The 2017 NBA draft will lead off with the selection of Markelle Fultz, just 10 days after Kevin Durant was named MVP of the NBA Finals. Both Fultz and Durant are from Prince George’s County, Maryland. But great as they surely are, Fultz and Durant don’t really throw the curve when it comes to grading basketball in this Washington, D.C., suburb. For years now, P.G. County has been to hoops what Champagne is to Champagne.
“It’s a joy to see all the talent we’ve got here,” says Taras “Stink” Brown, a legend on the Prince George’s County youth coaching scene best known for molding a young Durant on the courts at the county’s Seat Pleasant recreation center. “We have got some talent! P.G. County is everywhere!”
You can look it up. Among the ridiculously large county contingent already spread around the NBA: Michael Beasley of the Milwaukee Bucks; Quinn Cook and Dante Cunningham of the New Orleans Pelicans; Durant of the Golden State Warriors; Treveon Graham of the Charlotte Hornets; Jerami Grant of the Oklahoma City Thunder and his brother, Jerian Grant of the Chicago Bulls; Victor Oladipo, also of the Thunder; Jeff Green of the Orlando Magic; Roy Hibbert of the Denver Nuggets; Ty Lawson of the Sacramento Kings; Rodney McGruder of the Miami Heat; Chinanu Onuaku of the Houston Rockets; and Thomas Robinson of the Los Angeles Lakers. (And another P.G. product, Melo Trimble, could join them in this year’s draft class, too.) Not all stars, of course, but just being in the NBA makes you one of the 450 best basketball players in the world. That’s elite.
Crunching numbers very loosely and subtracting the 113 foreign-born players rostered at the start of the 2016-17 season, there is one American NBA player for every 953,709 U.S. residents. That means P.G. County, which has a population of about 904,000 according to the most recent government stats, should have a little less than one dude in the league. Instead, assuming Fultz and Trimble fulfill predictions, there’ll be enough county products to fill an entire 15-man active roster.
Time was when D.C. proper was the hoops mecca. Between 1958 and 1971, for example, three D.C. natives were first overall picks in the NBA draft: The Minneapolis Lakers took Elgin Baylor in 1958, the San Francisco Warriors selected Fred Hetzel in 1965, and the Cleveland Cavaliers picked Austin Carr in 1971.
But the talent epicenter has certainly shifted to the east of the nation’s capital over the decades. How did Prince George’s County take over? One likely explanation is the exodus of Washingtonians that kicked into overdrive after the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, when portions of downtown D.C. were burned. So many former D.C. residents fled to Prince George’s County, whose population according to the Census Bureau boomed from 357,395 in 1960 to 660,567 in 1970, that those left behind, including iconic ex-D.C. mayor Marion Barry, nicknamed the county “Ward 9.” (D.C. proper is divided up into eight official wards.) The expats brought the hoopcentric culture across the border with them.
“The transition from D.C. ball to P.G. County ball was one smooth transition,” says Brown.
So while Fultz will be Prince George’s first overall top NBA draft pick, the county can already claim an amazing six No. 2 picks: Len Bias, Danny Ferry, Steve Francis, Durant, Beasley, and Oladipo.
The greatness of the hoops program at DeMatha High School, Fultz’s alma mater, also had a hand in the county’s basketball boom. Fultz will be the ninth DeMatha graduate taken in the first round, after Kenny Carr, Adrian Dantley, Ferry, Joe Forte, Jerian Grant, Jerrod Mustaf, Oladipo, and Hawkeye Whitney. “Everybody here knows about DeMatha and wants to play at DeMatha or play in the same conference as DeMatha [the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference], which has got to be the strongest conference in the country,” says Brown.
There’s also some obvious evidence that the 1973 relocation of the Baltimore Bullets to the Capital Centre, an arena located in an area of the county then known as Largo, had a role in the basketball Renaissance: Jerian and Jerami Grant are sons of former Washington Bullets player Harvey Grant, while Ferry, who is one of the county’s two Naismith Award winners as college player of the year, was the son of longtime Bullets general manager Bob Ferry. (The Bullets moved into D.C. in 1997 and became the Washington Wizards.)
The AAU programs in the county are also second to none. Brown once coached the P.G. Jaguars, a squad that had both Durant and Beasley on the roster as 12-year-olds and won multiple national championships. The AAU dynasty that was D.C. Assault, a program based inside the county in Fultz’s hometown of Upper Marlboro, Md., helped cultivate future NBA talents Jeff Green, Keith Bogans, DerMarr Johnson and Nolan Smith, as well as Melo Trimble. D.C. Assault was broken up when Curtis Malone, the team’s founder and one of amateur basketball’s top idolmakers for years, was sent to prison on heroin dealing charges in 2014.
Steve Francis’s basketball renown was limited to being a local playground star when he was discovered in 1996 playing for Team Maryland, a Prince George’s County squad, in the 19-and-under AAU National Championships in Florida. He wasn’t even playing high school ball at the time, but his performance got him a spot on a junior college team in Texas, which he parlayed into a free ride under Gary Williams at the University of Maryland, and from there became the second overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft. Team Maryland was coached at the time by Louis Wilson, who would later coach Beasley at Riverdale Baptist, also located in Upper Marlboro.
“You know how they say in life, it takes a village to raise a child? That’s how we take the basketball programs in this county,” Brown says. “It’s everybody. Everybody knows everybody. We have so many coaches, guys who played AAU here and then went off to play college basketball and are coming back home to work with kids at the young ages, when they’re just 8 to 13. The level of competition here from a young age is like nowhere else.”
Pete Strickland, who starred at DeMatha in the 1970s before starting a long career as an assistant and head NCAA hoops coach, can vouch for the competitiveness of the indigenous youngsters. Strickland remembers being awed by the scene he encountered on a recruiting trip to an AAU tournament at P.G.’s Suitland High School when he was an assistant at North Carolina State under head coach Sidney Lowe, another guy who spent his formative years playing ball in the county.
“I walk into the gym, and there’s a little kid wearing a letter jacket that said ‘Under 10 National Champions’” Strickland recalls. “That just stuck with me. The parents there have so much invested in their kids and basketball.”
Brown says that when Fultz was 14 years old, an AAU coach who’d been working with Fultz asked him to give the young player a pep talk, knowing that his ties to Durant would lend gravitas to all advice. “I saw the same thing in him that I saw in Kevin, just a humble kid who was always looking to get better, always working,” remembers Brown. “I just told him, ‘You have a lot of talent, now you just need to keep working, and you’re gonna get what’s coming. He won’t remember me, but, he’s getting what’s coming.”
Yeah, to the delight of Brown and everybody on the Prince George’s County hoops scene, Fultz will get what’s coming to him Thursday night, when the NBA draft gets going and his name is called before anybody else’s. The next celebration of local prodigies, Brown says, will come on August 17, when the county is scheduled to throw a parade for Durant. The entire route hasn’t been mapped out yet, but Brown says the procession will end at the Seat Pleasant rec center, where it all began.