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Kevin Durant’s ‘Basketball County’ lacks focus

Though Durant is the producer, there’s no real character to lead the viewer through the film, or enough narrative structure to hold the viewer’s attention

Basketball County: In the Water doesn’t know what story it’s trying to tell.

The documentary centers on Brookyn Nets forward Kevin Durant and a flock of basketball contemporaries and acolytes who’ve made Prince George’s County, Maryland, a top area for producing college and professional basketball stars.

Prince George County Parade with Kevin Durant in ‘Basketball County.’

Thirty Five Ventures/Showtime

But the documentary, which premieres Friday on Showtime, struggles to combine a mosaic of experiences into an overarching story.

Though Durant is the producer, there’s no real character to lead the viewer through the film, or enough narrative structure to hold the viewer’s attention. Instead, first-time feature directors John Beckham and Jimmy Jenkins flit from subject to subject — a moment on DeMatha Catholic High School, a snatch on the prevalence of AAU basketball in Prince George’s County, a quick but inconsequential bit on go-go music — ending with a collection of archived game footage and interviews that never quite coheres into a memorable story.

Basketball County is somewhat similar to Warriors of Liberty City, the LeBron James-produced Starz docuseries. Both attempt to tell the story of a particular place, and the oversize role sports play in its culture and identity. But Beckham and Jenkins are less effective in folding the story of Prince George’s County and the rise of its basketball stars into something that stretches beyond stating the obvious about the importance of recreation centers and boys club leagues. Admittedly, they are attempting to do so in about 60 minutes, rather than six hours. Basketball Country remains too shallow, scattershot and provincial in its focus. A segment, for instance, about AAU coach Curtis Malone being arrested and tried for drug trafficking, is likely worth an ambitious deep dive by itself, one that examines how a man could be so revered by his community while hiding a secret life as a warehouser of heroin and cocaine. Instead, the attention he gets is a few minutes of bothsidesism: players who refuse to hear a bad word about him, and a prosecutor who insists he’s not a role model.

This is not Durant’s first rodeo. He and agent Rich Kleiman are the co-founders of the multipronged Thirty Five Ventures, which produced Basketball County. Durant was also the subject and producer of The Offseason: Kevin Durant, a 2014 HBO documentary about his journey to the eventual moment when he told his mother, “You da real MVP.” He’s behind the Netflix documentary Q Ball, about incarcerated athletes at San Quentin State Prison, and a planned scripted series for Apple TV+ helmed by Reggie Rock Bythewood and starring O’Shea Jackson Jr. called Swagger. And Durant produces The Boardroom, a show available on ESPN+ (full disclosure: ESPN owns The Undefeated).

As a producer, Durant still stands in the long shadow cast by James, James’ business partner Maverick Carter and their production company, SpringHill Entertainment. In 2014, Variety described The Offseason as “an adjunct to Survivor’s Remorse, the Starz comedy produced by LeBron James.” Sports documentaries, particularly those being produced by current and ex-professional athletes, are a dime a dozen. In a crowded field, they need more than just a recognizable producer credit, lest they disappear into a television and streaming landscape where standing out becomes a more challenging task with each passing day.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.