Sixteen high school basketball teams from across the U.S. and Canada participated in the inaugural Kevin Durant MLK Classic near Washington, D.C., over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. But the event was about far more than basketball. The teams visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial and the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall.
“We got the idea for this event from my son Kevin, who is always looking to see where we can give back to the community, what we can provide the community,” said Wayne Pratt, Durant’s father and Chairman of Basketball at The St. James, the tournament venue in Springfield, Va. “We didn’t want it to just be about wins and losses, we wanted it to have something the players can take with them. ”
Featuring star players such as J.T. Thor from Norcross High School, Mady Sissoko from Wasatch Academy and Elijah Fisher from Crestwood Prep, the MLK Classic gave students a chance to connect basketball to issues outside of sports.
“It’s a prestigious holiday,” said Angelo Hernandez, head coach at D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson High School. “It means a lot to the world. So for us to be able to play in this type of event, even to get an invite, is incredible. ”
Dedicated in 2011, the MLK National Memorial celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was assassinated in 1968. The centerpiece is Dr. King emerging from a mountain etched with a line from his famous “I Have A Dream” speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
The Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, has drawn crowds so huge that it still requires timed passes for access, over three years since it opened.
The opportunity to visit these sites was very rewarding for players. “What Dr. King did was something special, something great,” said Miasiah Brown of Woodrow Wilson HS. “He died for a reason, he died for his cause. I think that was awesome. He put his life on the line just so other people could live with equal rights.”
Kendrick Ashton, co-founder of the St. James, credits King with making much of what he has done in his life possible. Before the Civil Rights Movement, no black man in Virginia could ever have had the opportunity to run a business like he has today, he explained. The St. James, a state-of-the-art sports and wellness facility measuring a stunning 450,000 square feet, boasts an Olympic-sized swimming pool where Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky often trains, a FIFA-regulation artificial turf field where the MLS team D.C. United trains in the offseason, two NHL regulation-sized rinks and other features, including a basketball court.
The MLK Classic is just one project by Durant—a two-time NBA champion and 10-time NBA All-Star—to reach out to kids in local communities. The Kevin Durant Charity Foundation gives kids from low-income backgrounds opportunities in academic, athletic and social programs. He also has a program in his hometown in Prince George’s County, Md., just outside D.C., to help students attend and graduate from college.
“My experience was fantastic,” said Norfolk Collegiate’s Tristan How of the weekend tourney. “It’s African-American History Month, MLK weekend, and it’s great that Durant can put on such an experience for the kids to show them that there is more to life than basketball. You have your basketball side but then you have the real-life experience, which was very cool.”