MINNEAPOLIS — Devean George can’t pinpoint when or where the idea first took root.
It might’ve been in the eyes of a Los Angeles youngster as the former Laker narrated a children’s book during a Read to Achieve session. Maybe it came from signing the autograph of a fatherless boy after a Dallas Mavericks game. Perhaps it was at a recent community center visit in his hometown of Minneapolis, where kids gawked at images of George playing alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Or maybe it sprouted much earlier, when George emerged from one of this town’s roughest neighborhoods to graduate from Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School, play basketball at Augsburg College and hear his named called in the first round of the 1999 NBA Draft.
In any case, his North Minneapolis upbringing and the lives he touched during his 11-year professional career are the impetus behind George’s latest venture.
“I was kind of a young guy that didn’t have a lot of comforts growing up,” said George, a three-time NBA champion with the Lakers who played for Dallas and Golden State, too. “I helped my community in California, I helped my community where I played in Dallas, and I wanted to do that where I’m from.”
Hence the Commons at Penn Avenue project in which George is currently immersed.
With the backing of his real estate company George Group North and the City of Minneapolis, George’s nonprofit, Building Blocks, plans to turn several properties at the southwest corner of Penn Avenue North and Golden Valley Road into a complex featuring affordable housing and a gathering space for neighborhood youth.
“I basically took a building and a program and stole what I was doing in other areas and other cities,” said George, who retired and moved back to Minneapolis following the 2009-10 season. “I kind of made it my own here.”
He saw the need for such a project at an early age.
George’s father still occupies the house in which he raised his family, just a couple blocks from the proposed Commons site. For years, North Minneapolis has been home to the highest volume of crimes in the metro area, according to police-released crime maps, and George grew up in a climate where gang violence and drug peddling were the norm.
Thanks in part to his father and mother both being present, he says, George was able to rise above the culture enveloping his childhood and star at Benilde-St. Margaret’s and NCAA Division III Augsburg College. The Lakers selected the 6-foot-8 swing man with the 23rd overall pick in the draft, and he went on to average 5.6 points per game for his career and play a key role off the bench in Los Angeles’ championship three-peat from 2000-02.
Throughout his playing days, George delved into the world of real estate. He also made spending time with youth a priority.
It didn’t take much urging when he’d come home during the offseason and visit his father.
“I want to clean the neighborhood up,” George said. “There are still a lot of the same obstacles I had growing up in North Minneapolis; there’s not access to a lot of things other than gangs and temptations of doing wrong things.”
It’s with that heart for his old stomping grounds that George is working on the $8.9 million, 45-unit, 4,500-square-foot Commons at Penn Avenue endeavor. Redeveloping five vacant buildings, the structure will feature affordable housing — primarily 2-3 bedroom apartments, for families — on the upper levels. On the ground floor, Building Blocks will set up a new office and operate what George calls a “training area” for troubled youngsters.
That locale will give children access to computers they might not otherwise have and provide an alternative, safe haven for teens to gather and receive education, job training and the like.
“If kids are able to get out of school every day and hang on the corner, if they have resources provided to them right on that corner, there’s no excuse that they can’t get them,” George said.
There are still some financial agreements to work out with the city, but everything’s on schedule for a June 2014 groundbreaking, George said.
His property management and philanthropic work have kept George plenty occupied since his retirement following the 2009-10 season. Returning to Minneapolis was a no-brainer, but he’s actually got more on his plate now than he did as a player.
“Home is always home, no matter where it is,” George said. “It seems like I’m more busy now after playing than I was while I was playing because I fill my day up with stuff because I’ve got to keep busy. … When I’m playing, I didn’t have much time for anything other than my job. You’re on a set schedule: practice today, go home and rest, play a game tomorrow. Now I have all this free time I have to manage myself.”
It was easy for George to walk into a Los Angeles rec center or after-school care program and be recognized during the Lakers’ hay-day.
Now reaching out to a younger generation of fans, he brings a few pictures of him and the greats he shared a locker room with back then, just in case.
“The kids I’m mentoring are a little too young and far removed,” George said. “But when they see the posters and pictures they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, you played with Kobe,’ and that grabs their attention.
“Surprisingly enough, there are some young kids that know me. I’ll be like, ‘When I started playing, you were 4; how do you know what I do?’ And they point out that I played with Kobe and Shaq.”