The Seat Pleasant (Md.) Activity Center, a low-slung brick building just northeast of Washington, D.C., doesn't look all that special. It sits on a block littered with empty beer bottles and shares the neighborhood with bail-bond offices and run-down restaurants. Not long ago, two gunshot victims staggered to the front door, bleeding and desperate for help after a robbery gone bad. The 30-year-old gym at the Rec, as everyone calls it, has two side-by-side courts surrounded by six basketball goals (only two with glass backboards), the original scoreboard and four small rows of bleachers.
But inside is someone remarkable: Taras (Stink) Brown, the Rec's 43-year-old coach, a neighborhood treasure, with wire-rim glasses and a passion for teaching hoops fundamentals. One day last summer Stink cleared out the left side of the Rec's small glass trophy case and filled it with mementos commemorating the rise of his first star pupil, Kevin Durant: a pair of his size-18 shoes, the Sports Illustrated and other magazine covers he appeared on as a Texas freshman last season and the Seattle SuperSonics cap he wore at the NBA draft in June. The minishrine is the first thing a visitor sees upon entering the Rec, the first thing Michael Beasley saw on Christmas Eve, when he stopped by to hug Brown, the man he calls "my first coach, who taught me the game."
"You got my side ready yet?" asked Beasley, another Rec alum, nodding toward the right half of the trophy case.
"It's waiting on you," came Stink's reply. "Just keep working."
In a country where one in 10,000 high school players makes it to the NBA, what are the odds that Durant and Beasley, two 11-year-olds on the same Rec team, would both go on to become MVPs of the McDonald's High School All-American game? Would both sign with Big 12 schools? Would both put up such remarkable scoring and rebounding numbers, that Beasley, a 6' 9" forward at Kansas State, may well join Durant as the only freshmen ever to be named national player of the year?
Stink ponders the odds. Shakes his head. Grins. "One in a million?" he guesses.
Stink's probably being conservative. He knows as well as anyone that Beasley's story isn't so simple, knows that before Beasley could proudly wear his Kevin Durant Sonics jersey around the K-State campus, before two childhood pals could reunite at the pinnacle of global basketball, they had to go their separate ways.
Be easy. In the neighborhoods where Beasley grew up, along the corridor between Washington and Baltimore, the expression means Be cool. Relax. Have fun. B-Easy is Beasley's nickname, not to mention his all-purpose mission statement. B-Easy's carefree attitude draws raves from his D.C.-area buddies like Durant (who says Beasley "brightens everyone up"), Duke's Nolan Smith ("he'll ride the handicapped [carts] around the grocery store") and North Carolina's Ty Lawson ("his room was full of SpongeBob stuff"). B-Easy explains Beasley's M.O. as a real-life Bart Simpson, whose childish pranks were the main reason he attended seven schools in five states from grades eight through 12. And B-Easy also describes his playing style, a breathtaking efficiency that generates extreme stats -- at week's end he was the only player in the country who ranked in the top 10 in points (fifth, 24.2 per game) and rebounds (first, 13.5) -- with minimal wasted movement.
So effortless is Beasley's game, in fact, that some observers criticize him for playing without effort, calling Beasley the next Derrick Coleman. "I took that as a sign of disrespect," Beasley says. "The only Derrick Coleman I saw was in his last few years with the 76ers. I was like, No, no, no! I don't want to be that. I work. But then I saw [footage of] him in college [at Syracuse], and I'm like, A'ight, cool, the college Derrick Coleman."
Other assessments of Beasley are less ambiguous. "He's a child prodigy," says DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright, who worked directly with Beasley on U.S. youth national teams the past two summers. "It's like somebody took the best parts and sewed them together: his hand-eye coordination, his running speed, his hands. He could palm a manhole cover. He's really a point forward, not much different -- other than in body length -- from Kevin Garnett. They can both guard smaller guys and big guys, step away from the basket and pass and dribble."
What's more, NBA scouts are piqued by Beasley's relentless attack on the glass, his quirky southpaw stroke, his outside shooting (35.3% from three-point range) and his upside; having just turned 19 on Jan. 9, he's younger than any of the nation's other outstanding freshmen, including Memphis point guard Derrick Rose and Indiana guard Eric Gordon (the main rivals who could prevent Beasley from being the No. 1 overall pick in the next NBA draft). Kansas State coach Frank Martin says Beasley could pull down 10 rebounds in an NBA game today, and it's hard to argue after witnessing his recent run of 12 straight double doubles. His versatility was on full display during a 19-point, 11-rebound performance in K-State's 82-75 win over Cal on Dec. 9: Fighting double and triple teams, Beasley scored on inside power moves and feather-soft jump hooks, and he also brought the home crowd to its feet by forcing a steal, racing downcourt and finishing the fast break.
"He's going to have a better [freshman] year than I had, as far as I can tell," says Durant, who averaged 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds at Texas. "I hope he does. He can get 30 and 20 easily, and that's with people double-teaming him."
Durant and Beasley still exchange text messages and phone calls three or four times a week, maintaining the connection from their days at the Rec playing for the Prince Georges Jaguars. "Kevin and I used to do everything together," Beasley says. "We'd dream about the NBA and our names being in lights. We went our separate routes, but now we're kind of coming back together." Grassroots basketball is dominated by shoe-company sponsors hoping to find the Next Big Thing, and when the time came to choose an elite AAU team at age 13, Durant picked the D.C. Blue Devils (a Nike outfit coached by Rob Jackson) while Beasley joined D.C. Assault (an Adidas team run by Curtis Malone). The 39-year-old Malone is a powerful but controversial figure on the talent-rich Washington, D.C., basketball scene. Since Malone founded D.C. Assault in 1995, it has produced dozens of Division I players, including Jeff Green, Keith Bogans and DerMarr Johnson, but he also has poor relations with many high school coaches who view him as a hoops Svengali.
Yet Malone has also won the undying loyalty of his Assault players, including Beasley, who says Malone saved his life. At Kettering Middle School in Upper Marlboro, Md., Beasley's behavior rivaled that of the dysfunctional students portrayed on the HBO series The Wire. He says he hooked classes, antagonized school officials and once even put a dead rat in a teacher's desk drawer. Beasley says he never stole cars or broke into houses as some of his friends did, but he was caught in a shopping mall parking lot slashing tires. Beasley estimates that he and his brother Leroy and sister Mychaela moved every two years with their mother, Fatima Smith, who had a series of jobs, sometimes working two at a time. "My mother was struggling to take care of three kids, and I had no father figure in my life," he says. "I hated the world."
Beasley's scared-straight moment came during middle school, he says, when his cousin and running mate, Antwan Brookes, went to jail. "It made me realize," Beasley says, "that life wasn't a game." Within a year he hooked up with Malone, who recalls Beasley as "a big silly kid with huge feet who could hardly move." B-Easy befriended D.C. Assault teammate Nolan Smith, whose mother, Monica, had married Malone after the death of her first husband, Derek Smith, the former NBA player who died of a heart attack in 1996. The two become so close that Beasley spent many nights at the family's town house. Another way he escaped his old neighborhood influences was by using Malone's basketball connections to enroll in private schools. "My mom was always telling me you can't play basketball if you don't get your schoolwork done," says Nolan, "and after a while Mike started taking it seriously too."
"Michael respected Curtis as a father and Monica as a second mother," says Fatima, who moved to Manhattan, Kans., last summer with the entire family: her longtime boyfriend, Calvin Couch, and her children, Leroy, 20, Mychaela, 16, Malik, 9, and Tiffany, 4. A staff manager for a medical practice, Fatima also attends games, writes a blog (Mama Sayz) for The Wichita Eagle and keeps a hawk's eye on her middle son, who lives with teammate Bill Walker in a freshman dorm a mile away from her house. After Michael got a speeding ticket last fall, Fatima confiscated his black 2003 Chevy Tahoe for two weeks and made him write an apology letter to her.
Ask Fatima why Michael attended seven schools in five years and she doesn't hesitate: "He was a prankster, from one school to the next." B-Easy's grades were rarely an issue, but his Bart Simpson-like exploits spanned the southeastern seaboard, from the National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Md., to the Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute to the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He avoided trouble during a year of certified homeschooling while playing for Riverdale (Md.) Baptist High ("the fewer people he was around, the better he was as a student," says Curtis), and Michael finally appeared to have found a home when he and Nolan spent their junior seasons at Oak Hill Academy, a basketball powerhouse in Mouth of Wilson, Va.
Beasley averaged 20.1 points and 10 rebounds, but even Oak Hill officials tired of his shtick. "I don't mean any harm," Beasley says. "I just like to have fun." He'd break curfew. He'd win dunk contests wearing a SpongeBob Squarepants hat. He'd flout rules against wearing short pants in school by sporting pajamas and homemade "Capri pants." ("That was tight," says former Oak Hill teammate Lawson. "Nobody ever thought of that.") But the final straw was the result of a bet with Lawson to see which of them could sign his name in black marker on the most objects in the school. "Dumbest thing I ever did," says Beasley. "Ty was smarter than I was -- he'd sign on bedposts and places that wouldn't get him in trouble. I signed staplers, ceilings, doors, water fountains, bathroom stalls. Everywhere."
With two weeks left in the school year, Oak Hill officials called Beasley into a meeting and told him, No more nonsense if you want to come back next year. He agreed. The next day they discovered mb-easy written on the headmaster's car. "It was done before he promised not to, but it didn't matter," says Fatima. "I was like, 'Michael, why?' " Beasley's next destination was Fitchburg, Mass., and Notre Dame Prep, which he led to last season's prep school national championship.
High school odysseys don't preclude success in the pros -- Phoenix Suns All-Star Amaré Stoudemire, for example, attended six high schools in three years -- but the lack of stability is a potential red flag for any team that's considering drafting Beasley. "He loves the gym, he'll do 100 reps without even flinching, and he was never a mutt in practice," says Wainwright. "You just wish there was a little more consistency in his life. You can have a wonderful piece of marble, but if you've got nine people working on it, you may not get the full effect of what one master craftsman may be able to do."
Dalonte Hill can hardly believe how much his life has changed. Seven years ago he was a 21-year-old college hoops washout whose job description was member of an NBA player's posse. Now Hill is the associate head coach at Kansas State, one of the fastest-rising assistants in the country, and, as Beasley readily admits, the primary reason the young star signed with the Wildcats.
Whether Beasley is the primary reason for Hill's meteoric rise is up for debate. So-called package deals, in which a college program hires a close associate of a highly coveted recruit to enhance its chances of signing the player, are nothing new to college basketball. The practice is not considered a violation of NCAA rules unless the associate's employment is expressly conditional on a player's enrollment. But consider this: In September 2003, three weeks after Charlotte hired Hill off Malone's D.C. Assault staff to serve as an assistant to coach Bobby Lutz, Beasley gave a verbal commitment to the 49ers. Then, in June 2006, two months after then Kansas State coach Bob Huggins poached Hill for his own staff, Beasley announced he was going to Manhattan, even though he had never seen the campus.
"My first question for Dalonté was, 'What is Kansas State?' " says Beasley. "I couldn't find Kansas on a map. I didn't know [Kansas State] was a big-time school. But then my trust kicked in. Loyalty means everything to me. When I was hungry, 'Té gave me food to eat, so I turned the favor back to him." If Malone stands as his father figure, Beasley says, then Hill might as well be his older brother. In D.C. parlance all three men are "red" (i.e., light-skinned blacks), and as Beasley says, "There's an old saying: Red gotta stick together."
Knee injuries had cut short Hill's once-promising college career as a point guard, which began at Charlotte and ended at Division II Bowie State. So for six months after leaving school a semester short of a degree in sociology, he joined the all-expenses-paid entourage of Atlanta Hawks rookie DerMarr Johnson, a childhood friend from their days on the D.C. Assault. "Atlanta was a big city, and he felt comfortable with me on his side," Hill says. "I enjoyed going to the games and the clubs, all those perks, but I just didn't see how it was productive from eight to four o'clock every day. It made me decide I wanted to coach and do something."
With Johnson's continued financial backing, Hill took an unpaid assistant's job with D.C. Assault, and soon he was carting Beasley, a gangly 6' 6" eighth-grader, and 5' 11" combo guard Nolan Smith around the D.C. area, from gyms to Malone's house to McDonald's. "Me and Dalonté used to sit on the end of the bench joking together," Beasley recalls. "He was somebody I could trust 100 percent." But Johnson's monthly checks weren't enough for Hill, whose girlfriend, Tish, had just given birth to their first daughter. "I needed to start getting an income," Hill says. "I was thinking I'd coach high school, but Curtis said, 'Let's try to get you into college.' "
Hill's coach at Charlotte, Lutz, had already gone to bat for him in late 2001, persuading the school to pay for the last semester of classes Hill needed for his degree. And Lutz came through again in August '03, hiring Hill as an assistant. "He was a coach on the floor as a player, and that was the Number 1 reason," Lutz says. "But he also had great connections with D.C. Assault, with several players. I don't see anything wrong with hiring an assistant who has connections, and in Dalonté's case he had a tremendous future as a head coach."
When Huggins came calling with the job offer at Kansas State, Hill saw the chance to join a more prominent conference (the Big 12) for a bigger paycheck at a program that was on the rise. "It weighed a lot on me," Hill says. "[Lutz] jump-started my career, my life. You never know the right answer when you make a decision like that, but I had to do what was best for me and my family." Lutz says he harbors no hard feelings over losing Hill and Beasley, only that he wishes Hill had told him in person that he was leaving rather than doing so with a voice-mail message. "He told me he's moved forward, but obviously there's some bitterness," responds Hill.
The peregrinations of a coach can alter the lives of dozens of others, including staff members, players and families. "I'd never heard of Bob Huggins," says Beasley's mother, who started planning a move to eastern Kansas instead of Charlotte. "The only Huggy I knew was on Starsky and Hutch." But just as Fatima was warming to Huggins, he left Kansas State in April '07 for his alma mater, West Virginia. Hill's job was suddenly in limbo, and how would that affect Beasley? In a two-day period, Beasley says, rival schools blitzed his cellphone with more than 100 calls and 150 text messages. Three days after Huggins's departure Kansas State officials decided to promote Martin, the top assistant, to head coach and Hill to Martin's No. 2, no doubt aware of what would happen if they didn't. "Most likely I was going to follow Dalonté," says Beasley, who would have had to seek a release from his letter-of-intent. "Fortunately I didn't have to make that decision."
Despite their obvious connection, Beasley and Hill still bristle at the term package deal. Says Hill, "It's kind of comical. When I got [to Kansas State], everyone said I was here because of Mike. So we assemble a great recruiting class, and now they say, 'Dalonté's a good recruiter.' This fall I start to hear, 'Dalonté's a great coach, and you aren't going to be able to keep him past this year because he's going to become a head coach somewhere.' It's just about perception. I've dealt with the Mike Beasley tag being attached to me since I got into coaching, and that's all I was ever going to be known for. But I think I've worked hard enough to put that to bed."
And if that means turning Kansas State into the Midwestern spigot of a D.C. Assault pipeline, then so be it. Since Hill arrived in Manhattan his recruiting haul (in addition to Beasley) has included freshman forwards Ron Anderson, Jamar Samuels and Dominique Sutton, plus two commitments from the class of 2009, guard Rodney McGruder and forward Wally Judge. (Both are ranked in the 2009 Hoops Top 100 on Rivals.com.) All six are D.C. Assault products.
For all the publicity surrounding Beasley and his outstanding play to back it up, this much is also true: Kansas State (9-4 through Sunday) is looking not so much like a national championship contender but rather an NCAA tournament bubble team; the Wildcats were drilled by unranked Xavier 101-77 on Dec. 31 as Beasley had a season-low five points after committing three quick fouls. Almost nobody thinks Beasley will be back in Manhattan next season, so it's worth asking: Is it possible to leave a legacy at Kansas State if he bolts for the NBA after one year? "I don't think so," he says. "A legacy would be like Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse: one year, one championship. If I leave after this year and haven't done anything, where's my legacy? I want an NCAA championship. That's a winner's legacy."
B-Easy says he's mostly enjoying the college experience. Among his first-semester classes, he calls Computing and Information Sciences "bogus" and Basic Nutrition "a waste of my time," but he'll talk at length about the theories of "old-time guys like Freud" from his Human Development class and his fascination with retinal scans, which he studied in Mass Communications. Beasley vows that whenever he departs from Kansas State he'll finish that semester's classes and leave with his eligibility intact, which would prevent the Wildcats from losing any scholarships per the rules of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate (APR).
These days the kid who used to mumble in response to his teachers (when he bothered to show up for class) can sit in a room at K-State's Bramlage Coliseum and talk for hours. "Now I want to be heard," explains Beasley, who says he earned a 3.1 GPA in the first semester. "I have a new outlook. I'm still the same old neighborhood Mike. But to make it in this world you have to meet people. Who's to say my neighbor in the dorm won't end up being the next Bill Gates or Donald Trump?"
For that matter, who's to say the kid in the white tank top back at the Rec won't end up being the next Kevin Durant or Michael Beasley? On a cold Saturday in December a 13-year-old guard named Jujuan Shivers was hard at work under the watchful eye of Stink Brown. Stink passed up the chance for a payday by making an instructional video ("I just do this for the love of the game and the kids in the community," he says), but you can always find him here, running Jujuan and a few dozen other neighborhood boys through the same drills that produced present and future NBA millionaires. "The Rec is like my family," says Jujuan. "It keeps me motivated to say, I could be like Kevin Durant, or I could be like Michael Beasley."
To which Beasley no doubt would smile and say: Be easy, Jujuan, be easy.