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Kevin Durant opening Prince George’s County facility to help kids reach, graduate college

College Track at The Durant Center opens Wednesday as an after-school facility to help low-income and underserved students reach college then graduate. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

The last time Kevin Durant was here, the walls were uneven and insulation was hanging free. There really wasn’t even a ceiling: just wires and empty space, the very definition of a construction zone.

“I haven’t been back home in so long,” Durant, a nine-time NBA all-star, said in a recent interview, though that’ll change this week.

The Golden State Warriors forward will be returning to Prince George’s County on Wednesday, not just for the Warriors’ game Thursday against the Wizards or his first trip in nearly a year to his old neighborhood, but for his first look at the polished new home of College Track at The Durant Center. His visit will be part of the grand opening of an after-school facility that will commit resources and time to helping low-income and underserved students not just reach college — but graduate.

‘Creating a legacy’: Kevin Durant comes home to Suitland to open The Durant Center

“The full circle stuff that you dream about,” said Durant, who grew up in the Suitland neighborhood, virtually across the street from the education center that now bears his name. “So many people that meant so much to me at that time, and to see my name on the building …”

He paused.

“Hopefully that inspires kids in the area,” the 30-year-old superstar said.

About two years ago, Durant was looking for ways to widen his philanthropic portfolio. He had, a year earlier, signed a two-year contract with Golden State worth about $54 million. His foundation had overseen the construction of parks and basketball courts throughout the United States, including some in the Washington area.

But now he wanted something more far-reaching, so he attended a conference for start-up companies and met representatives for College Track, a company that uses a 10-year plan to shepherd students from their early teenage years through college graduation. Before long, Durant found himself visiting a center in Oakland, Calif., discussing how to bring something like that to Washington while paying attention to that facility’s students.

“He was interested in understanding their journey and what types of services we provided that really change their trajectory,” said Elissa Salas, College Track’s chief executive.

The organization, whose collaboration with Durant would lead to its first site on the East Coast, considered property in the District — Salas said a second College Track location will open this autumn in Congress Heights in Southeast D.C. and a third is in the early planning stages — but that Durant was adamant Prince George’s County seemed right.

“It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to do something in the Bay,” Salas said. “But he was looking to really invest really deeply in his home community.”

Durant, who pledged $10 million over the program’s first decade, toured the Suitland site last February while the Warriors were in town for a game against the Washington Wizards.

Part of an office complex near a busy highway, the space had previously been the campaign headquarters for a Democratic candidate for county executive. Now it was under construction, with some walls blown out and others being rebuilt, a plan for an open ceiling that designers would eventually abandon for a more traditional look, and as Durant looked and imagined, there was something beautiful about the potential — even in those early stages.

“Just so many memories,” he recalled. “So many moments that I had as a kid walking up and down those streets and dreaming of something bigger.”

As the months came and went, walls were finished and tile was installed. Paint covered the walls, and quotations were affixed to the walls: Maya Angelou, Barack Obama and Margaret Mead. There are even a few words on one wall, attributed to a local kid who’d grow up to be 6-foot-9 and discover a world of possibilities beyond these busy gray blocks.

“Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard,” Durant’s quote reads, not far from one of the three classrooms where young people will get help with grades and life skills, including practice with collaboration and team-building.

“We just talk to them,” said Jane Spence, site director of the Prince George’s County facility. “What they need, how we can best support them.”

A few months ago, College Track representatives visited schools in the community and began accepting applications for the program. Spence said students were selected using grades and their overall motivation as signals of the program’s usefulness to them, and emphasis was put on applicants either from low-income households or students who would be the first member of their family to attend college.

Durant, who will see his gleaming finished namesake Wednesday evening before addressing students at Suitland High, said there’s something that feels familiar about that.

“We just didn’t have any examples of what it meant to follow your dream, you know?” he said, adding that he had already started thinking about the reactions of some of the first 69 students who have been accepted into the College Track program here. “Maybe they can tell their friends who might not play basketball how it feels.”

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