Wednesday, December 17, 2008 Updated: December 19, 11:39 AM ET
By Chris Palmer
It happens before every game, a reunion of sorts, one player pausing to catch up with another from his playing past.
On this December night in Miami, Michael Beasley walks to halfcourt, head cocked slightly to the side, a sheepish grin on his face. Waiting for him is Kevin Durant. Cradling a basketball behind his back in his left hand, Durant extends his right for the familiar half-hug. "What's up, boy?" he says. "How do you like Miami?" Beasley smiles. "Man, this place is crazy," he replies. "Just crazy." There is an awkwardness between them, like close school friends hooking up again after summer vacation. Besides, being cool doesn't allow for poignancy. Their eyes, though, say what their mouths can't: Man, we're here.
Most of the crowd has yet to arrive. Trainers stretch long-limbed players. Scurrying ball boys track down wayward balls. Refs try to loosen aging hamstrings. The early-bird kids clamor for a D-Wade signature. None of them notices the brief meeting at center court.
"How you making it?" Durant asks. "I've been watching you on the highlights."
"Just trying to take it all in," Beasley responds.
Ten years ago, not even the wisest hoops sage could have foreseen tonight's half-court summit. But now, as the future stars head to their own side of the floor, they don't need anyone else to validate the shared moment. They will forever be connected by a dream fulfilled, a dream that first took shape in a rickety Maryland gym.
The backboards in the Seat Pleasant Activity Center tell an indelible story. A scattershot array of fingerprints smudges the glass. To be fair, it's barely glass anymore. With the opacity degraded beyond restoration, it's more like wax paper trimmed with tattered foam and held in place by electrical tape. But the fingerprints, signatures of a thousand ghosts, stand out.
"Some of those are ours, from ninth grade," Beasley said during a visit last summer as he stared up at the collage. "I used to see how high I could touch." On a late-August Saturday, Beasley was back in his childhood gym to face some former counselors in a charity pickup game. Durant was there too. He didn't gaze at the backboards, but the faded paw mark just below the top of the white box could well have been his. "Everything for me started in this gym," he said. Here is where Durant built the game from the ground up that snagged him NBA Rookie of the Year honors. Here is where Beasley first bullied lesser mortals under the basket. "The things you'll see me do in the NBA," he said, "I learned right on this court. This is home."
Actually, the two most recent No. 2 picks in the NBA draft are just the lead curl in an unprecedented wave of talent that hails from Prince George's County, a predominantly African-American area of 841,315 that shares a border with DC. Nine players with roots in Prince George's (PG to insiders) have played in the league in the previous five years, and though only six are currently on rosters, that number should soon crack double digits. Fifteen locals suit up for BCS conference schools, including UNC's Ty Lawson, Duke's Nolan Smith, Pitt's Sam Young and Georgetown's Austin Freeman and Chris Wright. In the past three years, the county has produced six McDonald's All-Americans—more than any state except California, which has 43 residents for every one of PG's. "This place is unique because of the level of talent and commitment to the game," says Hoyas coach John Thompson III. "People here are highly knowledgeable about basketball, and kids start learning at a very young age."
One of those kids is Jordan Goodman. He's been balling for a while, but now that he's 15, it's become clear that he has the DNA for today's NBA: a small forward's body, a guard's instincts and cartoonishly long arms. Doctors say he might hit 6'10". Since the death of Jordan's mom, Lorraine, two years ago, his dad, Deon, has been everything from mentor to publicist to business partner for his son. Jordan has a trainer who, over the summer, put him through ballhandling and shooting drills two hours a day, three days a week. He's already fielded offers from Maryland and Memphis. During the summer-league season, big-time college coaches scurried for seats at his games. "My son is a celebrity," Deon says. "Jordan can't go anywhere in the county without being recognized or stopped for autographs."
The future of Prince George's County is on the way, too.
Prince George's County has always had a hoops fixation, but its devotion to the sport reached a new peak in the 1980s, spurred by the transcendent play of PG-bred, University of Maryland forward Len Bias—the first Next Jordan. PG is as unique as the talent it produces. Socioeconomically, it lives as two zones roughly divided by the Capital Beltway. Of PG's 151 homicides in 2005—making it one of the deadliest counties on the East Coast—the vast majority occurred inside the Beltway. Clusters of aging orange and red brick garden apartments, left over from DC's first wave of white flight, were once a symbol of cozy middle-class living. Now home to dirt courtyards and flashing police lights, the enclaves are a blight on PG's image and a drain on its economy. A local politician once dubbed them "warehouses of misery."
But head past the Beltway, and a vastly different picture begins to fill your windshield: megachurches, an upscale shopping center, an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course in a gated subdivision of small castles that go for $3 million, even in a sputtering market. This part of Prince George's holds one of the wealthiest African-American communities in the nation. A burgeoning upper-middle class enrolls its kids in horseback riding lessons and commutes from its McMansions in shiny Lexus SUVs to senior government jobs in the nation's capital or high-tech jobs in Northern Virginia. Most of the recent residents don't know this is the place that produced Google co-founder Sergey Brin and served as early inspiration for Muppets creator Jim Henson. But ask them how many scholarships Roy Williams still has or which area forward is the highest ranked on rivals.com, and you'll see PG pride on parade. Ask if a player benefits more from high school ball or summer league only if you're ready to debate. It is a particularly focused passion, but it's the pull of the industry of basketball that has made Prince George's the most fertile producer of talent in the country.
Not surprisingly, the rise of PG as a basketball power coincides with the explosion of its AAU scene. In the late 1980s, there were a handful of amateur teams in the Washington metro area; now the county alone has more than 100 across a variety of age groups. No one person is more responsible for this revolution than Curtis Malone, a 40-year-old who grew up with Kevin Durant's father on the same street in the same Palmer Park neighborhood that spawned Sugar Ray Leonard. In 1992, Malone, a former high school point guard, started his own squad, Team Assault, the precursor to famed powerhouse DC Assault. With the ability to gain players' trust and connections that rivaled the most plugged-in local politicians', Malone's rosters soon swelled with the best talent the county had to offer.
His club quickly made a name and reached the big time after upsetting the Lamar Odom-led Long Island Panthers, who hailed from the traditional mecca of New York. Sneaker guru Sonny Vaccaro, then with Adidas, took notice, and before long, Assault was one of the first area teams with a full shoe deal and was traveling the country, sometimes playing more than 70 games a summer. To this day, Malone's program mimics a professional organization. Teams practice three times a week as Assault's network of coaches works the phones to secure gym time. Games are taped, and coaches point out missed assignments to 10-year-olds who are chowing down on postgame pizza. On the road, breaking curfew means sitting out the next game, and coaches confiscate cell phones and portable game players at bedtime.
"This summer we got about 40 college coaches at our games," Malone says. "We'd have had 50, but our two top players [Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton] had already signed." And Duke's Mike Krzyzewski is the one who landed them. The local pipeline runs off to the mid-majors, too. "If we don't canvass Prince George's, we can't compete," says George Mason coach Jim Larranaga. He has two assistants who scout PG regularly. Three starters on Mason's 2006 Final Four team were locals. The next year, when Georgetown returned to the Final Four for the first time in 22 years, it was led by two more from the county, Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, who are now in the NBA. "PG kids face such stiff competition from such a young age," says Thompson. "By the time they get to college, there's nothing they haven't seen. You love to coach kids like that." "The things you'll see me do in the NBA, I learned right on this court. This is home." - Michael Beasley
In many other parts of the country, the AAU explosion has actually hurt the local game, by downgrading the significance of high school summer leagues. That's not the case in PG. "Playing with your high school team in the summer is almost mandatory," says Riverdale Baptist High coach Lou Wilson. For 33 years, Wilson has managed the PG-based Falconers League, a high-energy summer run originally started for county public schools. This is where the speedy guards and suffocating D's for which the county's teams are known are honed. Invitation-only leagues like The Rock, a mix of private and public schools, routinely turn away dozens of applications each summer to avoid the watering down of competition. College coaches jump at the chance to evaluate players in a setting more structured than AAU's.
This emphasis on high school summer leagues is one reason the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, which relies heavily on PG talent, is widely considered the best prep league in the U.S. "In summer league, just like the regular season, guys are always gunning for you," says Georgetown's Wright. "You know you have to be constantly getting better."
Twenty years ago, recruiters drove around PG staking out the hottest outdoor courts—in the shady park alongside barbecuing families or the barren chain-link death cage hard by the unwelcoming projects—in search of the next superstar. But these days, fewer and fewer kids have time to spontaneously meet on the local asphalt slab. "They're in the gym doing drills," Malone says. "All you see is 8- and 9-year-olds dribbling through cones all day long." The unusual tales of how youth coach Taras "Stink" Brown trained Durant, as if the gangly youngster were a martial arts prodigy, have been made mundane by a cottage industry of local trainers.
Georgetown's backcourt mates Freeman and Wright are PG gents.
When Durant was 8, Brown put him through countless conditioning exercises and positioning drills. He even made the kid write essays on basketball and diagram the proper mechanics of a jump shot. Durant did everything but carry water. "There were days when I didn't even touch a basketball," Durant recalls. Only after he showed the required discipline was he allowed to advance to shooting and ballhandling drills. Pickup was expressly forbidden. Most trainers of teens today are a little less Mr. Miyagi, and whether they can transform kids into lottery picks isn't necessarily the point. But failing to give a young baller what he needs to become one would be a sin. "The window a kid has to get a big-time scholarship is small," says Brown. "You've got to do all you can to get them ready."
This ever-increasing pressure to succeed has created a new breed of parents, whose involvement in their offspring's basketball career borders on being a full-time job, and not only because their kid might play 100 games a year. "They're involved like never before," Malone says. "They all want their kid to be the next basketball star, and they won't hesitate to do what it takes to get him there."
That includes opening their checkbook. As the affluence of some of the county's residents has risen over the past two decades, a new status symbol has gained traction: a son who is a big-time prospect. Prince George's parents don't hesitate to spend $30 an hour on shooting coaches and personal trainers for middle schoolers. Besides, the $400 AAU sign-up fee pales against the price of ice time or riding gear. No one would suggest that tossing cash at a kid's career will get him to the next level—it won't—but it's an accurate measure of parental attention in PG.
In many cases, wealthier parents who aren't bogged down by multiple jobs shuttle their kids and others to tourneys and practices. But "no matter where they come from, PG parents are highly organized," says Malone. "There's never any problem getting kids to games or coordinating out-of-state trips." The organizational prowess that springs from the it-takes-a-village-to-get-a-kid-to-AAU-practice mentality cuts across economic lines. When Durant was an 11-year-old on the PG Jaguars, his mother, Wanda Pratt, couldn't always juggle his practice schedule with her long hours as a manager for the U.S. Postal Service. Sometimes Durant stayed at his grandmother's house, which was within walking distance of the gym. Other times, Pratt relied on parents of Durant's teammates.
One of them was a kid named Michael Beasley.
Not so many years later, Durant and Beasley are the gods every baller in PG aspires to be. As they played in that August charity game in the Seat Pleasant Activity Center, the overflow crowd of kids just wanted to be near them. After the game, the younger generation followed the stars into the parking lot for a touch or a final hug. Before long, Durant disappeared as quietly as he had arrived. Beasley, though, milked his exit from the driver's seat of his new Bentley. Finally, he pulled off down the street, bass thumping.
The awed flock filed back into the empty gym and began to hoist shots at the rim.
For some, the backboard was almost in reach.