Devean George, a real estate developer with a heart who also was a pretty good basketball player, made an inaugural investment in north Minneapolis in 2006 that is about to reap a nice return for working-poor families and his old neighborhood.

This summer, George will break ground on Commons at Penn Avenue, a 45-unit apartment building that will include retail shops. It also will house several nonprofits that work with families on education, training and employment. George has fronted or borrowed nearly $450,000 to cover predevelopment costs, including land acquisition and three years of planning.

"It all starts with stable housing," said George last week, sipping a cup of coffee at Sammy's Eatery on W. Broadway. "Education, training, a job and maybe, one day, a family moves on to buy a house. This will work because I have all these good partners."

Tiffany Glasper, a senior project coordinator at the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, is one of those partners. "This is a good project because it activates an inactive corner that has been a magnet for loitering and crime," Glasper said. "People and activity deter crime. And Devean has gone beyond what most developers do to work with the community."

Although the final financial details, including a $5.5 million city loan that George personally will guarantee has yet to receive final approval of the Minneapolis City Council, the project is considered 97 percent funded and ready to proceed. George has spent long hours shaping and selling the project with City Council members, community partners and business leaders.

"It's the 'Devean George effect,' " said Jeff Washburne, the longtime executive director of the City of Lakes Community Land Trust, a North Side nonprofit that's helped 200 working-class families buy refurbished city homes. "He's a star and he's a team player. He's focused on this neighborhood with time and investment. He's told us that every resident of his Commons at Penn development who is able to buy a house from us means success, and an available apartment for the next family that needs one."

George, 36, a graduate of Augsburg College, is known to sports fans as the small-college star who went on to an 11-year career in the NBA — including three league championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. George, one of the first off the bench to spell star Kobe Bryant or another Lakers starter, was known as a tough defender and unselfish team player.

"Devean told me once that Kobe Bryant was the star and his job was to do the things that Kobe didn't like to do," said Scott Anderson, operations director of Building Blocks, George's three-year-old North Side nonprofit. "Devean is really diplomatic and good at building relationships. He doesn't burn bridges.''

But don't mistake that reserve for a lack of confidence or lack of drive.

In the summer of 1996, while home for the summer from his freshman year at Augsburg, George was awakened by a drive-by shooting that sprayed his front porch, killing 11-year-old Bryon Phillips, his cousin. It narrowly missed George's little brother, Chafe. It took three years to apprehend and convict two random shooters of the crime in 1999.

George returned to Augsburg vowing to be a success, make the NBA, care for his family and create a better community. And he found his model in Dallas, at the end of his career.

George volunteered with a community center in a challenged neighborhood of south Dallas. The Rev. Johnny Flowers, the center's coordinator, has called George a "friend to the friendless and father to the fatherless" when others had forgotten the neighborhood.

George's parents, Eddie and Carol, often missed his high school and college basketball games because they worked two jobs into the night. They also taught him to be careful with his money and about choosing friends and associates. Suffice to say, George is not one of those NBA millionaires who blew it all on the good life.

Devean's "George Group North" owns several apartment buildings and refurbished Twin Cities houses. Its biggest project, Marketplace & Main, is a residential-retail complex in downtown Hopkins.

George still has a home in Southern California and lives in the Twin Cities with his mom at a house he bought for her in Plymouth.

George also budgets time for allied causes. He hosted a fundraiser Saturday night for Washburne's Community Land Trust at International Marketplace that was expected to draw more than 200 supporters. He regularly shows up at Augsburg, Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, Emerge Community Development and other nonprofit partners to talk with staff and kids.

George, a basketball legend at Augsburg, also filled the campus chapel two years ago with hundreds of students for a profound talk about education, effort and service.

"Devean lives out the Augsburg mission that we are called to serve our neighbor," said Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow. "With all of Devean's success, he remains grounded and has not forgotten his neighborhood or Augsburg. I find that inspiring and I believe our students do as well."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •