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.”