Across America, just three out of every 10,000 high school basketball players make the NBA, but in Prince George’s County, Maryland, you might have five from the same school.
That’s one of the revelations from the new hourlong Showtime documentary “Basketball County: In the Water,” codirected by John Beckham and Jimmy Jenkins and written by Amani Martin to chronicle the perennial hotbed of hoops in Prince George’s County.
“Almost every other NBA game I’m playing against a guy from PG County,” one player said. “If PG County was a basketball player, he’d be tough, gritty, a student of the game.”
Since 2000, the county has produced over 30 NBA players, including Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Victor Oladipo, Markelle Fultz, Jeff Green, Steve Francis, Adrian Dantley, DerMarr Johnson, Ty Lawson, Jarrett Jack, Quinn Cook and Jeremiah Grant, not to mention numerous WNBA stars and NCAA standouts like buzzer beater Kris Jenkins.
After a rousing intro, the film establishes the history of basketball in the nation’s capital. It explores pioneering black coach Edwin Henderson, who learned the game from inventor Jim Naismith at Harvard University and brought it back to D.C. at the 12th Street YMCA.
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, race riots tragically burned down much of the city, causing a migration out to neighboring Prince George’s County.
It was here that DeMatha High School took root in Hyattsville under iconic coach Morgan Wootten, who played both black and white players. As one player said, “A lot of racism goes out the window when you’re competing with your white counterparts to win games.”
The film highlights the moment DeMatha hosted Power Memorial High School from New York City featuring 7-foot-1 center Lew Alcindor a.k.a. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Everyone from Time to Newsweek covered the game as 12,500 fans watched DeMatha win 46-43.
“I don’t think that I’m engaging in hyperbole when I talk about the significance,” DeMatha basketball alum and future sportscaster James “J.B.” Brown said in the documentary.
After such national exposure, Prince George’s County began hosting the Capital Classic in 1974, an annual battle of local all-stars against the best of the U.S. from Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan, all featured on George Michael’s “Sports Machine” broadcasts on NBC 4.
None was bigger than hometown hero Len Bias, to whom the documentary devotes a touching segment entitled “Rise and Fall of the Prodigal Son.” Born in Landover, Bias was so dominant for the Maryland Terrapins in College Park that he was ultimately drafted No. 1 in the 1986 NBA Draft by Red Auerbach to play with Larry Bird on the Boston Celtics.
Tragically, Bias fatally overdosed on cocaine the night of the draft. The film documents the heartbreak by family and teammates at a funeral attended by Rev. Jesse Jackson, but it should have balanced out the negative with the positive of the Terps’ resurgence to win the 2002 National Championship (Brenda Frese is interviewed but oddly not Gary Williams).
“We needed heroes like Lenny,” Georgetown Hoyas coach John Thompson Jr. laments. “He became a cautionary tale and an omen of crack cocaine’s looming devastation.”
From here, the documentary shifts to the crack cocaine epidemic with political sound bites from Gov. Parris Glendening and President Ronald Reagan. Players recount the scary hours dribbling home in the dark after competitive pickup games lit by car headlights.
“In my neighborhood, you had zombies walking around trying to get their fix,” Durant said.
Thus, local officials built 46,000 community centers to bring kids indoors. As one player said, “Basketball was used as a weapon to keep you from going down the wrong track.”
In addition to the Boys & Girls Club, the biggest sanctuary was the Run & Shoot Gym in District Heights, containing 20 basketball courts, classrooms, barber shop and food.
This gave rise to the youth sports phenomenon of AAU travel teams, namely the PG Jaguars, starring Durant and Beasley on the same team. It’s wild hearing Beasley describe Durant inventing the nickname “KD” under flickering lights at Montrose Christian School.
Most famous was the D.C. Assault founded by coach Curtis Malone, who became a father figure for his players, including Nolan Smith, who became his stepson; Quinn Cook, who lost his own father; and DerMarr Johnson, who became the No. 1 player in the country.
Despite a lucrative Adidas deal worth $50,000 a year and major tournaments in Las Vegas, Malone was arrested on drug charges for distributing heroin and cocaine. As a result, the “Godfather of D.C. Basketball” participates in the documentary via phone from federal prison. Beasley defends him on camera, while a DEA agent says he was no role model.
Controversy aside, there’s not a dry eye in the house when Durant wins the 2014 NBA MVP Award and delivers a tearjerking speech by thanking his single mother, Wanda.
“The odds were stacked against us,” Durant said in a quivering acceptance speech that immediately went viral. “A single parent with two boys, you made us believe, you kept us off the street, you put clothes on our backs and food on our table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.”
It’s the best moment of the documentary as author Bianca Floyd reacts, “For all the women that try to raise their kids, especially single moms, when he said that, if I could have hugged that young man [I would have]. Thank you for saying that about your mom!”
Fittingly in 2019, Durant opened the Durant Center in his hometown of Suitland, Maryland. The $13 million, state-of-the-art facility impressively provides academic, financial and social resources to youth from low-income backgrounds across the D.C. metropolitan area.
It’s a nice full-circle way to close out the documentary, which strives to answer its titular question: Is there something in the water? The best answer might be go-go music, the soundtrack of local hoops workouts. It becomes a part of their game, part of their on-court rhythm, hands flying up during crossovers, which is a genius symbol of regional roots.
If there is something in the water, these players keep drinking it, sweating it out and draining it into “wet buckets for America.” “Basketball County” quenches a thirst for a region that’s always known that it’s special but now has it documented for the world.