Thursday, June 28, 2007

From the county to ‘The League’

Former teammates, coaches remember Durant and Green before they were stars

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Photo courtesy University of Texas
Suitland native Kevin Durant is projected to be an early selection in tonight’s NBA Draft.
Tonight, in a waiting area on the floor at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Kevin Durant and Jeff Green will cross paths. Each knows of the other, but both said they don’t remember playing against each other on the basketball court.

That’s about to change.

Green and Durant, who starred at Georgetown University and the University of Texas, respectively, will walk out of the waiting area at the ‘‘World’s Greatest Arena,” onto a stage. There, National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern will be waiting to shake their hands and pose with the uniforms of the franchises that select them in the first round of the NBA Draft.

Two likely lottery picks. Two different paths. One county. Durant and Green won’t only be representing the future hopes of their new teams, but a sense of pride and excitement in Prince George’s County, where both players call home.

‘‘I knew Jeff was going to make it big,” said Chaise Lancaster, a former teammate of Green’s at Northwestern High School. ‘‘It’s well deserved.”

‘‘This isn’t a dream come true for Kevin,” said Durant’s mentor Taras Brown. ‘‘He planned it. And he worked for it.”

Twelve miles

Though their homes are separated by a 20-minute ride through the county via Interstate 95, Green and Durant have traveled different roads to the cusp of NBA careers. Durant, a Suitland native, started playing basketball at age 9 at the Seat Pleasant Activity Center, where Brown is a coach. He is credited with helping develop Durant’s game, which has been compared to the likes of current NBA standouts Tracy McGrady and Kevin Garnett.

‘‘When we first started, he wasn’t that good,” said Richard Wyatt Jr., who played with Durant at Seat Pleasant. ‘‘He had to work at it. Everything you see in Kevin is because of his hard work. He lived in the gym.”

Wyatt said Durant as a youth was a far cry from the performer who garnered consensus National Player of the Year honors as a freshman last season at Texas and put himself in position to be one of the top two players chosen in the draft. Durant attended National Christian in Fort Washington as a high school freshman, sprouting from 6-foot-1 to about 6-7 before his sophomore season.

‘‘I thought he was going to get broken in half because he was so skinny, but he had a way of using his body and just scoring,” said Bowie resident Van Johnson, director of scouting for Game Plan Sports, a college basketball recruiting service. ‘‘He didn’t pass the test physique-wise, but ability-wise, you could tell he was going to have the package.”

Green made a memorable early impression as well.

Former Northwestern coach Tony Dickens remembers the first time he saw Green, then a 6-4 sophomore from Hyattsville, in an open gym session.

‘‘I told my assistant coach that he [Green] was going to be a pro,” said Dickens, who’s now at Northwood High in Montgomery County. ‘‘I’ve seen players in Ohio before who were similar, but I thought he had all the tools to be a pro.”

Lancaster said his father talked about Green’s potential when he first encountered him at an open gym in 2003. Lancaster remembers Green being ‘‘goofy” in school. During their senior season, Green lost a couple of teeth after taking an elbow from Eleanor Roosevelt center Jared Gaither.

‘‘He didn’t try to hide it,” said Lancaster, a junior at Villa Julie College in Baltimore. ‘‘He was always smiling. I would’ve been trying to hide it.”

Northwestern won the state Class 4A championship in 2004. Green was the Star⁄Gazette Co-Player of the Year, sharing the honor with Friendly High’s Sam Young, who led the Patriots to a state 2A crown before heading to the University of Pittsburgh. As a 6-7 senior, Green could play inside or outside with deft passing skills, but wasn’t widely regarded as a top college prospect.

‘‘He slipped through the cracks. He’s not an AAU circuit baby,” said Johnson. ‘‘He pretty much did it the old-fashioned way. He earned it, basically. He didn’t do any major camps.”

Meanwhile, Durant was receiving major national buzz from his play on the AAU scene with the Prince George’s Jaguars and D.C. Blue Devils. He left National Christian for national prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Vriginia for his junior season, then returned to the area for his final year of high school, playing at Montrose Christian in Rockville.

Former Montrose Christian teammate Taishi Ito remembers Durant being approached for autographs while at the mall or going to the movies.

‘‘He would say, ‘I’m nobody, I don’t know why people want my signature,’” said Ito, who will be sophomore at the University of Portland in the fall. ‘‘Some nights, we just talked forever about basketball, girls, life.”

A whole new game

Since announcing their intentions to enter the draft in April, Durant and former Ohio State center Greg Oden have been the most talked about prospects. Green reportedly contemplated withdrawing his name from the draft and returning to Georgetown for his senior year. But he decided to stay in the draft after weeks of individual workouts and meetings with several teams.

Green and Durant will be the first players from the county picked in the opening round of the NBA draft since former Eleanor Roosevelt and St. Joseph’s University standout Delonte West was the 24th selection by the Boston Celtics in 2004. Green will be the first Northwestern graduate drafted since former Maryland All-American Len Bias in 1986.

While they’re projected as different types of NBA players, those who know Green and Durant say they don’t expect them to change, mainly because of their solid family backgrounds, and because they’re just two kids from Prince George’s County.

‘‘It’s no accident they are where they are,” said Johnson. ‘‘They’ve shown what they can do on the biggest stages, and now, it’s their time.”

E-mail Derek Toney at dtoney@gazette.net.