Michael Gruner, a middle schooler attempting to fill a long break between his AAU tournament games, wandered between occupied courts. He was drawn to a small but scrappy team that was wearing “penny jerseys,” and Gruner noticed a lanky 6-foot-4 player checking in.
“He just went off,” Gruner said. “He was dunking on people. He was making shots. I just remember being like, 'Who is this guy?'”
The irony of the question is nearly laughable now. Michael Gruner asking, who is Kevin Durant?
Six years ago, and several years after their initial encounter, Gruner and Durant were judged as equals — in accomplishment, though not necessarily ability. The Gazette named the pair — both high school seniors, Gruner at Walt Whitman and Durant at Montrose Christian — co-Montgomery County Boys Basketball Players of the Year in 2006. The Gazette hasn't given the honor to multiple players since.
“It's just a fun story to talk about,” Gruner said of his split honor, which still comes up in Facebook statuses and bar conversations of friends. “He clearly is one of the best players that ever played. Definitely just something fun that I look at, and feel proud that I'm able to share that.”
At the time, Durant was set to attend the University of Texas. Gruner was still holding out hope for a Division I offer.
Navy had shown interest, as long as Gruner was willing to attend prep school for a year, and Division II Pace (N.Y.) was also recruiting him.
Thanks to a 13-game win streak that culminated in Whitman's first state title, Gruner finally got the attention he was seeking. Ultimately, he chose Lafayette (Pa.) over offers to walk on at Georgetown or Virginia Tech.
“He was just so smart on the court and such a good teammate, and he made the guys around him so much better,” Whitman coach Chris Lun said of Gruner, who averaged 20.1 points per game as senior. “I think when people saw him play in pressure against that type of competition, I really think they were just like, 'Wow, that Mike kid is pretty special.'”
Durant was proving he was pretty special, too. After spending one year at Texas, he became the No. 2 pick in the draft and has taken the quick path to NBA superstardom, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to this year's NBA Finals. Beloved in the D.C. area for his local ties and otherworldly work ethic, Durant receives particular favor from Gruner and Lun.
“That's the reason I root for him so much, and I just hope he continues to do great things in the NBA,” Lun said. “Mike being associated with him, knowing the type of player he is, definitely makes it more special."
Gruner played four seasons at Lafayette, and the 6-foot-2, 185-pound guard spent a few months in Poland's top league before injuring his Achilles tendon. Then, preparing for a return overseas, he tore ligaments in his ankle while playing a pickup game and realized it was time to retire from professional basketball.
Now living in New York and working as consulting analyst — completing projects at companies such as Unilever, American Express and Harper Collins — Gruner is limited to playing in a couple recreational basketball leagues.
“Probably a lot better competition than Durant is facing,” Gruner said dryly.
Gruner's I-270 Road Warriors AAU team never faced Durant's PG Jaguars, and although Whitman played a summer league game against Montrose Christian before the 2005-06 season, Durant didn't participate. Montrose narrowly won that game, but after losing several players from the year before, Whitman needed time to grow.
What would have happened if the teams met to end the season, once Whitman had a chance to find itself?
“You know I'm going to say we would've won,” Gruner said.
And how would he have played?
“I would've done well,” Gruner said. “I would've held my own.”
But asked if he would've guarded Durant — a player already discussed as the greatest the D.C. area has ever produced, a player with whom Gruner will forever be linked — the consultant finally cedes, if only slightly, to the NBA superstar.
“I would've tried,” Gruner said.