As the Wizards prepare to welcome red-hot Kevin Durant back home again tomorrow night, it’s an appropriate time to consider the 25-year-old Seat Pleasant native’s place in the area’s hoops pantheon.
For decades, Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing have been considered the greatest basketball players ever from Washington. The only legitimate other contenders have been more recent enshrinees David Robinson and Adrian Dantley.
Austin Carr probably had the other spot in the starting five although he was never quite the same after suffering a major knee injury during his fourth season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. So Carr (a graduate of since-closed Mackin Catholic) falls into the “what might have been” category with the late Len Bias (Northwestern High), who died of a cocaine overdose before he could debut with the defending champion Boston Celtics after chosen second overall in the 1986 NBA draft.
But given Durant’s consistent excellence during an NBA career that has now lasted seven seasons, not only has he supplanted Carr in the admittedly frontcourt-heavy starting five, the Montrose Christian product is making a serious case to be considered the area’s best-ever other than Baylor, who was soaring around the rim when Dr. J was in elementary school and before Michael Jordan was born.
Just 19 when he debuted with Seattle after earning national player of the year acclaim during his lone college season at Texas, Durant won Rookie of the Year honors in 2007-08. The 6-foot-9 Durant began an ongoing run of making the All-NBA team in 2009-10, the first of the three straight seasons in which he led the league in scoring. In 2012, Durant led Oklahoma City to its only appearance in the NBA finals, during which he averaged a series-high 30.6 points per game.
With key 2012 sidekick James Harden having been trade and with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook sidelined, Durant has been at best lately. He averaged a Wilt Chamberlainesque 39.8 points, while hitting 58.3 percent of his shots during a six-game tear before sitting out a contest with a sprained right shoulder. He returned last Saturday in Philadelphia with 32 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists — his fifth career triple double. Durant has since scored 41 and 33 points, respectively, in victories over Atlanta and two-time defending champion Miami, to run his streak to 12 straight games with at least 30 points, the NBA’s longest such tear in 11 years.
Durant’s career 27.02 scoring average is sixth all-time behind this fabulous five: Jordan, Chamberlain, Le Bron James, Baylor and Jerry West, the Los Angeles Lakers’ shooting who’s immortalized on the NBA’s logo.
The frightening part is that Durant is still just 25 years old. The fantastic part is that, unlike so many current athletes who believe that sports might as well have been prehistoric before ESPN existed, Durant has a true appreciation for those who came before him in DMV hoops.
“Growing up, I wanted to be the best player in my neighborhood,” Durant told me. “I wanted to be the best player in the state and (that) the area’s ever seen. That’s always been my goal. Guys like Elgin Baylor, Adrian Dantley and Dave Bing, it’s tough to pass those guys. I’m a steady worker and my project’s not over yet. Hopefully I get there. Those guys paved the way for me. I’m very appreciative of them and all the players [before me] that played overseas, played in the league, that went to college. I look up to them and I thank them.”
Since Durant has played some shooting guard, let’s put him in the backcourt alongside seven-time All-Star Bing (Spingarn) with 11-time All-Star Baylor (Spingarn) and six-time All-Star Dantley (De Matha) at the forwards and 10-time All-Star Robinson (Osbourn Park) at center.
Dantley, the only player to be a three-time Washington Post All-Met from 1969-83 — was such a legend in high school that I still remember being thrilled just to be sitting near him at a game at McDonough Gym when I was in junior high. By the time I reached Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, Blair’s sweet-shooting Brian Magid was the local star.
Magid’s all-around game didn’t measure up during his college days at Maryland and George Washington so didn’t really blaze the trail for Durant, but among those who did: are Earl Lloyd (Parker-Gray High in Alexandria’s segregated era); George Leftwich (Carroll); Jack George and Bobby Lewis (St. John’s); Gary Browne (Whitman); Fred Hetzel (Landon); Kermit Washington (Coolidge); John Hummer (Washington-Lee); Craig Shelton (Dunbar); Ernie Cage, Sid Catlett, Hawkeye Whitney, Kenny Carr and Danny Ferry (DeMatha); Duck Williams and JoJo Hunter (Mackin); Tracy Jackson (Paint Branch); Pete Holbert (W.T Woodson); Thurl Bailey (Bladensburg); Johnny Dawkins (Mackin); Sherman Douglas (Spingarn); Walt Williams (Crossland) and Grant Hill (South Lakes).
All told that’s 30 terrific players who grew up in the area’s gyms and on its playgrounds. If Durant’s next six and a half NBA seasons are like his first six and a half, he might well have reached his goal of being the best that Washington has ever produced.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.