The year (and friendship) that changed Kevin Durant forever

Why Stephen A. can't see the Suns coming back to beat the Nuggets (2:48)

Stephen A. Smith explains his bleak outlook for the Suns after going down 2-0 to the Nuggets. (2:48)


Taishi Ito almost can't believe it's really him, all 6-foot-9 and 180 pounds, sprawled out on the top bunk in a dorm room at VCU in June 2005. For a few seconds, Ito, his roommate for the week, stares at how Durant's arms and legs pour over the edges and ends of the bed. Durant is too much person for the top bunk of a college dorm bed, Ito thinks.

They're both here for the NBPA's Top 100 Camp. Durant is probably near the top of that 100 list, and Ito is closer to 100th. And Ito knows it. He spent the week leading up to camp battling a strong case of impostor syndrome on the way to VCU. He came to the U.S. from Japan when he was in ninth grade, and this kind of camp was his dream. But now that it's here, with Steph Curry, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love and Durant all in attendance, Ito is questioning whether he belongs.

It doesn't help that he found out the week before that he was going to share a room with Durant -- and that Durant was transferring to Ito's school, D.C.-area powerhouse Montrose Christian, for the coming season. At this camp, Ito is supposed to play his ass off against a bunch of future first-round NBA draft picks and be the welcome wagon for Durant. Talk about pressure.

On his way into their VCU suite, consisting of two rooms connected by a bathroom, Ito pops into the other room first. He introduces himself to its residents for the week, Thaddeus Young and Wayne Ellington, and then he goes into his room. That's where he finds Durant pretzeled onto a twin mattress 8 feet up in the air, and the sight makes Ito smile.

He watches as Durant maneuvers onto the bed's small ladder and then down to meet his roommate for the next four days. They exchange pleasantries before Ito asks if he should take the top bunk. Durant seems open to it, but throws in, "I kind of like it up there."

Ito shrugs his shoulders and takes the bottom mattress. He just assumed the much smaller person would be the top bunk guy in this situation. But Durant is so at home up there, his flip phone open and on speaker, talking to various family members, that Ito plops down below.

All week, he watches as Durant accordions himself up and down the ladder, usually on the phone, and it quickly becomes a running joke between them. "Not on the very first day," Ito says now. "But on Day 2 and Day 3, we were laughing a lot about it and going back and forth."

They hit it off more than either one could have ever imagined, which leads to the same silly scenario every night. They come back from camp exhausted. Then they start talking, about everything from Durant's background to Japanese culture, and even when lights-out rolls around, they keep talking and talking. Almost every night, at about 2 a.m., one of them thinks about the looming 7 a.m. wakeup call, and says to the other, "We're gonna regret this in the morning."

Then they talk for 10 more minutes.

The new friendship unfolding at VCU 18 years ago kicked off what will end up being perhaps the most important 12 months of Durant's young life. He had already committed to Texas, so he could have sleepwalked his way through this camp, the rest of high school and into college.

But that's not how Durant operates.

If you want to understand Kevin Durant now, you must understand Kevin Durant then. Durant made the difficult decision to transfer from power program Oak Hill Academy for his final year because he wanted to be pushed by everybody around him. Coaches. Trainers. Teachers. His family. Everybody.

He thought he found exactly what he was looking for at Montrose Christian. The part he didn't know? That the key to the whole thing would end up being a 6-foot guard from Japan.

DURANT GREW UP in Maryland's Prince George's County, home to a steady fire hose of college and pro basketball players for decades. Durant's production and investment company, Thirty Five Ventures, even chronicled Prince George's in "Basketball County: In the Water," a Showtime documentary from 2020.

Four years later, Durant took the long way from Prince George's to Austin, Texas. He had gone to Maryland's National Christian Academy as an impressive 6-2 freshman guard in 2002-03, but then experienced an incredible 5-inch growth spurt over the next year that put him into the five-star recruit conversation as a sophomore. Durant had always believed basketball would be his path, and now national recruiters suddenly realized it, too.

But Durant recognized that he had more work to do. As a sophomore, still at National Christian, Durant met an elite strength and conditioning coach in the area, Alan Stein Jr., and not long after, they began working together. At their first workout, Durant made it 20 minutes before Stein had him exhausted, coiled on the ground in a heap "like a garden hose." When Stein asked his new trainee whether he liked the workout, Durant said, "No, but I know this is what it's going to take."

They started on a regular workout regimen after that. Stein noticed right away that Durant had the talent and drive, but he didn't really know what made the 15-year-old basketball prodigy tick. Their long morning drives changed that. He'd leave his house at 4:30 a.m., drive 45 minutes to pick up Durant, and then they'd go to a nearby YMCA. On one memorable morning early in their relationship, Durant had his hood up as they walked inside the Y. They breezed through the entrance and past the front desk. An older woman, maybe 75 years old, was working, and she smiled and said, "Good morning," toward Stein and Durant. Stein smiled and nodded his head toward her. Durant, his hood up, just kept cruising.

"Young man, I said good morning," she repeated, a little louder this time. Durant spun around and whipped his hood down, made eye contact and quietly said, "I'm sorry. Good morning, ma'am."

Stein was impressed. This was the perfect spot for a teenager to blow off an elder. Instead, Durant responded with humility. When people ask Stein what Durant was like, he usually tells that story first. "He realized he hadn't shown good character, and he corrected it right away," Stein says.

Over the next two years, Stein helped build up Durant's physical self. They focused on functional workouts and strength. Durant was never going to set any bench press records (he famously got zero reps of 185 pounds at the NBA scouting combine in 2007). So they honed in on making him sturdy. By the time he got to the end of his sophomore year of high school, now standing about 6-9, Durant still looked very lean. But he could hold up against some of the best frontcourt players in the nation.

In his mind, though, there was still so much work to do. He didn't want to be great; he wanted to be all-time great. He had transferred to Oak Hill Academy as a junior and had a good year. He played with a bunch of blue-chip kids -- namely, Ty Lawson and Michael Beasley. But Oak Hill was about six hours from home, and he liked the idea of ratcheting up the pressure on himself. He didn't exactly want a military school. But he wanted military school-ish. Enter Stu Vetter and Montrose Christian.

In late spring or early summer, Durant and his parents, Wanda Durant and Wayne Pratt, arranged a visit to Montrose, located in North Bethesda, Maryland. Stein recommended Vetter, and so did Texas coach Rick Barnes, Durant's future college coach. Vetter is a basketball legend, and a savant of the game. But he is tough. Not mean. Just tough.

When they met in Vetter's office, the coach didn't shy away from the truth. Before every practice, he would hang up a piece of paper with the entire period scripted down to the exact minute (3:00-3:04 -- stretching; 3:05-3:07 -- light running). The sheet always had a quote of the day, and Vetter would stop practice on occasion to ask a random player to recite the quote of the day. Don't remember it? Have fun on your sprints.

At first, Durant hung back as his parents peppered Vetter with questions about the school's academics. Vetter kept stealing looks at Durant and began to worry that Durant might have been losing interest.

But it seemed as if the more Vetter laid out how challenging it was going to be, the more Durant engaged. He liked the sound of the challenge. When they left the office, Vetter was under the impression that they would go home and talk about enrolling at Montrose. But Durant shook Vetter's hand on the way out and said, "I'm coming." Sure enough, a few weeks later it was official. Durant had recently committed to Texas and would play his final high school year at Montrose Christian. A top-25 prep program was suddenly in the conversation for No. 1 school in the country.

Right after Durant was locked in, Vetter gathered his coaching staff to start imagining the possibilities for his squad. They couldn't help but let their eyes drift toward the last game on their schedule, against Durant's old school, Oak Hill, which was loaded with Lawson, Beasley and a slew of other future Division I stars. They knew Durant would want to win that game, and they salivated over the ways they could pair Durant with Maryland-bound stars Greivis Vásquez and Adrian Bowie. Everybody tossed around ideas on how they could help Durant achieve his specific goal of getting better on defense.

Toward the end of the meeting, after all the spitballing, Vetter and his coaches arrived at what might have been the key to this whole thing working. "Make sure Kevin Durant goes everywhere Taishi Ito goes," Vetter said.

WHEN ITO ARRIVED in Maryland from Japan in 2002, Vetter set the ninth-grader up with a host named Louise Osborne. She was a widowed local 75-year-old retired nurse people called "Grandma" because she was a natural caretaker. Osborne had earned the nickname. She loved her kids. Her grandkids. Your kids. Your grandkids. When the opportunity to house a kid from Japan arose, Osborne threw her hand up.

Ito moved in before his freshman year. Grandma's house was set up well to host one other person. Ito took over the basement, which was basically a small apartment. It had a bed, a pullout couch and a full bathroom.

Ito was the perfect tenant. He picked up after himself, and he made the 10-minute walk to Montrose every morning between 5 and 6 a.m. He didn't get home until 12 hours later. He tried to get to school two hours early and would work out by himself. He did footwork drills and worked on his conditioning and his shooting touch. Ito had realized right away that as a 6-foot-on-a-good-day freshman, as the only guy on the team who couldn't dunk, he was going to have to rely on scrapping and outhustling his bigger, more athletic teammates.

Ito managed to do it, and his teammates fell in love with him. He quietly grinded so hard, so consistently, that everybody else began to mimic his work ethic. Suddenly, all those guys Ito was trying to keep up with had to hustle to keep pace with Ito.

Over the next three years, Ito got a little better every day. He still had stretches when he felt as if he was an inch too short and 20 pounds too small to hang with the fleet of Division I athletes swarming around him. The only thing he knew to do was show up 15 minutes earlier the next day to work out by himself.

That's why the bond he forged with Durant at VCU was so critical. Sure, he had found a teammate who was about to make his life much, much easier on the court. But Ito also felt as if he had just met the kind of person who could balance the universe a bit for him.

That dynamic worked both ways, though. After the camp, Durant began working out with Montrose players. He clicked almost immediately with the basketball team. But the rest of the Montrose Christian experience proved tough early on.

Durant had begun the year commuting as much as possible from his mom's house 45 minutes away. He has talked in the past (Durant declined an interview request for this story) about riding multiple trains to get to Montrose at the beginning of that year, and almost immediately, he began to feel stretched a little too thin.

So Ito asked Grandma whether it'd be OK if a teammate stayed over one night, and she gave the thumbs-up. Durant crashed there that night, strewn on an air mattress because he hung halfway off the pullout couch. He basically never left after that. By the end of the first month, Durant was staying with Ito and Grandma every night during the week. Their friendship had practically morphed into an extended version of camp week at VCU.

They'd stay up late into the night, talking and listening to hip-hop. Durant liked slow-jam older music, and Ito would alternate in some faster, newer hip-hop. They continued to talk about their backgrounds, and Ito found Durant so easy to talk to that he would often let down his guard and confide to him his anxiety around not feeling like he was good enough some days. On and on and on, deep into the night. "We're going to regret this in the morning," one of them would say.

Yet they always kept going. Ito described life and basketball in Japan, and Durant talked about his family, adjusting to life at three different high schools and what he wanted from Montrose, which played into what he wanted for his life: to learn how to grow into an NBA legend. Most nights ended without a purposeful final "Good night." They just kind of talked and talked and talked ... and then they heard the alarm go off.

Those mornings were painful. But Ito is devout about habits. Even on days when he limped out of bed, he relished the opportunity to stand up and turn off his alarm, then set it again for the next day. The feel of the 5:30 a.m. air usually cleared out any leftover cobwebs.

Durant bounced out of bed every morning for the first few weeks. He felt the jitters and excitement of being at a new school, playing with new teammates and a new coaching staff, and that propelled him off his inflatable bed every morning. Durant and Ito were usually the only two players at the school that early, and they would run and get up shots.

Durant loves to shoot hoops. Many of his old coaches and teammates joke that Durant is constitutionally incapable of walking past a basketball without picking it up and dribbling it and then shooting it. Later, at Texas, Coach Barnes had to ban Durant from practicing after games. When Durant couldn't abide by that rule, Barnes made him a compromise of only being allowed to shoot free throws after games. Barnes told assistant coach Russell Springmann, who had recruited Durant, that he'd be fired if Durant did anything more than that. "He's never ever gonna walk away from a chance to shoot a basketball," Barnes says.

The joy of 6 a.m. basketball at Montrose wore off pretty quickly, though. The ugly mornings began to pile up on Durant. Soon Ito found himself telling Durant twice that it was time to get up. Then three times. Then four. "Waking him up was a pain in the butt," Ito says.

On a few occasions, he remembers walking upstairs, Durant still splayed across the air mattress, and saying down into the basement, "Fine, I'm going by myself."

He'd always go upstairs and drag his feet for a minute or two, just long enough to hear his friend start to scramble out of bed. He never wanted to leave Durant behind -- and he never had to. Inevitably, every single agonizing morning, at the crack of dawn, Ito would hear Durant traipse up the steps. Then they would head for the gym, together.

"Taishi had something about him that was so magnetic and attractive, and you just wanted to follow that kid," says Stein, who had been hired at Montrose as the strength and conditioning coach. "When he said he's getting up at 5 to go get up some shots, Kevin followed him."

As the summer turned to fall, their nights and mornings got more and more intense. The academics were no joke at Montrose. Durant scuffled with the relentlessness of the coursework, but he scuffled the exact way he wanted. "This is what Texas is going to be like," he'd tell Ito.

Ito would help Durant with some classes, especially math, and Durant would help Ito with vocabulary and English assignments. One kid tutoring the other, then swapping spots.

As the season got closer, Durant focused on his footwork and using his length better on defense. He had always tried to guard close to the body of his opponents, practically strangling most guards and forwards with his enormous wingspan. But the Montrose coaches began to press him on hanging back a bit. His length could actually be just as effective from a foot or two off ball handlers, which would then eliminate any quickness advantage speedier players might have had.

That made Ito, a gritty, fast point guard with D-I-level skills, an ideal practice partner at 6 a.m. They began playing one-on-one games against each other. Early on, Durant absolutely torched Ito -- he was just too good, too long, too suffocating. But Ito proposed two rules that evened the playing field.

First, he banned Durant from posting him up. "Your back cannot be to me," Ito said. Durant objected initially but eventually caved and agreed.

Secondly, Ito asked that their one-on-one games be full-court, not half-court. Durant again agreed, although he would later petition -- gently and ultimately unsuccessfully -- to go back to half-court.

So they would go at it, up and down the entire length of the court. When Durant wanted to, he could play off Ito and make it a nightmare to get around him to get the ball up the court. In return, Ito could pester in Durant's grille for the full 84 feet, tiring him out and occasionally picking his pocket. The two would sometimes be exhausted before 8 a.m., with a full day of classes and practice ahead of them.

Things occasionally got a little chippy between them. Ito remembers multiple days when they stomped off the court in the morning and didn't speak all day. Then they'd silently study late into the night, hip-hop on in the background. Those might have been the only nights they actually went to bed at a reasonable hour.

One good sleep always seemed to dull the friction. They'd hobble out of Grandma's basement every morning with a clean slate. Off to school again. "We'd never talk about it," Ito says. "We'd just go back to being friends again."

On weekends, Durant would often go home and spend time with his family. Once in a while before the season, he'd hang out at Grandma's house. Sometimes a tutor would come over to work with Ito or Durant on schoolwork, and they would sit in the dining room and study. Then Ito and Durant would cook dinner.

Well, Ito would cook, and Durant would help clean up afterward. Ito would tell Durant to do the dishes, and Durant would try to pay one of Grandma's grandkids to do the dishes.

If that all sounds like too much for a 75-year-old retiree, well, Osborne loved every second of it.

She was amused by the banter of the young people in her house. Her husband had died a few years earlier, and she didn't like the peace of an empty house. It still cracks her up to this day, at age 96, to think back on the frenetic image of Ito making mounds of rice, chicken and vegetables for anybody at the house that day. Then they'd devour the food, with KD carefully plotting how he could avoid dish duty. "Taishi cooked, and Kevin ate," she says.

After three years of sharing a house with Ito, Grandma had grown to love him like an adopted son. In fact, when Ito's parents would travel to see him from Japan once or twice a year, Osborne would actually go stay with a relative somewhere else and leave her house to the Itos. Taishi was family to her, which made his family her family, too.

When Ito wanted to get his license, she took him to driving lessons and then to the test. He passed, and she let him drive her car. She still fondly remembers waving goodbye to him and Durant as they made their regular trips to the mall, where they'd watch a movie and get Chipotle. Sometimes Vásquez would go, too, and she started calling them the Three Musketeers. "I found them to be very honest, good kids," Osborne says. "No drugs. No girls. No parties. Just nice, fun kids. Excellent, excellent kids."

By the time the season rolled around, Durant and Ito were ready. Montrose Christian opened as USA Today's No. 1 team in the country, with a loaded schedule that culminated in the ultimate final game of the season -- against Durant's old school, Oak Hill.

MONTROSE CHRISTIAN started the 2005-06 season at No. 1 in the nation. Durant fit in immediately, averaging 23.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. But the team stumbled twice, both times to nationally ranked teams, and was sitting at 19-2 and No. 12 in the country. It wasn't going to win the national title ... but it did have one large carrot dangling in front of it: the season finale against Durant's old school.

Oak Hill was 40-0, ranked No. 1 in the nation and in the midst of a 56-game winning streak. And yes, a chunk of that winning streak had happened with Kevin Durant wearing a Warriors jersey.

The game had incredible hype. A spill-out crowd of 4,000 packed into Coolidge High in D.C. for what was supposedly a neutral-site game. Montrose was ranked 12th in the country; Oak Hill was the clear No. 1. The game had become a sort of rivalry because both schools were really good, and Durant's transfer added some juice to the 2006 matchup. But Oak Hill had dominated in years prior, and with Beasley, Lawson and Nolan Smith (future Dukie) in the lineup, DraftKings would have probably had Montrose as a double-digit underdog that day.

In the run-up to the game, Ito confided in Durant that he felt like he had at that VCU camp -- as if he might struggle against such talented guards on the other side. "You're going to be fine," Durant insisted. "I got your back. You gotta bring the ball up and play tough defense."

There was something about the way Durant talked to Ito that calmed him. Durant might have followed Ito. But Ito believed in Durant, and Durant's belief in Ito caused Ito to believe in himself. As game day approached, Ito felt more and more confident in his own granular mission.

The game lives up to the hype. On grainy YouTube footage of the local broadcast, it's hard to believe these are high school teams. Both rosters are stockpiled with future college and NBA players, and the rowdy crowd looks as if it was at an NBA Finals game.

Durant is unbelievable throughout. He flies around and over Oak Hill players all game, and if his Texas coaches had been at the game, they would have had to cover their eyes watching him play with absolute abandon. He's just so good. "He could have literally played for us on Friday night and then played for the Wizards on Saturday afternoon," Vetter says.

And yet, Oak Hill drubs Vetter's team well into the fourth quarter, building a 14-point lead. Durant had willed Montrose to even get to within that margin (he'd finish with 31 points and 6 rebounds). On the game broadcast, the announcers seem to be dribbling out the clock on an Oak Hill blowout. At the 6:27 mark, Durant picks up his fourth foul as Oak Hill goes up 64-48. Nobody in the stands leaves ... but people do seem to be gathering their stuff.

Durant & Co. didn't get the alert that the game was over, though. Montrose battles back, and at one point, Durant scores six points in about 12 seconds (3-pointer, steal, three made free throws). In one key stretch at the 2:00 mark, Ito gets an open look on a 3 and swishes it. Against all odds, Montrose finds itself tied 72-72 with a minute left.

Lawson brings the ball up and seems content to hold for the last shot. But Vásquez and Ito dog Oak Hill's guards and force a turnover. Now Montrose has the ball with 20 seconds left and a chance to win.

Ito handles the ball, with a play designed to go to -- who else? -- Durant. He battles to get a semi-open look from the arc but has a hand in his face as he launches a long 3-point attempt. The ball hits the rim, then the backboard, and Bowie skies for the rebound. His putback goes through at the buzzer, and let the chest bumps begin.

The Montrose bench explodes onto the floor, and fans follow behind. Within a minute, Durant has his shirt off, waving at the crowd. It's mayhem. Beautiful mayhem. Ito can't remember most of the rest of that night. He thinks Durant came back to Grandma's house later that night. But everything was a blur, and it is a blur to this day. He knows he left the gym that night as happy as he had ever been, closer than ever with his friend and spiritual adviser, Kevin Durant.

But Ito also felt a pang, just over the horizon, about this glorious win being his last as a high school basketball player, the last time he'd probably ever play on the same court as Durant. Ito thinks he and Durant celebrated quietly in the basement, again talking way later than they had intended.

Ito went to bed that night with a big old smile on his face. And he came to the decision that making a lifelong friend trumps never suiting up alongside Durant again. "It was sad," Ito says. "I was with him 24/7 for almost 365 days. I knew he was going to do his best in college and then go to the NBA. He was so talented."

Durant went off to Texas the next year, became the national player of the year and then went No. 2 in the draft behind Greg Oden. By the midpoint of his rookie year with the then-Seattle Supersonics, Durant had emerged as the NBA Rookie of the Year and a rising megastar.

Ito and Durant stayed in touch by text and the occasional phone call. Ito got an offer to the University of Portland, where he played four years in the West Coast Conference. He was a team captain, a defensive standout and, again, the hardest-working guy in a locker room where he might not have had the most natural talent.

Sometime in late 2008 or early 2009, Ito got a call from Durant inviting him to come to a Sonics-Blazers game near his school. He went, tickets provided by Durant, and after the game, Durant mentioned that his first line of Nikes, the KD1, were out. "Taishi, I put your name on my shoes," Durant said.

Ito nodded and thanked Durant. "I thought he meant that he had a shoe coming out and he wrote my name on a pair that I could have," Ito says.

The next day, he saw the shoes for the first time and realized the truth: Ito had such a profound effect on Durant that every pair of KD1s had Taishi Ito's name on the soles. He immediately called Durant.

"Kevin, I didn't know you put my name on the design," Ito said.

"Oh yeah, you had a big influence on my life, Taishi," Durant said. "Because of you, I'm here."

Ito thanked his friend again, then hung up. Even now, when he tells the story from Tokyo, where he's the GM of a pro hoops team, Ito pauses when he recounts it.

"I almost cried," he says, and then he starts laughing. "OK, maybe I did cry. It touched my heart."

ONE NIGHT IN JULY 2021, Ito felt his phone buzz with a text. He opened it up, and it was from his old friend, Kevin Durant, who was in Tokyo with Team USA for the Olympics. He wanted to know if they could connect.

In the run-up to the Olympics, Durant had told The Athletic he had two major reasons for joining Team USA. One was playing for Gregg Popovich. The other was to see Taishi Ito.

Ito saw that Durant's hotel was only 10 minutes away, but this was summer 2021, and Japan was in near complete lockdown still from COVID-19. Ito wasn't sure he'd even be able to meet Durant in the hotel lobby. But Durant told him he really wanted to see him. So Ito drove over to the hotel.

When he got there, mask on, he found a total ghost town. He went inside, and Durant was the only other person around. They shared a big hug and sat there together with their masks on. Ito had brought him a gift: Durant's favorite Japanese candy, Hi-Chew, which is similar to Starburst.

Durant warned him that he had only a few minutes before he had to get upstairs and go to bed. They had stayed in touch via text and an occasional check-in -- every time Ito talked to Grandma, she'd insist on him texting Durant that "Grandma says hello." Durant would always reciprocate. They both realized a short hangout in a hotel lobby couldn't catch them up on their busy lives, anyway.

But hell if they didn't try. Ten minutes stretched into 20, and 20 to 30, and 30 to 60, and 60 to 90. Ito tried to ask about Durant's life at the top of the NBA, about Durant's family, about everything. Durant kept steering the conversation toward Ito, though. He had heard about Ito's recent retirement from basketball to take a GM job with a pro team in Tokyo, and he wanted to know what lay ahead for Ito in management. "Tell me about your next career," Durant said.

Ito spoke for a minute or two, and then jokingly said, "I'd love to get you on the team." They laughed about how Ito probably didn't have enough draft capital to get KD out of the NBA and onto Ito's Tokyo roster.

They kept looking at the clock and trying to wind down for the night. But then they'd start reminiscing about Grandma and they'd go back and forth some more. After two hours, they both agreed that they absolutely, positively had to split up.

Then they talked for another 10 minutes. Finally, Durant stood, his 6-10 frame swallowing Ito in a hug. Durant began to walk toward his hotel room as Ito headed for the exit. Both of them were tired. But for the first time in their friendship, they weren't going to regret it in the morning.