- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2020

As a kid growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Kevin Durant would roll out of bed, go across the street from his apartment complex and play hours upon hours of pickup basketball at his local blacktop practically every day during the summer. Jeff Green has a similar memory. As does Steve Francis. And Adrian Dantley.

Those were formative years for Durant and all the other hundreds of players who have come out of Prince George’s County and turned into success stories. Back then, the games would be ultra-competitive, with Dantley recalling that he had to get to the court early unless he wanted to wait hours to play. Francis likened it to an amusement park.

“We got that competition early on,” Durant says in a new documentary.

“For me, it was a young kid, walking on the court with a bunch of grown men,” Green said, “and you go in there and prove to the older adults that we belonged on this court.”

Since the turn of the century, Prince George’s County has produced some 25 NBA players, more than a dozen WNBA players and hundreds of college basketball players. That hotbed is now the focus of Showtime’s new hour-long documentary, “Basketball County: In the Water,” which airs Friday at 9 p.m. Durant plays a pivotal role in the project, serving as an executive producer and a key interview subject.

The documentary provides a look as to why the area has produced so many great players, a long list that includes Durant, Green, Francis, Dantley, Victor Oladipo, Quinn Cook, Nolan Smith, Michael Beasley, DerMarr Johnson and Marissa Coleman.

So why, exactly, is the county a hotbed? Despite the title suggesting it’s in the water, the documentary does a good job of providing more concrete details and theories.

The abundance of blacktop courts like the ones Durant played on, for instance, is one example highlighted in the film.

“Prince George’s County has over 400 parks and in most of those parks you have basketball courts,” said Ronnie Gathers, the former director of PG County Parks and Recreation. “You get out there and play and you can raise that level of play based upon the competition you received within those communities.”

Outdoor basketball isn’t the only reason. Indoor facilities like Glenarden Community Center and Peppermill Community Center provided safe havens keep young players away from drug dealers and rough streets. The community also has a vibrant AAU circuit, allowing top talent like Durant and others to get noticed by traveling around the country when they were children.

The documentary even explores the larger historical context that paved the way for a hoops hotbed. It recalls Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in 1968 and how the D.C. riots caused droves of black people to move into the county, bringing a wealth of basketball knowledge with them.

The film also looks at the influence of father figures within the community, such as DeMatha’s legendary coach Morgan Wootten and DC Assault’s Curtis Malone.

Malone’s role is complicated by an eight-year sentence for distributing cocaine and heroin, even when the documentary appears to go to great lengths to present him as a positive influence. When Malone is interviewed for the film, he is never seen, only spoken to over the phone from prison.

On the topic of drugs, Len Bias’ death is also a tragedy that (deservedly) gets time in the documentary. After all, it’s a reminder of how cocaine ruined the future of the area’s brightest star, when Bias died from an overdose in 1986.

Ultimately, however, “Basketball County” is a story about preservation and triumph. It’s there to remind you that Durant (now with the Brooklyn Nets) is an NBA champion. It’s there to show even undrafted players like Cook (now with the Lakers) can make it, and Oladipo (with the Pacers) can be the league’s most improved player. (Quinn and Oladipo also served as executive producers, in addition to Durant.)

And just when you might start to think the documentary has run out of players to talk to, there’s Jarrett Jack and Mike Sweetney and … you get the point: Prince George’s County is really loaded with talent.

“It’s just in the water,” Durant said. “It’s just what we do.”

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