The Big Ticket
This article appears in the January/February 2006 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Montrose Christian small forward Kevin Durant knew all about Oak Hill Academy point guard Tywon Lawson long before the two became friends while playing AAU ball together with the D.C. Blue Devils as sophomores.
See, before their names started topping blue-chip recruit lists and before they committed to two of the nation's most elite college basketball programs — Durant to Texas and Lawson to North Carolina — the two were rivals at their Prince George's County middle schools.
They were eighth-graders when Durant's school, Drew-Freeman, lost to Lawson's school, Gwynn Park, in the semifinals of the county championship tournament. And while it's hard to imagine Durant ever doubting himself, the loss shook the sure-fire NBA prospect's confidence.
"Kevin was disappointed in the way he played and he said, ‘I don't know if I'm good enough for the high school team,'" says Taras Brown, Durant's first coach and mentor since he was 8 years old. "I said, ‘You'll be fine.'"
Talk about an understatement. Now a senior at Montrose Christian, Durant is rated the nation's No. 2 boys' hoop recruit in the Class of 2006 by SchoolSports.com. Had the NBA not instituted an age minimum, this 6-foot-10, 205-pound Kevin Garnett clone would have likely been a lottery pick in the 2006 NBA Draft.
The disappointment from the loss to Lawson's squad fueled Durant's already tireless work ethic, and both his game and his confidence only got stronger the following summer. Not only did Durant make the team at National Christian as a freshman, but by his sophomore year he was averaging 18 points and nine rebounds per game while leading the squad to a 27-3 record.
As a junior last year, Durant transferred to nationally renowned Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., where he reunited with Lawson to help the team go 34-2 and win the Champions Basketball Classic in Boone, N.C.
But last May, at the suggestion of Texas Longhorns coach Rick Barnes, Durant decided to bring his game back to Maryland for his senior year. Specifically to national-power Montrose Christian and legendary coach Stu Vetter, who coached at Flint Hill when Barnes was starting his collegiate coaching career down the road at George Mason.
"I heard it was a great school and coach Vetter was a great coach," says Durant, who averaged 20 points and 8.6 rebounds per game at Oak Hill last year. "I was willing to do anything to get into Montrose. It's a privilege to be there, and I'm glad they accepted me."
The privilege didn't come easy. Montrose does not accept many seniors, and Durant had to attend four weeks of summer school, take a correspondence course, and go through the entrance exams and interviews required of all prospective students. But then again, Durant is no stranger to hard work. He's been doing it since he was 8 years old.
Back then, he was honing his skills under the watchful eyes of Brown, who he met at the Seat Pleasant Activity Center. For the next six years, the coach guided his protégé by putting Durant through hours of daily drills, exposing him to mentors like big-time college ballers Chris McCray and Eddie Basden and coaching him on his first AAU team, the P.G. Jaguars. Durant was always a willing student.
"We'd be in the gym for five to six hours a day," says Brown, who's now Durant's godfather. "He'd call his grandmother and say, ‘Bring me something to eat' because he didn't want to go home, he wanted to learn. Most kids want to play video games or go to different activities, but he wanted to play basketball."
But Brown's most important influence on Durant may have been one that, at the time, seemed like a tiny tweak. He moved Durant, then a skinny 5-foot 11-year-old, to the wing, a position that would allow him to run the floor and play the perimeter while still patrolling the paint. Since then, Durant has grown into the nation's most complete forward, and that versatility has become his trademark much like Garnett, his favorite athlete.
"I don't think many other big guys like Kevin can shoot the 3," says Vetter. "Fifty percent of the time he's on the perimeter for us. He's by far the most versatile player of his size that I've seen in a long time."
That means a lot coming from a coach who has won three USA Today national titles and coached the likes of Dennis Scott, the Naismith National Player of the Year out of Flint Hill in 1987 and No. 4 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft. Vetter frequently likens Durant's game to Scott's, a comparison that only drives the phenom to prove he's worthy of it.
"It's an honor to be compared to those players," says Durant, a Parade All-American as a junior. "It just makes me work harder to prove to everybody that I can be that type of player."
The experts seem to already have all the proof they need. ESPN's Andy Katz called Durant one of the most significant recruits in Texas history this past November and credited Barnes for pulling off a "recruiting coup from ACC country."
But the same people who drool over Durant's crafty ball-handling skills and his smooth jump shot are quick to point out his lack of strength. So Durant, always the workhorse, has spent the last few years trying to silence those critics.
It's no accident that his new school is known for its strict strength program. Durant had been working with Montrose's strength coach, Alan Stein, who is also the co-owner of Elite Athlete Training Systems, Inc., for years before he transferred into the program. Durant's strength should only improve now that he's around Stein all the time.
"By the end of the year, I want to be 215 (pounds)," says Durant, who lifts weights three times a week after practice. "I try to do a lot with my legs and my core and a little bit with the arms."
It's a work ethic that should continue at Texas, a school also known for its weight room facilities. Durant knew that, too. That's one reason he picked it over UNC, a choice that would have reunited him once again with his buddy Lawson.
Now, of course, Durant and Lawson have the chance to be rivals again. Only this time on a much grander stage. And Longhorn opponents better hope Durant doesn't lose if the two face off again.
Because, like before, that'll just push him harder.