The DeMatha Catholic High School basketball program has been renowned for decades. Longtime coach Morgan Wootten won so much, he made the Basketball Hall of Fame. His most famous victory came in 1965, when DeMatha snapped the 71-game winning streak of Lew Alcindor and Power Memorial (N.Y). DeMatha has produced several NBA players, including Adrian Dantley and Danny Ferry.
Victor Oladipo grew up near DeMatha, attending elementary school just down the street.
Yet, he never even heard of DeMatha until eighth grade.
“Growing up, I was a little anti-social,” Oladipo said. “My parents didn’t really let me go anywhere, go out, hang out with friends. That’s not really our forte. That wasn’t really our speed.”
After attending a DeMatha game with someone, Oladipo was intrigued. He researched the school, became impressed with its pedigree and wanted to enroll. He went to the office to get a registration form and bumped into current DeMatha coach Mike Jones. Jones asked whether Oladipo was signing up for summer league.
“What’s summer league?” Oladipo replied.
Oladipo learned quickly about the basketball scene in Prince George’s County, Md. – the elite talent, year-round infrastructure and deep passion. For anyone else unfamiliar with PG, a new documentary (“Basketball County: In The Water,” 9 p.m. Eastern on Friday, Showtime) showcases the county’s rich basketball legacy.
PG boasts eight current NBA players:
- Kevin Durant (Nets)
- Victor Oladipo (Pacers)
- Jerami Grant (Nuggets)
- Markelle Fultz (Magic)
- Quinn Cook (Lakers)
- Jeff Green (Rockets)
- Rodney McGruder (Clippers)
- Treveon Graham (Hawks)
With a population of about 900,000, Prince George’s County sits just east of Washington D.C. PG is one of America’s wealthiest majority-black areas. Though the wealth tends to be concentrated outside the Beltway (a highway that encircles D.C. and cuts through Prince’s George’s), there’s plenty of socioeconomic diversity throughout the county.
A common link: Basketball.
The documentary explores several key reasons basketball thrives in PG – including a population shift from D.C. (which took to basketball from the early days of the sport), a robust parks-and-rec system and a strong network of support.
Writing for ESPN in 2008, Chris Palmer described PG as a place where “a new status symbol has gained traction: a son who is a big-time prospect.” Beyond parents, there are legions of coaches willing to help (and share in the glory).
Curtis Malone stood out.
Co-founder of D.C. Assault, Malone built one of the nation’s strongest AAU programs. He helped numerous players, guiding some through rough childhoods, many to college and even some to the NBA. He was also a drug kingpin. His complicated tale is the most fascinating section of the documentary.
“Y’all can say whatever the f— y’all want about him. Y’all can talk dirt,” former Assault and NBA player Michael Beasley said in the documentary. “He always had the kids first, man. He always put the kids first. He always fed the kids before he ate.”
Not mentioned in the documentary: Beasley’s since-dropped 2011 lawsuit against Malone, alleging an agent bribed Malone to persuade Beasley to hire that agent.
The documentary has an issue similar to that of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part series on Michael Jordan and the Bulls. The subjects hold creative control. Durant, Oladipo and Cook are executive producers.
The documentary also curiously includes Steve Francis, who sometimes trained in Prince George’s but can more accurately claimed by bordering Montgomery County. There’s no need to exaggerate PG’s legitimately extraordinary basketball output. The county’s NBA ranks were even stronger just a few years ago, before Beasley, Ty Lawson, Thomas Robinson, Dante Cunningham, Roy Hibbert and Chinanu Onuaku fell out of the league.
But, overall, the documentary presents a highly enjoyable look into a hoops hotbed that rivals any in the country.
In many ways, that’s thanks to Durant.
Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures is behind the film directed by John Beckham and Jimmy Jenkins. More importantly, Durant carries the superstar draw that boosts a project like this.
Durant fulfilled his promise unlike else from PG. Many thought that’d be Len Bias, who tragically died of a cocaine overdose two days after the Celtics drafted him No. 2 in 1986. Other highly talented players like DerMarr Johnson and Beasley never optimized their potential for varying reasons.
But Durant became an NBA MVP behind a uniquely PG upbringing.
According to his business partner, Rich Kleiman (another “Basketball County” executive producer), Durant likes to tell a story. Durant would play all day in his local rec center. When the court was cleared to host bingo for senior citizens at night, Durant hid behind a curtain. After bingo, Durant emerged to shoot even more.
Durant wasn’t alone in his dedication. Many PG County kids grow up dreaming of playing at DeMatha or another area private-school power. That instills focus and determination from a young age. Well-organized teams and leagues offer opportunities for passionate players to advance.
“Basketball is, in our area, a way for us to separate ourselves,” Oladipo said. “People from our area, we’re very confident. We believe in ourselves.
“We believe in the game of basketball.”