Devean George wants to bring a sense of hope to the north Minneapolis intersection of Golden Valley Road and Penn Avenue.
The Minneapolis native, former Augsburg College star and NBA player is taking aim at the same stretch of neighborhood where he grew up dribbling a basketball and later witnessed a random drive-by killing of an 11-year-old boy that shook the city.
The change will come in the form of 45 affordable housing units, built on top of an outreach program for community youth that he calls George’s Building Blocks.
“It’s all about collaboration. That’s what this plan is. Everyone building blocks one at a time,” said George, who played alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal after becoming the first Division III player selected in the NBA draft’s first round. “From Morgan Avenue to Queen Avenue. We’ll start on this corner, and from there, harmony.”
Building toward something greater always has been a part of George’s life. He graduated from Benilde-St. Margaret’s as a late bloomer and was recruited to attend Augsburg. He wasn’t done growing, though. He added four inches in height, starred for the Auggies and was a solid 6-7 by the time he graduated.
The Los Angeles Lakers took notice of his size and work ethic in selecting him in the first round of the 1999 NBA draft. He became only the seventh player in NBA history to win a league championship in each of his first three seasons. He later played with the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors before retiring after 11 seasons of professional basketball.
Near the end of his playing career, George had a vision for his future. It included real estate and bettering people’s lives.
“I wanted to become a person that helped people. There are a lot of people that suffer that aren’t involved in the bad stuff going on,” said George, 35. “I figured out that playing basketball was not the end goal. I figured out that me playing basketball was probably just to set up for what I’m doing now.
“It is more of me being put in position to be able to help people and have a voice.”
Motivated to effect change
In 2006 he began investing in his plan. The beginnings of George Group North and nonprofit organization Building Blocks Minnesota were nothing more than five plots of unkept land occupied by three battered buildings on the corner of Penn Avenue and Golden Valley Road.
The mess didn’t bother George or his family. His father, Eddie George Sr., spent most of his life managing a club on the same land. When nearby businesses began to fail, the longtime north Minneapolis resident saw a chance to use it for good. He remembered a time when the facilities were used to help raise money for local kids in need. He approached his son about the possibility to produce something similar.
“A lot of kids around here need something to do. There should be more than just hearing gun shots,” Eddie George Sr. said. “There is still good around here. Devean came from the ghetto. Raised in the north side and stayed in the north side.”
By that time George had played seven years for the Lakers under legendary coach Phil Jackson, who had taught him what it meant to be a good teammate. He headed to Dallas, where he joined future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki. He considered himself still learning.
Off the court in Dallas, he got involved with The Empowerment Center, a community center in a challenged neighborhood of south Dallas. The Rev. Johnny Flowers, the center’s coordinator, called George a “friend to the friendless and father to the fatherless” when others had forgotten the neighborhood.
The experience reminded George of his home and all he had seen growing up.
Visiting the north Minneapolis neighborhood last week, George re-enacted memories of a pair of deadly shootings next to his home in the summer of 1996. Recalling the second one, George pointed to a window on the second floor of his dad’s house.
“I was in that room,” he said.