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 emptybeer bottles and shares the neighborhood with bail-bond offices and run-downrestaurants. 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 gymat the Rec, as everyone calls it, has two side-by-side courts surrounded by sixbasketball goals (only two with glass backboards), the original scoreboard andfour small rows of bleachers.
This is an article from the Jan. 14, 2008 issue
But inside issomeone remarkable: Taras (Stink) Brown, the Rec's 43-year-old coach, aneighborhood treasure, with wire-rim glasses and a passion for teaching hoopsfundamentals. One day last summer Stink cleared out the left side of the Rec'ssmall glass trophy case and filled it with mementos commemorating the rise ofhis first star pupil, Kevin Durant: a pair of his size-18 shoes, the SPORTSILLUSTRATED and other magazine covers he appeared on as a Texas freshman lastseason and the Seattle SuperSonics cap he wore at the NBA draft in June. Theminishrine is the first thing a visitor sees upon entering the Rec, the firstthing 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 myside ready yet?" asked Beasley, another Rec alum, nodding toward the righthalf of the trophy case.
"It's waitingon you," came Stink's reply. "Just keep working."
In a countrywhere one in 10,000 high school players makes it to the NBA, what are the oddsthat Durant and Beasley, two 11-year-olds on the same Rec team, would both goon to become MVPs of the McDonald's High School All-American game? Would bothsign with Big 12 schools? Would both put up such remarkable scoring andrebounding numbers, that Beasley, a 6'9" forward at Kansas State, may welljoin Durant as the only freshmen ever to be named national player of theyear?
Stink ponders theodds. Shakes his head. Grins. "One in a million?" he guesses.
Stink's probablybeing conservative. He knows as well as anyone that Beasley's story isn't sosimple, knows that before Beasley could proudly wear his Kevin Durant Sonicsjersey around the K-State campus, before two childhood pals could reunite atthe pinnacle of global basketball, they had to go their separate ways.
BE EASY. In theneighborhoods where Beasley grew up, along the corridor between Washington andBaltimore, the expression means Be cool. Relax. Have fun. B-Easy is Beasley'snickname, not to mention his all-purpose mission statement. B-Easy's carefreeattitude draws raves from his D.C.-area buddies like Durant (who says Beasley"brightens everyone up"), Duke's Nolan Smith ("he'll ride thehandicapped [carts] around the grocery store") and North Carolina's TyLawson ("his room was full of SpongeBob stuff"). B-Easy explainsBeasley's M.O. as a real-life Bart Simpson, whose childish pranks were the mainreason he attended seven schools in five states from grades eight through 12.And B-Easy also describes his playing style, a breathtaking efficiency thatgenerates extreme stats—at week's end he was the only player in the country whoranked in the top 10 in points (fifth, 24.2 per game) and rebounds (first,13.5)—with minimal wasted movement.
So effortless isBeasley's game, in fact, that some observers criticize him for playing withouteffort, calling Beasley the next Derrick Coleman. "I took that as a sign ofdisrespect," Beasley says. "The only Derrick Coleman I saw was in hislast 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 assessmentsof Beasley are less ambiguous. "He's a child prodigy," says DePaulcoach Jerry Wainwright, who worked directly with Beasley on U.S. youth nationalteams the past two summers. "It's like somebody took the best parts andsewed them together: his hand-eye coordination, his running speed, his hands.He could palm a manhole cover. He's really a point forward, not muchdifferent—other than in body length—from Kevin Garnett. They can both guardsmaller guys and big guys, step away from the basket and pass anddribble."
What's more, NBAscouts are piqued by Beasley's relentless attack on the glass, his quirkysouthpaw stroke, his outside shooting (35.3% from three-point range) and hisupside; having just turned 19 on Jan. 9, he's younger than any of the nation'sother outstanding freshmen, including Memphis point guard Derrick Rose andIndiana guard Eric Gordon (the main rivals who could prevent Beasley from beingthe No. 1 overall pick in the next NBA draft). Kansas State coach Frank Martinsays Beasley could pull down 10 rebounds in an NBA game today, and it's hard toargue after witnessing his recent run of 12 straight double doubles. Hisversatility was on full display during a 19-point, 11-rebound performance inK-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 alsobrought the home crowd to its feet by forcing a steal, racing downcourt andfinishing the fast break.
"He's goingto have a better [freshman] year than I had, as far as I can tell," saysDurant, who averaged 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds at Texas. "I hope hedoes. He can get 30 and 20 easily, and that's with people double-teaminghim."
Durant andBeasley still exchange text messages and phone calls three or four times aweek, maintaining the connection from their days at the Rec playing for thePrince Georges Jaguars. "Kevin and I used to do everything together,"Beasley says. "We'd dream about the NBA and our names being in lights. Wewent our separate routes, but now we're kind of coming back together."Grassroots basketball is dominated by shoe-company sponsors hoping to find theNext 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) whileBeasley joined D.C. Assault (an Adidas team run by Curtis Malone). The39-year-old Malone is a powerful but controversial figure on the talent-richWashington, D.C., basketball scene. Since Malone founded D.C. Assault in 1995,it has produced dozens of Division I players, including Jeff Green, KeithBogans and DerMarr Johnson, but he also has poor relations with many highschool coaches who view him as a hoops Svengali.
YET MALONE hasalso won the undying loyalty of his Assault players, including Beasley, whosays, "Malone saved his life." At Kettering Middle School in UpperMarlboro, Md., Beasley's behavior rivaled that of the dysfunctional studentsportrayed on the HBO series The Wire. He says he hooked classes, antagonizedschool 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 friendsdid, but he was caught in a shopping mall parking lot slashing tires. Beasleyestimates that he and his brother Leroy and sister Mychaela moved every twoyears with their mother, Fatima Smith, who had a series of jobs, sometimesworking two at a time. "My mother was struggling to take care of threekids, and I had no father figure in my life," he says. "I hated theworld."
Beasley'sscared-straight moment came during middle school, he says, when his cousin andrunning mate, Antwan Brookes, went to jail. "It made me realize,"Beasley says, "that life wasn't a game." Within a year he hooked upwith Malone, who recalls Beasley as "a big silly kid with huge feet whocould 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 twobecome 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'sbasketball connections to enroll in private schools. "My mom was alwaystelling me you can't play basketball if you don't get your schoolworkdone," says Nolan, "and after a while Mike started taking it seriouslytoo."
"Michaelrespected Curtis as a father and Monica as a second mother," says Fatima,who moved to Manhattan, Kans., last summer with the entire family: her longtimeboyfriend, Calvin Couch, and her children, Leroy, 20, Mychaela, 16, Malik, 9,and Tiffany, 4. A staff manager for a medical practice, Fatima also attendsgames, writes a blog (Mama Sayz) for The Wichita Eagle and keeps a hawk's eyeon her middle son, who lives with teammate Bill Walker in a freshman dorm amile away from her house. After Michael got a speeding ticket last fall, Fatimaconfiscated his black 2003 Chevy Tahoe for two weeks and made him write anapology letter to her.
Ask Fatima whyMichael attended seven schools in five years and she doesn't hesitate: "Hewas a prankster, from one school to the next." B-Easy's grades were rarelyan issue, but his Bart Simpson--like exploits spanned the southeasternseaboard, from the National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Md., to theLaurinburg (N.C.) Institute to the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He avoidedtrouble during a year of certified homeschooling while playing for Riverdale(Md.) Baptist High ("the fewer people he was around, the better he was as astudent," says Curtis), and Michael finally appeared to have found a homewhen he and Nolan spent their junior seasons at Oak Hill Academy, a basketballpowerhouse in Mouth of Wilson, Va.
Beasley averaged20.1 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 havefun." He'd break curfew. He'd win dunk contests wearing a SpongeBobSquarepants hat. He'd flout rules against wearing short pants in school bysporting 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 themcould sign his name in black marker on the most objects in the school."Dumbest thing I ever did," says Beasley. "Ty was smarter than Iwas—he'd sign on bedposts and places that wouldn't get him in trouble. I signedstaplers, ceilings, doors, water fountains, bathroom stalls.Everywhere."
With two weeksleft in the school year, Oak Hill officials called Beasley into a meeting andtold him, No more nonsense if you want to come back next year. He agreed. Thenext day they discovered MB-EASY written on the headmaster's car. "It wasdone before he promised not to, but it didn't matter," says Fatima. "Iwas like, 'Michael, why?'" Beasley's next destination was Fitchburg, Mass.,and Notre Dame Prep, which he led to last season's prep school nationalchampionship.
High schoolodysseys don't preclude success in the pros—Phoenix Suns All-Star AmaréStoudemire, for example, attended six high schools in three years—but the lackof stability is a potential red flag for any team that's considering draftingBeasley. "He loves the gym, he'll do 100 reps without even flinching, andhe was never a mutt in practice," says Wainwright. "You just wish therewas a little more consistency in his life. You can have a wonderful piece ofmarble, but if you've got nine people working on it, you may not get the fulleffect of what one master craftsman may be able to do."
DALONTÉ HILL canhardly believe how much his life has changed. Seven years ago he was a21-year-old college hoops washout whose job description was member of an NBAplayer's posse. Now Hill is the associate head coach at Kansas State, one ofthe fastest-rising assistants in the country, and, as Beasley readily admits,the primary reason the young star signed with the Wildcats.
Whether Beasleyis the primary reason for Hill's meteoric rise is up for debate. So-calledpackage deals, in which a college program hires a close associate of a highlycoveted recruit to enhance its chances of signing the player, are nothing newto college basketball. The practice is not considered a violation of NCAA rulesunless the associate's employment is expressly conditional on a player'senrollment. But consider this: In September 2003, three weeks after Charlottehired Hill off Malone's D.C. Assault staff to serve as an assistant to coachBobby 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 ownstaff, Beasley announced he was going to Manhattan, even though he had neverseen the campus.
"My firstquestion for Dalonté was, 'What is Kansas State?'" says Beasley. "Icouldn't find Kansas on a map. I didn't know [Kansas State] was a big-timeschool. But then my trust kicked in. Loyalty means everything to me. When I washungry, 'Té gave me food to eat, so I turned the favor back to him." IfMalone stands as his father figure, Beasley says, then Hill might as well behis 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: Redgotta stick together."
Knee injuries hadcut short Hill's once-promising college career as a point guard, which began atCharlotte and ended at Division II Bowie State. So for six months after leavingschool a semester short of a degree in sociology, he joined theall-expenses-paid entourage of Atlanta Hawks rookie DerMarr Johnson, achildhood friend from their days on the D.C. Assault. "Atlanta was a bigcity, and he felt comfortable with me on his side," Hill says. "Ienjoyed going to the games and the clubs, all those perks, but I just didn'tsee how it was productive from eight to four o'clock every day. It made medecide I wanted to coach and do something."
With Johnson'scontinued 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, and5'11" combo guard Nolan Smith around the D.C. area, from gyms to Malone'shouse to McDonald's. "Me and Dalonté used to sit on the end of the benchjoking together," Beasley recalls. "He was somebody I could trust 100percent." But Johnson's monthly checks weren't enough for Hill, whosegirlfriend, Tish, had just given birth to their first daughter. "I neededto start getting an income," Hill says. "I was thinking I'd coach highschool, but Curtis said, 'Let's try to get you into college.'"
Hill's coach atCharlotte, Lutz, had already gone to bat for him in late 2001, persuading theschool to pay for the last semester of classes Hill needed for his degree. AndLutz came through again in August '03, hiring Hill as an assistant. "He wasa coach on the floor as a player, and that was the Number 1 reason," Lutzsays. "But he also had great connections with D.C. Assault, with severalplayers. I don't see anything wrong with hiring an assistant who hasconnections, and in Dalonté's case he had a tremendous future as a headcoach."
When Huggins camecalling with the job offer at Kansas State, Hill saw the chance to join a moreprominent conference (the Big 12) for a bigger paycheck at a program that wason 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 makea 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 thathe wishes Hill had told him in person that he was leaving rather than doing sowith a voice-mail message. "He told me he's moved forward, but obviouslythere's some bitterness," responds Hill.
Theperegrinations of a coach can alter the lives of dozens of others, includingstaff members, players and families. "I'd never heard of Bob Huggins,"says Beasley's mother, who started planning a move to eastern Kansas instead ofCharlotte. "The only Huggy I knew was on Starsky and Hutch." But justas Fatima was warming to Huggins, he left Kansas State in April '07 for hisalma mater, West Virginia. Hill's job was suddenly in limbo, and how would thataffect Beasley? In a two-day period, Beasley says, rival schools blitzed hiscellphone with more than 100 calls and 150 text messages. Three days afterHuggins's departure Kansas State officials decided to promote Martin, the topassistant, to head coach and Hill to Martin's No. 2, no doubt aware of whatwould happen if they didn't. "Most likely I was going to followDalonté," says Beasley, who would have had to seek a release from hisletter-of-intent. "Fortunately I didn't have to make thatdecision."
Despite theirobvious connection, Beasley and Hill still bristle at the term package deal.Says Hill, "It's kind of comical. When I got [to Kansas State], everyonesaid I was here because of Mike. So we assemble a great recruiting class, andnow 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 thisyear because he's going to become a head coach somewhere.' It's just aboutperception. I've dealt with the Mike Beasley tag being attached to me since Igot into coaching, and that's all I was ever going to be known for. But I thinkI've worked hard enough to put that to bed."
And if that meansturning 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 additionto Beasley) has included freshman forwards Ron Anderson, Jamar Samuels andDominique Sutton, plus two commitments from the class of 2009, guard RodneyMcGruder and forward Wally Judge. (Both are ranked in the 2009 Hoops Top 100 onRivals.com.) All six are D.C. Assault products.
FOR ALL THEpublicity surrounding Beasley and his outstanding play to back it up, this muchis also true: Kansas State (9--4 through Sunday) is looking not so much like anational championship contender but rather an NCAA tournament bubble team; theWildcats were drilled by unranked Xavier 101--77 on Dec. 31 as Beasley had aseason-low five points after committing three quick fouls. Almost nobody thinksBeasley will be back in Manhattan next season, so it's worth asking: Is itpossible to leave a legacy at Kansas State if he bolts for the NBA after oneyear? "I don't think so," he says. "A legacy would be like CarmeloAnthony at Syracuse: one year, one championship. If I leave after this year andhaven't done anything, where's my legacy? I want an NCAA championship. That's awinner's legacy."
B-Easy says he'smostly enjoying the college experience. Among his first-semester classes, hecalls 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 hisfascination with retinal scans, which he studied in Mass Communications.Beasley vows that whenever he departs from Kansas State he'll finish thatsemester's classes and leave with his eligibility intact, which would preventthe Wildcats from losing any scholarships per the rules of the NCAA's AcademicProgress Rate (APR).
These days thekid who used to mumble in response to his teachers (when he bothered to show upfor 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 3.1GPA in the first semester. "I have a new outlook. I'm still the same oldneighborhood Mike. But to make it in this world you have to meet people. Who'sto say my neighbor in the dorm won't end up being the next Bill Gates or DonaldTrump?"
For that matter,who's to say the kid in the white tank top back at the Rec won't end up beingthe next Kevin Durant or Michael Beasley? On a cold Saturday in December a13-year-old guard named Jujuan Shivers was hard at work under the watchful eyeof Stink Brown. Stink passed up the chance for a payday by making aninstructional video ("I just do this for the love of the game and the kidsin the community," he says), but you can always find him here, runningJujuan and a few dozen other neighborhood boys through the same drills thatproduced present and future NBA millionaires. "The Rec is like myfamily," says Jujuan. "It keeps me motivated to say, I could be likeKevin Durant, or I could be like Michael Beasley."
To which Beasleyno doubt would smile and say: Be easy, Jujuan, be easy.
More on package deals in college basketball in GrantWahl's mailbag.
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