Kevin Durant: The making of a superstar

Kevin Durant was a blue-chipper from a basketball hotbed, but that’s no guarantee of success. Just ask Michael Beasley.

It’s mid-January in Phoenix, and though his Oklahoma City Thunder are laying the boots to the hapless Suns with only a couple of minutes left, there’s no way Kevin Durant is coming out of this game. After all, the chance to square off against your best friend on basketball’s biggest stage doesn’t come along every day. Durant isolates at the top of the three-point line and faces Michael Beasley in a matchup of Maryland’s finest. Durant plants a quick crossover, but his buddy doesn’t bite. So the Thunder star maintains his dribble, gazes past Beasley to the hoop and plans his next move.

This scene has played out before—hundreds, maybe thousands of times—dating all the way back to grade school. Durant, the silent assassin who has always dreamed in gold, and Beasley, the laid-back prodigy who called himself “Be-Easy.” The pair rose through the ranks together—often as teammates, sometimes opponents—and rewrote the history books at every level along the way. Both were high school All-Americans, both compiled enough awards during their single year at college to make Daniel Day-Lewis blush, and both were selected second overall in the NBA draft—one year apart.

As Durant surveys the court, it becomes increasingly clear that Beasley, now crouched low to the ground in an exaggerated defensive stance, is screwed. When God set out to create the perfect basketball player, he made Michael Jordan. When he got bored and revisited the mould, he gave us Kevin Durant. Cold and calculating, six-foot-nine in your program (but closer to six-foot-eleven), with a jump shot, extend-o arms and legs that cover the length of the court in just a few strides. Nothing but options.

With a shrug of Durant’s bony shoulders, Beasley’s heels begin to peel off the floor. That’s all Durant needs. In two steps, he propels himself to the hoop as a lifetime of shared history whips past a helpless Beasley. Durant throws down a vicious jam—Dunk of the Year–calibre work, really. All Beasley can do is watch.

This single play, now buried away in a mid-season highlight reel, tells quite the tale. You see, Durant and Beasley were supposed to dominate the NBA together. Two equals from the same neighbourhood with a similar past, each armed with a unique skill set and possessing superstar talent, they were going to usher in the new wave of versatile combo forwards. But thanks to a combination of personality, decision-making and circumstance, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. On his third team in six seasons and having just posted a campaign in which he racked up more shots than points, the 24-year-old Beasley’s career is at a crossroads. Meanwhile, Durant is pushing OKC toward another Finals appearance, and cementing his status as one of the greatest players of his generation. “Me and Kevin were always on the same path,” says Beasley. “Just different routes.”

Durant and Beasley first gained national attention at the age of 12, when the two were teammates on the Prince George’s Jaguars AAU squad. Durant was a gangly kid with a nose for the ball. Beasley was a natural scorer and rebounder who was already completely ambidextrous. They were the perfect duo in many ways, the happy-go-lucky playfulness of Beasley a natural complement to Durant’s calculated focus. “They really played off of each other,” recalls then–Jaguars coach Taras “Stink” Brown, Durant’s godfather and a local legend in Prince George’s County, Md. For three quarters, Beasley would keep Durant relaxed, but in crunch time, the latter’s personality took over and rubbed off on his teammate. “What you gonna do, Mike?!” Durant would yell across the court, a rare vocal display. “Whatcha gonna do now? It’s time to play!” They were unstoppable and together helped put their community on the map by winning national tournaments in 2000 and 2001.

Prince George’s County, a Washington, D.C., suburb, is an unlikely basketball hotbed. And yet, nearly 20 natives—including Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson, Boston Celtics forward Jeff Green, and D-League all-star Chris Wright—have played in the NBA in the past decade. “That’s all we do, play basketball,” says Beasley, listing off the rec leagues and pickup games running from morning to night that he and his compadres grew up taking part in, and still do during the off-season. “Basketball is basically ingrained in your DNA if you’re from here,” says former Duke standout and current Portland Trail Blazer Nolan Smith. “We all grew up together, playing with and against each other. It fuelled us, made us want to be the best.”

Even in that company, Durant stood out. It was about the time he joined the Jaguars in Grade 6 that he and Brown, who had known him since he was an infant, began training one-on-one. They’d spend hours in the gym, running through drills with the kind of intensity one would find at the sport’s highest level. And though he found peace in the gym, it wasn’t long before he was frustrated by the demanding schedule. He was barely 11, after all. “He was like every other kid,” recalls Brown over the phone from Prince George’s, where he coaches kids who dream of becoming the next Durant. “He was tired, wanted to hide, or rest his hands on his knees when I turned my back.” After an AAU game in Florida, Durant almost walked away from basketball altogether. That’s when Brown sat him down and explained in plain terms that players with his ability are rare, and if he truly committed himself to the sport, good things would come.

The message didn’t take long to sink in. One Saturday, shortly afterwards, Brown went to the gym at Seat Pleasant Activity Center to oversee an open run. He spotted Durant and pulled him aside.

“Kevin, I told you, take the weekend off, go to the movies,” Brown pleaded. “You know you don’t have to be down here.”

“Well, it’s my day off, so I can do whatever I want, right?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so.”

“OK. On my day off, I want you to train me.”

Day after day, Durant set the tone for a career built on hard work, reinforced by a small group consisting of Brown, his father, Wayne, his brother Tony and his mother, Wanda. “At that age, it’s easy to get distracted,” says Brown, “but Kevin didn’t want any distractions. He was on a mission. It was almost like a business. Our whole relationship was a business, even though neither of us was getting paid.”

But it was paying dividends on the court. By his first year in high school, Durant, along with Beasley, was part of the most anticipated freshman class in years. They both attended National Christian, a private academy in nearby Fort Washington, Md., a far more strict and regimented atmosphere than the public schools in Prince George’s. Beasley transferred after a few months. He couldn’t stand having to wear a school uniform—the white socks in particular, he says, cramped his style. Meanwhile, Durant flourished, earning a scholarship to powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., where he spent two seasons before ending his high school career closer to home at Montrose Christian School. In the spring of ’06, Durant accepted a scholarship to the University of Texas, where he took the Longhorns to the NCAA tournament. That year, he led the nation in scoring with nearly 29 points a game to go with an average of more than 12 rebounds, and became the first freshman in NCAA history to win the National Player of the Year award.

Things, as any basketball fan on Earth can tell you, have only gotten better. At 21, Durant became the youngest player to win the NBA’s league scoring title—he won two more before his 24th birthday. And in his six seasons, the Thunder have won three division titles.

The sound of sneakers squeaking on hardwood dissipates as the Suns wrap up their morning shoot-around before an early-season matchup in Toronto. Newly acquired Beasley takes one last free throw before collapsing his sturdy six-foot-10 frame into a courtside seat. When fellow Sun Luke Zeller tries to playfully tie the laces of his teammate’s size-18 shoes together, Beasley—a notorious fun-loving prankster—barely cracks a smile. He’s fallen out of favour at every stop during his NBA career, but in Phoenix, a team desperate for a go-to star, he has his first opportunity to put a pro team on his back and prove why scouts called him “a surefire NBA star” when he came out of Kansas State. When told he seems more comfortable with the Suns, he interrupts and raises his left eyebrow skeptically. “I do?” he asks.

But when the subject shifts to Coach Brown and PG County, a big smile flashes across his face. He looks up into the rafters and remembers the first time he saw Durant on a basketball court.

Seat Pleasant isn’t much to look at from the outside—a bland red brick building facing a run-down gas station across a ghostly intersection—but for Beasley and Durant it was a second home from an early age. By nine, Durant was already the focal point of the Seat Pleasant Elementary School basketball team, while Beasley had spent the previous year in what Brown calls the “developmental phase,” honing his skills before the day came when he would get his shot on the squad. His first task after the call-up? Guard Durant. Beasley left that first scrimmage early, frustrated by his poor play. On the way out, he noticed a freshly delivered pizza waiting for his teammates. He lifted the box and took a peek. Pepperoni, his favourite. He took one look around, grabbed the pie, and continued out the door. “I saw the window of opportunity open, and I guess you could say I jumped through it headfirst,” he says, breaking into laughter.

But in the days following, he developed an immediate on-court camaraderie with his new teammate. It wasn’t long before the two were inseparable; Beasley even began staying over at Durant’s house several nights a week. It was closer to school, and Beasley’s mother, Fatima, knew her son had a better chance of actually going to class under the influence of Kevin and his family. “It became about more than basketball with us, we were family,” says Beasley. “It was brotherly stuff. I call his mom ‘mom,’ and he does the same with mine. To this day, his mom will still smack me if I’m doing something wrong.” But the two friends remained polar opposites. Durant was quiet and kept to himself; Beasley was outgoing and mischievous, and always surrounded by friends and hangers-on.

After Beasley left National Christian, he bounced around between six different high schools, including a stop at Oak Hill a year after Durant left. Needless to say, Beasley had a very different experience there. “Mike?” recalls Oak Hill head coach Steve Smith. “Mike’s a different bird.” Beasley struggled with the team’s uniform requirements, always wanting to wear his SpongeBob socks on game days (“Mike, you know we’re sponsored by Nike, right?” Smith would often remind him), and was constantly searching for the next stunt. For example, Beasley and Ty Lawson, then a junior and a senior, respectively, had an ongoing game to see who could scrawl their name in permanent marker on the most spots on campus. “I had many closed-door conversations pleading with Mike,” Smith says. “It was always just little stuff that accumulated, but it got to the point where I had to tell him if there was one more incident, we couldn’t have him back for his senior year.” The next day, the school’s principal walked out to the parking lot and found a message scribbled in black on the hood of his white SUV. It read: “mb-easy.” “Dumbest thing I ever did,” Beasley said years later.

“Ty was smarter than I was—he’d sign on places that wouldn’t get him in trouble.”

Still, by the time Beasley enrolled at Kansas State, he was the nation’s No. 1 ranked high school player. In his lone year with the Wildcats, he set 30 school records and led the nation in rebounding with 12.4 per game to go along with 26.2 points, finishing his collegiate career with the second-most boards and third-most points of any freshman in NCAA history.

On draft night, he took the stage and posed with a baseball cap and jersey like Durant had done exactly one year earlier, but that’s where the similarities ended. While his pal was thrust into a starring role from day one in the NBA, Beasley landed on Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat, where his role and position were undefined. What’s more, Beasley developed a bad reputation before even playing a game after he and fellow Heat draftee Mario Chalmers were caught hotboxing a hotel room at NBA rookie camp. The negative perception was compounded when he posted a picture of his new tattoo online, which read “Super Cool Beas” across his back, and a bag of weed was visible in the background. The Heat moved him to the Minnesota Timberwolves after just two seasons, but his standing around the league never recovered. “The NBA is about perception,” reflects Beasley. “You have to dress the part, look the part, talk the part.”

Sparked by his early missteps, the negative labels have followed him throughout his career. “The reputation he got [in the NBA],” says Brown, “that’s not Mike. He was always respectful. He’d ask, ‘You need me to take the trash out?’ He’s not a bad person. He just puts himself in bad situations. He doesn’t say ‘just walk away.’ It’s the circle you put around you. Kevin had a small circle and we all understood the big picture and what was best for him.”

While today Beasley is left in the NBA’s no man’s land, warming the bench on the league’s second-worst team, Durant has secured his role as the present—and future—of the NBA, facing a new challenge in playing the part of a global superstar. He and Brown are as close as ever; the coach catches every Thunder game (“All I see are the moves,” says Brown. “The hours in the gym back home, all the repetition.”) and the two speak a few times a week. Lately, they’ve been talking about playoff strategies and dealing with the increasing attention and off-court demands. “We talk about putting away all those distractions, but I’ll be honest, I see him in all these commercials and I just can’t believe that’s the same kid. He was so shy.”

Durant, like Beasley, has kept his ties with home, and this summer you’ll find him back at Seat Pleasant, playing one-on-one with kids—just being Kevin. But until then, he’s Kevin Durant: NBA superstar, a man who just narrowly missed his fourth scoring title and one who is surely looking for revenge this spring after making it all the way to the Finals last year. And with Russell Westbrook out of the lineup, the team’s success more than ever rests on Durant’s shoulders.

As for Beasley, the practice of predicting what’s next for him isn’t exactly rewarding these days. But those close to him aren’t ready to give up. “The greatest story,” says Brown, “which would be far greater than Kevin’s, would be if Mike turned it around. Kevin just has to continue down the path. But Mike… that’s a story I look forward to reading.” He’s got a community looking out for him, and a close pal in Durant, who calls him regularly, offering advice when it’s needed, and providing an example of how to put it all together. And Beasley knows it. “One day coaches can look to me to be the go-to guy, the superstar and the leader.” He pauses. “Like Kevin Durant.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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