty deliberate'
A few months after Durant signed with Golden State, a two-year deal that would pay the former MVP a per-season average of $27 million, he found himself at a tech conference not far from Silicon Valley.
Durant’s charitable foundation was in its own state of transition — it had funded parks and basketball courts in five U.S. cities — and he went looking for fresh ideas for his philanthropic efforts.
He met an investor, who knew executives at College Track, one thing led to another, and before Durant knew it, he was at an after-school facility in Oakland, meeting teenagers who — other than one defining physical characteristic — reminded him of himself.
“He talked about how ‘I just so happened to be really tall,’ ” said Elissa Salas, College Track’s chief executive who that day observed Durant interacting with youngsters.
He talked to them about growing up in a community where more than resources are limited; so is imagination and support. Durant, he told those kids, came of age in a place where children can, no matter their height, barely see a life past their own block.
Durant’s ability and his height helped him get off that block. But what about the millions of youngsters who hadn’t? As Durant’s profile grew and he approached his 30s, he wondered about those individuals — and what some of them might do with a different kind of advantage.
“I just saw a bigger picture,” he said.
College Track, founded by mega-philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, accepts applicants from low-income families and — at the time of Durant’s visit — was interested in expanding. But it hadn’t yet considered a facility on the East Coast. Wouldn’t Durant, whose new home was the Bay Area, like to see possible sites in Oakland or other parts of the Bay Area or . . .
“He was pretty deliberate,” Salas recalled of that first meeting, and she quickly learned that if Durant were to invest, he wanted it to be a site back home.
The company agreed, Durant chose the former political campaign office next to where he used to sip Sprites and collect his house key. He announced his financial pledge and the partnership last February, saying at the time that he hoped not only that the Durant Center’s graduates would see past their own block — but that they might even see the world.
Then, Durant said, “they can tell their friends, who might not play basketball, how it feels.”
'What kids go through'
Seven years ago, Jasmine Richardson’s grades were good enough that she was invited on a school trip to downtown Washington. The group of District Heights second-graders was going to a Wizards game, and the Oklahoma City Thunder was in town.
Jasmine, now 14, would remember the group surrounding the tall man in the center. She didn’t know who he was, but she pushed a T-shirt toward him; when it made its way back, it had Kevin Durant’s signature on it.
That was before she knew much about Durant, where he’s from, what he would come to represent. It was before Jasmine’s family adopted a silky terrier they would call Pup-Pup, who would make Jasmine fall in love with animals.
“They just have a connection with me,” she would come to learn, and that made her dream of a career as a veterinarian.
It was before she started reading about New York University, before she started taking advanced placement classes, before she joined her high school’s junior ROTC program.
It was that program’s commander who first told her about a presentation by something called College Track, and when Jasmine learned it could help her become the first member of her family to attend college — to validate her grandmother Towanna’s sacrifices — she quickly filled out the application.
After she was accepted, that’s when things became uncomfortable. Necessarily uncomfortable. She was nervous for her student interview, but then she aced it. She dreaded the group’s meet-and-greet camping trip, but then she loved it. She was nervous about the collaborative activities and teamwork, but then she led the creation of a dance routine and construction of a sign.
What else, she wondered, was possible? Anything? Everything?
At one point she learned who had funded her program, which held a sort of soft opening weeks ago but its official grand opening Wednesday, and decided the man’s name would be more than just a series of letters scribbled on a T-shirt.
“The name Kevin Durant will mean a lot to me for years to come, that he helped young kids,” Jasmine said. “He knows what us kids go through. We all were kids once.”
'Push the youth forward'
It’s Wednesday evening in Suitland, and Durant walks through a doorway that’s just tall enough. He ducks anyway.
His eyes dart around the room, fresh paint and inspirational quotations on walls that — the last time he was here — largely didn’t even exist. Two of the College Track program’s students approach him, and they begin a tour: into a classroom where math help and college prep will take place, past a room with a Nelson Mandela quote and boxes of graham crackers, into a classroom with books by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
“This is incredible, man,” Durant says as he walks, nodding as he follows his student guides — one wearing a shirt with “HARVARD” on the front, the other with “MIT” on it. All of them have “Class of 2026” on the back.
“To have this as a kind of staple and my family’s name on it and it’s doing so much for kids, man,” Durant said, “it’s one of the greatest accomplishments so far in my career.”
In a few minutes, Durant will fold himself into an SUV and travel a few blocks to the opening ceremony for the program and the Durant Center. He will speak in a gymnasium with tables of hors d’oeuvres and speakers pumping loud music, and near the bleachers stands a 14-year-old girl in a purple NYU shirt.
Jasmine, sipping from a glass of Sprite, was unsure whether she would meet Durant. But she knew what she would say.
“I would tell him thank you,” she said.
Back at the Durant Center, the tour ends, and Durant heads toward the entryway. He says the McDonald’s next door, like so many things around here, has changed. Time has that effect, or at least it has the potential, and Durant says the kids surrounding him represent opportunity.
“As a basketball player,” he says, “it’s easy for us to say, ‘Let’s create an AAU team or let’s do a camp.’ As you get older, you start to look for bigger ways to impact. I see my peers, and not just NBA players but athletes in general, but just trying to push the future forward, push the youth forward.”
Before he heads to the next stop, Durant motions for a photographer to take a picture. Students and superstar walk together, into the facility’s lobby,
Durant sits on a circular white table as he’s surrounded by teenagers who, like he once had, carry so many hopes and immodest dreams, and they all smile as the cameras capture the moment.