“On ESPN,” says basketball dad Vernon Ryan, “as much time as they give Kevin Durant, as much time as they give Michael Beasley, they never put two and two together: It’s P.G. County. There’s something happening here, right here in P.G. County.”
Ryan, of Upper Marlboro, tells me this while sitting among a couple of hundred basketball parents and hardcore fans in the bleachers of Capital Sports Complex, a massive hoops emporium in District Heights. He’s there to watch his 14-year-old son play with the Lake Arbor Hawks, a Largo team, in a regional AAU tournament.
As Ryan says, something’s happening in Prince George’s County, and it’s about basketball. The place is in the midst of a talent boom like it’s never seen before.
P.G. has produced players in the past: The great Len Bias grew up in Hyattsville, and future NBA-bound Terps Lonny Baxter and Steve Francis played for youth teams here.
But this is different. The county is suddenly to basketball as Detroit was to the automobile, as Seattle was to grunge. In other words: It is now to basketball what D.C. once was. (Where have you gone, Elgin Baylor?)
Coincidentally or not, while the city has gentrified and lost a big, black chunk of its population, a county on its eastern border—the so-called Ward 9—has assumed control of the hoops universe.
There’s Durant who, while a freshman at the University of Texas, won the 2007 Naismith Award as college player of the year. He was MVP of the 2006 McDonald’s All-American game, the premier event on the national prep all-star circuit. He was the second overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft. He was born in D.C. but grew up in Seat Pleasant.
And Beasley, a forward at Kansas State, who stands as a favorite to win the 2008 Naismith award. As of last week, he led the NCAA in rebounding and was third in the country in scoring. Beasley won the MVP of the 2007 McDonald’s game. He could be the top pick in this year’s NBA draft. He grew up in various spots around the county, sometimes living with youth coaches. He played high school ball at two Prince George’s schools, National Christian Academy and Riverdale Baptist.
“Durant and Beasley, those guys would have been great if they grew up in China,” says Preston “P.K.” Martin, who coached both players through their 15-year-old seasons while they played for the P.G. Jaguars, an AAU team based in the county.
Martin serves as governor of the Potomac Valley District of the AAU, which sponsored the weekend’s tournament in District Heights. Scads of other young hoops stars have come out of the county on his watch.
There’s Ty Lawson, a star sophomore for top-ranked North Carolina. He’s from Clinton. And Nolan Smith, Duke’s point guard, is from Mitchellville.
Though the pipeline to College Park seems to have been almost completely shut off, some of the county’s native talent still ends up nearby. Georgetown, for example, can thank P.G. for its return to elite status.
The hero of last year’s Final Four run, Jeff Green, is from Hyattsville. The Hoyas’ leading rebounder and scorer this year is probable NBA lottery pick Roy Hibbert. He’s from Adelphi.
In Saturday’s conference-championship-clinching win over Louisville, freshman and future superstar Austin Freeman led all scorers. He’s from Mitchellville. Another would-be star, freshman Chris Wright, was starting at point guard until a foot injury ended his season. He’s from Bowie.
Next season, the Hoyas will get Chris Braswell, a former DeMatha player who this season prepped for college superstardom at Hargrave Military Academy. Over the weekend, Braswell blocked a shot at the buzzer to give Hargrave the national prep championship, 75-73, over Nevada’s Findlay College Prep. Braswell played alongside Durant and Beasley on the P.G. Jaguars. He’s from Suitland.
Again, something’s happening.
“People are serious around here,” says Jay Jackson, who coaches an AAU club in the county, the Mitchellville Trail Blazers, and co-organized the weekend’s tourney at the Capital Sports Complex.
“Look around this gym,” says Jackson, pointing to the crowded bleachers that surround the various courts used for his event. “Look at all the parents here. They’ve been here all day. They’re basketball junkies around here. They get their kids into the county basketball programs at 5 years old.”
Vernon Ramey, coach of the AAU club Maryland United Ballers, says parents wanting their kids to attend private high schools in the area, where basketball skills can bring scholarships, have spawned the boom. Dreams about using hoops to get to college or the NBA are secondary at best to the high school hopes, he says.
“The AAU programs are strong, real strong in the county,” says Ramey. “We got kids trying to get scholarships to the good high schools, and they work real, real hard at practice, because we got all the coaches from the [private] schools coming to our practices trying to get our kids. The parents know that. Now, any kid with any talent at all in this county is playing ball.”
Ryan, 33, agrees that the county’s subpar public school system has done wonders for its basketball talent level.
“The goal is to get to a private school,” he says, pointing to his son on the Hawks’ bench. “This team is for eighth-graders, and a lot of these kids have already been promised [high school] scholarships.”
College coaches recruit youngsters in P.G., too: Last year, Kendall Marshall, just a sophomore at Bishop O’Connell, announced he would play ball for the University of North Carolina—an offer that that school made because of Marshall’s play with Team Maryland, a nationally revered AAU squad based in Upper Marlboro.
Martin says credit for the county’s bumper crop should be shared with other jurisdictions in the region. (That could be a political position, since the Potomac Valley District he oversees gets members not only from Prince George’s but also from Montgomery County, D.C., and Northern Virginia.)
And though he says Durant and Beasley had enough gifts to make it no matter where they grew up, he admits their nature was nurtured on county courts.
“We send 90 teams to national tournaments from this region,” he says. “That is an awful lot of teams from one area. It’s serious around here. And all those teams have played each other before they go to the national tournaments. The kids are battle-tested....[Beasley and Durant] had the opportunity to compete at the highest level around here. It’s the region that afforded them the competition to bring them to that skill level. It’s almost like the boxing wars at Joe Frazier’s gym in Philadelphia—by the time they got through beating up on each other in their own gym, they were ready to take on anybody else.”
Whatever the reason, the county’s reputation has taken hold. And, says Ramey, it’s not going to go away anytime soon.
He’s particularly keen on a 14-and-under team, the P.G.-based D.C. Assault, that has two kids “who might be one-year-of-college guys”—meaning they’ll be ready for the NBA by the time they leave their teens.
“There’s so much talent right now in the younger kids, you can’t believe it,” Ramey says. “There’s a lot of kids here that you’re going to be talking about for years.”