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SWEET YOUTH

Times Staff Writer

His friends say that he is addicted to candy. Any time, anywhere. Kevin Durant smiles and asks: Doesn’t everyone love candy?

“I’m a big Now and Later guy,” he says. “A Starburst guy.”

Then he steps onto the court at Spokane Arena with his teammates on the Texas basketball team, gathering for a light practice that includes some goofing around.

Launching shots comically high in the air. Heaving the ball from half court. An impromptu dunk contest.

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Moments like these remind you that Durant is still 18 years old, his youth so easy to forget because of that impossibly long wingspan and smooth-as-syrup style that rank him among the best college players in the land.

If not for a recent NBA policy change, the 6-foot-9 forward might have jumped straight to the pros and become a millionaire by now. His case has stirred debate about the rule that forbids players from entering the NBA draft until they are 19 and a year removed from high school.

League executives speak of giving young men a chance to get an education. Bobby Knight, the current dean of college coaches, complains that the rule has created a mercenary class of student-athlete, one year and out.

Durant has something to say on the issue. So does his father.

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With Texas set to play USC in the second round of the NCAA tournament today, Wayne Pratt talks about the thrill of March Madness, the crowds and the hope of a national title, saying: “Kevin is truly blessed ... doing something he loves to do.”

And there is something more, something beyond the parameters of the court, that make father and son glad to be part of college basketball.

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Given his youth, the liquid quality of movement, it is easy to view Durant as a natural phenomenon, as if the gift of basketball washed down over him at birth. That’s not how his godfather, Taras Brown, recalls it.

Brown was a rec center coach and Durant was a skinny teen with big feet.

“The ball always seemed to find a way into his hands,” Brown said. “But his form wasn’t there yet.”

As a high school freshman in Maryland, near Washington D.C., Durant worried about making the team. His parents were separated at the time -- he keeps his mother’s maiden name -- so Brown stepped in.

“Kevin, is this something you seriously want to do?” Brown asked. “OK, we’re going to have to put in a lot of work.”

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They set rules. Durant was forbidden to play in pickup games -- too many bad habits lurking out there -- and required to attend daily sessions on court. There was homework too.

Brown made him read basketball books, memorize inspirational quotes and write the six steps to a jump shot 500 times. But mostly, there were drills.

Step slides and duck walks, dribbling between chairs and box drills, stationary shooting practice.

“He took that tough-love approach,” Durant said.

Some people worried that Brown was pushing too hard, but it was the other way around because the kid hungered to improve. He showed it on a day when Brown made him stand in the correct shooting position, ball over head, elbow raised, for an hour.

“You’re going to cry because it’s going to hurt,” Brown warned. “But your body remembers pain. In a game, when you shoot, it’s going to remember that position.”

Sure enough, Durant fled the gym, heading for his grandmother’s house a few blocks away. Brown did not call after him, simply went outside to the bike rack and waited.

Durant recalled: “I only walked a couple minutes and it hit me. I had to go back. I wasn’t going to quit.”

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Not a word was spoken as they returned to the gym and finished the drill.

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The other night, in a first-round game against New Mexico State, Durant took the ball at the top of the key, faked right and dribbled left for a pull-up jump shot.

Just like when he used to weave between chairs, Brown telling him to use a different move each time.

“I watch him on TV now, all I see is the drills we did,” Brown said. “Curl around the chair, step into your shot.”

Later in the game, Durant slid into defensive position and took a hard charge. With time winding down, he boxed out a larger opponent and snatched a critical rebound.

“When I’m on the court, I don’t know it,” he said. “But we did a lot of things all those years that I see myself doing when I watch the tapes.”

Durant is the only player in the top five in scoring and rebounding, ranking fourth in both categories with 25.6 points and 11.3 rebounds a game. He had a 37-point game against Oklahoma State and a 37-point, 23-rebound game against Texas Tech.

Numbers represent only part of the picture. Basketball insiders love his range from the three-point line to low-post moves, his instincts. They praise him for leading an inordinately young team -- four freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup -- to a top-20 ranking.

Durant has already been named freshman of the year by the basketball writers association, beating out another young phenom, Ohio State center Greg Oden.

“I mean, this guy is a joke,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said. “You can plug him into any team in the country at any level and he can score, NBA, whatever ... it’s unbelievable how good he is.”

Maybe even good enough to be named player of the year. Certainly good enough that experts predict he and Oden could go 1-2 in the NBA draft.

Not that Durant is perfect. He still looks so young with a kid’s face and big smile, and his slight build means he got bounced from the lane against New Mexico State’s heftier front line. At times, he seemed to drop out of the offense, too intent on being a team player.

But with the score close, he found a way to draw fouls and make free throws, sealing a 79-67 victory.

“He’s a great freshman,” New Mexico State Coach Reggie Theus said. “He’s a different freshman.”

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Before tip-off against USC today, Wayne and Wanda Pratt will text message their son with the same words they always send on game day.

Have fun.

Wanda had to stay home but Wayne is in Spokane, wearing his Texas cap and shirt, a burnt-orange jacket. He stands during the game, cheering wildly for the Longhorns even when his son is on the bench.

March Madness is a big part of why he calls the NBA age limit a “great rule.”

“I want Kevin to enjoy this experience that you only get one time in your life,” he said.

Everyone expects Durant to turn pro this summer but neither he nor his parents talk about that. They will address the issue later, as a family. At present, Wanda is more interested in watching her son mature.

They have what she calls “more-adult conversations on the phone

His parents -- dad is a police officer for the Library of Congress, mom is a postal service manager -- want him to be well-rounded. They like that he is polite with reporters, if sometimes a little shy, and a good friend to teammates.

“We don’t look at Kevin like he’s, you know, Kevin Durant,” guard A.J. Abrams said. “He’s just K.D., just a regular player.”

Home for a visit, he cleaned the bathroom and took out the trash, just like always. There was, however, some discussion about eating habits.

His mom constantly reminds him to eat vegetables. Candy is a problem.

“Yeah,” Wayne said, “he needs to stop that.”

Durant says he just wants to have a good time, earning a B-average in classes last fall, playing ball and hanging out with friends. He was hooked on a video game, “The Godfather,” until it grew frustrating -- “I keep losing” -- and he pushed it aside for a while.

“I don’t know if I’d be having fun in the NBA or not,” he said. “I know for a fact I’m having fun here.”

For now, at least, the hype and the promise of NBA riches can wait. The kid is too busy being a college student.

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david.wharton@latimes.com


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