WASHINGTON, D.C. — To understand who Thunder star Kevin Durant is as a person and a player, Nike, his most prominent partner, thought you needed to understand where Durant is from.
To launch Durant's latest signature shoe, the Nike KD VI, the shoe and apparel giant hosted a two-day event in Washington, D.C., inviting more than 50 media members from 12 countries to what it labeled the “Kevin Durant-D.C. Experience.” It aimed to reveal who Durant is by providing an inside look at the people and places that helped mold him.
The event included a tour of Durant's hometown, Seat Pleasant, Md., and The Oklahoman was there every step of the way — in the gym where Durant learned the game, on the streets where he trained, on the porch of his grandmother's house and all throughout the area he travels back to each summer.
Over our two-day stay, we heard, saw and experienced much of what Durant did to get where he is today.
This is the story of where Kevin Durant came from, told by only the people who know best.
9:30 a.m. Our two coach buses leave the Hotel George, which serves as our headquarters and sits four blocks from the U.S. Capitol on E St. in northwest Washington. The first bus is reserved for media from Asia. Bus No. 2 is designated for the smaller North American media contingent. Each stop on this journey is set up to surprise. Nike officials aren't disclosing any details.
9:45 a.m. After winding through the streets of downtown D.C., trucking east on Interstate 695, with views of Nationals Park to the south, we cross the Maryland state line and enter Durant's hometown, Seat Pleasant. The buses pull up to the Seat Pleasant Activities Center, a one-story brick building sunken just below street level off Addison Road. Seat Pleasant squad cars line the street, hinting that something special is taking place. As we unload the bus, we're greeted by two white posts emblazoned with Durant's “KD” Nike logo and a message that reads “Made in Maryland: 20743.” This is the place where Durant fell in love with basketball.
9:50 a.m. Upon entering the recreation center, we're ushered into a large dimly-lit room. It's the gymnasium, which has been transformed into an intimate setting. A long rectangular display case is set up displaying several of Durant's lifetime achievements. There are medals and magazine covers, plaques and pictures, trophies and newspaper clippings. On the wall nearest the display case is each of Durant's first five signature shoes, accompanied by a white index card that reminds us of the release dates. The basketball goals have been raised and a talk show-style stage is erected in the far corner. A massive projection screen sits just above three black leather chairs that face the audience. Plastered on the wall in a cursive script to the right of the stage is a message that reads “Seat Pleasant A City of Excellence.”
10:10 a.m. Stage lights go down and a video presentation begins. It starts by listing Durant's awards and accolades before going into highlights of Durant playing basketball at all stages, in all sorts of venues. A minute later, ESPN and ABC's Michael Wilbon takes the stage to welcome us to Seat Pleasant and serve as the emcee. After a two-minute introduction, Wilbon introduces Durant's mother, Wanda Pratt. She shares stories about Durant as a child and reflects on how he's arrived where he is today. “I remember Kevin as, really, being a mild-mannered, mild-tempered young man,” Pratt says. “He didn't give me a lot of problems as a kid.” Pratt relays a memory of a young Durant constantly playing with a set of Hot Wheels, the popular toy cars. Every day, she says, Durant played with those miniature cars. “One day I said ‘Kevin, what are you doing with those?' And he said, ‘Mom, I'm just coming up with basketball plays.' So he was dedicated early on as a kid to basketball.”
10:20 a.m. Durant takes the stage. He's wearing a teal jacket with yellow and black trim, yellow shorts, teal socks and his signature KD VI's. Durant says he barely recognizes the gym these days. “It was a little bit grimier when I was coming up,” Durant says. “It looks nice now. It's a blessing to come back here. It's somewhere I spent so much time as a kid, honing my skills and just being a kid here. I did everything here, homework, slept here. I did everything.” Durant begins to talk about the people who were influential in his early development. There was an employee the kids called Mr. Sam, numerous coaches and staffers that worked the front desk and, of course, Taras Brown. “We call him ‘Stink,'” Durant says. “He's my godfather. He taught me the game. The first time I walked in here I loved the game of basketball and I wanted to come back. And he believed in me since Day One. Those people did such a great job of letting me be who I am and also giving me a platform, which was this gym, to do something I love.”
There also was Charles Craig. Durant and the other kids called him “Big Chucky.” When I first walked in this gym, he was one of the coaches for the 9-year-old group,” Durant says. “And of course I was the tallest 8-year-old here and he wanted me on his team. He was the first guy to give me a chance to play real organized basketball. He was my coach all the way up until I was about 14 or 15 and he passed away at 35. So that's the reason why I wear (number) 35. I always wanted to carry him on the court with me wherever I go.”
Durant points out the infamous curtain that hangs in the gym. It's the one Durant used to sleep behind when he would be at the gym all day and night. As he reminisces, Pratt is growing emotional at the sights and sounds of the memories. She's shaking her head, seemingly in disbelief at how far her son has come. “I'm proud of how he has grown as a young man,” Pratt says. “I watch him sometimes in awe because he's really held to the moral and biblical values that I tried to instill in him. But he's still Kevin. He hasn't lost who he really is. He hasn't lost his foundation. He's still grounded. So I'm just humbled to watch him grow and become the man that he would want to look up to and be an example for kids to look up to.”
Durant explains why he slept behind the deep blue curtain. He remembers the gym opening at 10 a.m. and closing at 5 p.m. It remained closed for two hours before reopening, Durant says. “I didn't want to walk all the way back home to my grandmother's house, which is about 10 minutes up the road,” he says. “So when the rec was closed I would just sit behind that curtain and go to sleep on a mat, like a yoga mat almost. I would go to sleep until the gym opened up again. I spent, literally, all my time there every day. And it paid off.”
10:30 a.m. Leo Chang takes the stage. He's the Nike basketball footwear design director. He's worked with Durant on his signature shoe since 2007. “With every shoe, it starts with him and his insights,” Chang says of Durant. “Everything from performance to style to his story. That's something that we really like to play up. And he's got great stories to tell.”
Durant begins talking about his latest shoes yellow and teal colors. “When I was growing up, we were the Seat Pleasant Lakers, and obviously I don't like the Lakers,” Durant says. “But they changed the colors here in the gym a few years back. It was purple and gold. They changed the colors to yellow and teal. I just wanted something to represent where I came from, where I learned the game, where it all started.”
11:10 a.m. Our group boards the buses for our next destination. This time, Tony Durant, Kevin's older brother, is guiding the tour. Kevin is doing the same in bus No. 1. Tony tells us over the intercom that we're headed to his grandmother's house. It's a 10-minute ride for a coach bus that must carefully maneuver these narrow neighborhood streets. “We have great memories there,” Tony says. As the bus pulls up to Sultan Avenue and Faye Street, Tony points out the ranch house with yellow siding that sits on the corner. “The house looked like a mansion when I was 7 years old,” he says. But what really makes the house special, Tony says, is their aunt Pearl passed away inside. Kevin later released a pink colorway of his fifth edition shoe called the “Aunt Pearl” in her honor. “She didn't want to pass away anywhere else,” Tony recalls. “She wanted to be there because that's where all the memories that we had were. That's where everything started. That's the foundation of me and Kevin. We learned a lot of values in that house so it's very important.”
This quickly turns into the most emotional leg of the tour. A microphone is stationed on the porch and soon after grabbing it to address the crowd Pratt becomes overwhelmed. “This is my mom's house and this is the center of our beginnings,” she says. “Being back here means a lot.” The tears that Pratt fought back an hour earlier begin to flow. “For us to come back here with my mom and my boys, this is a good time,” Pratt says. “A lot of fond memories here. A lot of good times. I'm just so grateful for my family. And as I stand here with my boys, there were days when they were shorter than me and they had to look up to me. And no matter how high my heels are I have to look up to them now.”
A Nike official attempted to rescue Pratt from revealing her raw emotions. But before she could sequester the mic, Pratt's mother, Kevin Durant's grandmother, Barbara Davis, wanted to speak. She sat in a chair as Kevin Durant stood above her. She told a story of how Kevin once ran home upset because “Stink” kicked him out of the gym and told him he couldn't return. “He was just trying to teach him a lesson, and whatever it was he got it,” Davis says before the emotion got the best of her as well while holding the mic. “It was just a joy being around them coming up, and I appreciate both of them so much. I thank God for them. Kevin's done some wonderful things for his grandma. Bought grandma a home and bought her a car.” On that note, the Nike official finally reclaims the mic.
11:35 a.m. Kevin Durant is now guiding the tour from bus No. 2. As we leave his grandmother's house, Durant is still shocked at what he just witnessed. “I never would think I would have this many people on the porch at my grandma's house because I can play basketball a little bit,” he says.
Our bus weaves through the streets of Seat Pleasant, a small city surrounded by neighboring suburbs and Washington, D.C. Drive more than two minutes in any direction and you'll probably cross city or state lines. But these are the roads Durant navigated, mostly by foot, as a kid. The bus drives by a park in nearby Fairmount Heights, Md. When he wasn't at the rec, Durant played at this outdoor basketball court. They called it “The Kingdome.” Kevin and Tony remember playing out there for hours, sometimes until midnight or later. “Only the strongest survive out there,” Durant says. “They didn't care who you were, how old you were. If you were on the court you were playing. And I was a skinny 12- 13-year-old out there playing with grown men sometimes. And they wouldn't take it easy on me. But that built toughness. I always wanted to win. I would lose so much out there but that just molded me into who I am today.”
11:50 a.m. We arrive at the corner of L Street and Balmsamtree Drive, home to the infamous “Hunt's Hill,” or simply “The Hill.” It's a steep road that stands out in this otherwise nondescript neighborhood. It's where Kevin Durant built conditioning and mental strength. “Stink” would make Durant run up the hill and backpedal down. “When I would get to the top of the hill I could see downtown D.C.,” Durant says. “That's how steep it was. And I just absolutely hated coming here.” It didn't stop “Stink” from commanding as many as 30 sets. Durant was just 13. “Over a five-year period, this man has run this hill over 1,000 times,” “Stink” says. “And that's why he's at where he's at today.” When she wasn't working, Pratt would monitor the workouts — from inside her car at the bottom of the hill. Sometimes, she'd order an additional 25 sets. “I knew that it would make me better,” Durant says. “I really just did anything that he told me to do. I had to if I wanted to get better. I hated it at the time, but I knew it would make me better in the long run. It built up that work ethic and that discipline, and it's a big reason why I'm here today.”
12:15 p.m. We're back at the Seat Pleasant Activities Center. To provide a true sense of Kevin Durant's upbringing, Nike officials had Durant's favorite meal catered from a local soul food restaurant. The menu: chicken wings, greens and French fries.
1:15 p.m. With local elementary students now in attendance, Wilbon leads a panel discussion with Durant, Pratt, Chang, WNBA and ESPN television analyst Kara Lawson and MLS defender Oguchi Onyewu. Their messages mostly are intended for the children, encouraging them to work hard to pursue their dreams.
At the end of the discussion, a few children get to ask Durant questions. Right off the bat, the first kid asks Durant which team he would like to play for besides the Thunder. Perhaps playing to his audience, Durant politely says he'd love to be back home playing for the Washington Wizards. He is showered with cheers, but he quickly adds he's happy in Oklahoma and loves it there.
2 p.m. Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Grant awards Durant the key to the city. He graciously accepts before shaking hands with some, hugging others and poses for several pictures with friends, family and the city council. “It's such a cool thing to come back and try to give some hope to these kids that live in this neighborhood,” Durant says. “Because I was one of those kids running around trying to be an NBA player as well. It's a tremendous honor to be back.”