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Wednesday, September 4th, 2013 at 10:46 am  |  9 responses

The Gifted

With the release of the Nike KD VI, nice guy and not-nice scorer Kevin Durant heads home to release his signature sneaker.

Originally published in KICKS 16

by Abe Schwadron / @abe_squad

It’s pandemonium on Barbara Davis’ front porch. Two buses worth of photographers and reporters from a dozen different countries are closing in on the front steps of the small, quaint house at 108 Quire Avenue, steps from the DC-Maryland border. There’s shouting and laughing, even some crying. Neighbors lean out of windows to get a glimpse of the commotion on what would otherwise be an unexciting hot summer day in the hood.

Davis smiles from her perch, soaking in the scene. She turns, glowing, and tugs on her grandson’s t-shirt. “Kevin, did you ever think you’d have a crowd like this?”

A decade ago, Kevin was Lil’ Kevin, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every morning at this house—or bacon, egg and cheese on Saturdays—before following his older brother Tony out the door to play basketball at the courts or the rec.

Now, at 24 years old, Kevin is Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder; NBA Rookie of the Year, four-time All-Star, three-time scoring champion (and the youngest ever), Olympic Gold medalist and Nike pitchman.

“I never thought I would have this many people on the porch at my grandma’s house just because I could play basketball,” Durant tells the assembled throng of cameras and recorders, with a giant grin stamped on his face. “It’s good to be back on this side of town.”

Actually, Davis doesn’t even live at this address anymore. But the house remains in the Durant family—and it will forever represent the epicenter of Kevin’s life during his formative years. Grandma’s house was, for the Durants, an intervention center, host to birthday parties and the foundation upon which the Durant brothers learned core values.

The house sits in the shadow of the Capitol Heights Metro station, steps into Prince George’s County, where the local kids would chase Kevin to the bus stop as his name gained notoriety in high school. No matter where his basketball ability takes him, KD will always call the surrounding “city” of Seat Pleasant, MD, smaller than a single square mile, home. And when he’s around, Seat Pleasant’s adopted motto, “A City of Excellence,” doesn’t feel quite as artificial.

The launch of the Nike Zoom KD VI, Kevin Durant’s sixth signature shoe and the one that Nike hopes will blast him into the kind of international sneaker superstardom reserved for names like Kobe and LeBron, isn’t happening in a major media metropolis like Los Angeles or New York. Nah, it’s happening from his grandma’s porch. It’s happening from the Seat Pleasant Activity Center, just up the road. Happening at The Kingdome, the nearby outdoor courts at Fairmount Heights. And The Hill, a steep incline of neighborhood road where a young KD hit the pavement, literally.

Even as Seat Pleasant’s favorite son goes global, it’s clear that Durant won’t soon forget where he comes from. Look no further than the KD VI itself, the lead colorway of which is the same yellow and teal scheme found at the Seat Pleasant Activity Center. The shoe’s toe is adorned with the inscription SEAT PLEASANT’S FINEST. From Oklahoma City to Europe to Asia, Durant’s hometown is riding shotgun wherever the VI takes it.

“With every shoe, it starts with him, and his insights from everything from performance to style and the story,” says Nike Basketball Design Director Leo Chang. “And he’s got great stories to tell.”

The KD VI incorporates Durant’s personal story, including the evolution of his own sneaker line, into a pinnacle performance shoe. From the jump, it was clear Durant was going to be a special player. So since his rookie season in ’07, Chang and the Nike design team have toyed with different cuts, colorways and cushioning to help give KD whatever he needs when it comes to his wheels. Now in its sixth iteration, the KD line is, like its namesake, in its prime.

“We keep working and keep moving forward,” says Durant. “Leo’s been a big part of every shoe that I’ve worn since I’ve been in the NBA. He’s done such a great job—he’s a genius. He makes my foot safe, makes me feel safe and comfortable on the floor. Just like I’m getting better at my game, he’s getting better and better every single day as well. It’s a blessing to work with him.”

Durant and Chang have a constant, open line of communication. If Durant comes across an image that moves him, he’ll text it to Chang, who will in turn file it away—no matter how wacky, no matter what time of night.

“The best thing is, they just ask me what I want. I just tell them the cut I want, and they know my style, my swag,” KD says, before chiding Chang. “I know what I like, and I expect him to do all the work.”

The KD VI was inspired by one message that Durant kept sending Chang’s way: a precision watch. “You look at a lot of these amazing watches that he showed me, like an Audemars or a Hublot—he’s got a couple,” Chang says with a laugh. “They’re really classic in form, and then when you look inside the face, the backface of it, you can see all these beautiful gears and mechanisms inside. Each one of those is so meticulously put into the watch.”

Likewise, the KD VI was built with precision, from the inside out. From the multi-layered, data-informed hexagon traction pattern on the outsole to the ultra-thin, two-layer upper with Flywire for lockdown support, every inch of the VI is constructed with a particular purpose, helping Durant feel as quick as a point guard and as firm as a center. There’s even a new logo on the tongue, which reveals a 35 (Durant’s uniform number) and 6 (for his sixth shoe) from different angles. In KD’s words, “It’s the small details that make me who I am.”

There are big changes, too. The low cut of the KD VI is a stark departure from the high-top silhouette of KD’s previous signature. Why go low? Chang says Durant loved the transition to his KD V Elite, which transformed the KD V into a low-top look. For now, he’s sticking with it. “That’s what he asked for, and whether it’s here to stay is up to him,” says the designer. “He always keeps me on my toes.”

And Chang will keep Durant on his. Having analyzed KD’s need for speed on the court, the VI has a Max Air unit in the heel for maximum impact protection, Nike Zoom in the forefoot, a comfortable phylon midsole and a Hyperfuse-constructed upper for a tight-to-the-foot fit. It’s a mouthful on paper, but with all the new Nike tech specs rolled into one sneaker, it makes for one smooth ride on hardwood.

One of the freshest additions to the KD VI is its unique tongue construction. Typically, hoopers have problems with the tongue—it bunches, pinches or slides to one side, and the constant readjusting becomes as rehearsed as a free-throw routine. But on the KD VI, the shoe’s tongue is tied down to the outer side of the shoe, so it never shifts during play. The simple twist eliminates distractions—and also makes for a distinct off-court look. Chang says the inspiration for the re-designed tongue came simply from thinking about basic problems that basketball players have with their kicks. Well, that, and an old Air Jordan prototype floating around the Nike offices.

“This old sample of the Jordan XI actually had this kind of burrito wrap construction. Obviously back then, construction was way different, it’s a lot more padded, but what I really loved was the simplicity,” says Chang. “I always kept that in the back of my mind, how one side’s kind of tacked down. I was like, How do I modernize it in a different way?”

Neither Chang nor Durant has ever shied away from being different. And the result is a shoe that should not only be a boon to KD’s game, but also a hit among sneakerheads, with crazy colorways like the “Meteorology” and “D.C. Preheat” dropping out the gate.

“You look good, you play good,” notes Durant. “Everybody looks at your feet first, I think, when you play a basketball game.”

Coming up, Durant idolized Vince Carter. But when it came to footwear, he was partial to Pennys and, true to his DC roots, Foamposites. His mother, Wanda Pratt, did her best to keep Kevin and his brothers laced in new kicks, but money was tight and they were often a few styles behind. KD rarely made trips to the mall to go sneaker shopping—in part because by the time he was 14 or 15, he was wearing a size 18 shoe, which made hitting up Foot Locker for a fresh pair a smidge more difficult for him than his teammates. Safe to say, in KD’s case, the shoes didn’t make the man.

“They had shoes, that’s how I looked at it,” says Pratt, who still does a double-take when her son’s face comes across the television screen in a commercial or she sees his signature sneaks in stores.

“I still smile when I see the kids with the KDs on and I’m like, That’s my baby’s shoe. I can’t believe it, that’s Kevin’s shoe. So what I do sometimes, when I’m out in the mall, if I see kids getting ready to buy my son’s shoes, I’ll just ask their parents, Can I just buy that for you?” she says. “That’s just my way of letting them know that I really appreciate them supporting my son.”

Once upon a time, Durant was that kid. He and Tony would walk the mile-plus to the rec center every summer day, past the pawn shops and carry-outs, past Ebony Inn Barber Shop & BBQ and Keith & Sons Soul Food. Then they’d hoop, with whoever happened to show up, even grown men, until closing time. And, Durant says, rather than bullshitting on the block until the lights came back on, he’d find a comfortable hiding spot and curl up.

“When the rec would close, I would go behind that curtain and go to sleep on a mat. I’d go to sleep until the gym opened up again,” Durant says, pointing to the tall drape hanging beside the court inside the Seat Pleasant Activity Center. “I didn’t mind sleeping on the floor. I didn’t mind sleeping in the gym.”

When you hear people say a player “lives in the gym,” well, Durant really did—and still does. During the summer months, when many NBA players disappear, Durant comes home to the DMV and plays in the Goodman League inside the gates at Barry Farms. During the 2011 lockout he played everywhere, including New York City’s world-famous Rucker Park, where he dropped 66 points (a game honored by the forthcoming “NYC 66” colorway of the KD VI).

He routinely plays pickup ball at nearby DeMatha HS or at Georgetown’s McDonough Gym. Hoyas head coach John Thompson III recalls Durant being so hungry for a game that “one time he got his days mixed up and so he just jumped in and played with the women.”

When the Thunder’s ’12-13 season ended at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western semifinals, Durant considered taking time off to let his body recuperate. But after about two weeks, he couldn’t stay away. Even Alan Stein, who’s worked with Durant as a strength and conditioning coach since he was a spindly 16-year-old high schooler at Oak Hill Academy and later Montrose Christian, was taken aback by KD’s fiery attitude this offseason.

“Most NBA guys, after they lose their last game, they don’t do a thing for another six weeks, eight weeks, they give their body time to rest,” says Stein. “Although that is a good thing, you’ve got to admire Kevin’s wherewithal to say, ‘I lost, we ended the season on a sour note.’ He got back in the gym immediately.”

At one point during the two-day launch of the KD VI, Durant is asked about burning out. Playing too much. Pushing too hard. To which he replies without hesitation, with complete seriousness, “I love basketball, man.

“It’s just real simple,” Durant says from inside the rec center where it all began, “I just liked to run up and down the court. That’s all I really wanted to do was run. There’s so much space here—of course it looks small now, but as a kid, it looked like an NBA arena.

“I loved to come in the gym and play with my friends. The one thing I really wanted to be was the best player in this gym. That’s the first thing I was thinking about.”

With that mission and others accomplished, Durant wants more. Like, say, an NBA title. With a healthy Russell Westbrook by his side and another summer of hard work (KD says he’s fine-tuning a little Magic Johnson running hook), that time could be coming soon.

Meanwhile, for a player who’s moved into the “best on the planet” discussion, his insistence on being forever staked in the community that raised him is refreshing. Durant loves his hometown as much as he loves the game of basketball, and the KD VI captures that sentiment, right down to the custom paint job.

“When I was growing up, we were the Seat Pleasant Lakers. And obviously I don’t like the Lakers, so they changed the colors of the gym a few years back…it was purple and gold, so I had to get rid of that,” he says, happy with the new-look yellow and teal. “I wanted something to represent where I came from, where I learned the game, where I started.”

Ousting a Western Conference rival and coming home to celebrate? Sounds about right for Seat Pleasant’s Finest.

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