Why NBA star Kevin Durant invested in MLS team Philadelphia Union: 'It just made sense'

There was a moment in December when Jay Sugarman became convinced thatKevin Durantwas precisely the man he wanted to join the Philadelphia Union's ownership group.

Durant was paying a visit to the Union's campus in Chester, Pennsylvania, and naturally, the NBA superstar's presence created a stir in the team's offices. The moment didn't come during a presentation or in a meeting with senior executives; it was more as he toured the building and met with the rank-and-file employees.

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"I watched how he interacted with, not with our technical staff or our players, but with the folks in our office building," Sugarman told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "Everybody wants a photo and everybody wants to be in a picture with him. And the way he handled that was with a gentleness, and he made time for everyone. At one point, we had to pull him away.

"That made a big impression on me, because that is the sort of the way we think about our community and the Union family. We're all pulling for each other; we're all trying to make things better. And you can just see he's gonna fit in so powerfully into that idea."

Sugarman also found common ground in the way Durant approaches his professional life. Both prefer to operate outside of the public eye and let their work speak for itself.

"Kevin is not out there banging the drum all the time," Sugarman said. "He just goes about his business and does the work he needs to do, whether it's on the court, with his team or in the community."

On Monday, Durant's partnership with the Union was officially announced. Durant has purchased a 5% stake in the team, with an option for an additional 5%. Sugarman said the team's valuation is north of the $325 million expansion fee paid in December by Major League Soccer's Charlotte franchise, which would put the valuation of Durant's stake at a minimum of $16.25 million. Sugarman added that there are 10 other partners, though Durant is the first black investor to be brought in. The deal includes a partnership with Thirty Five Ventures, the business and philanthropic entity run by Durant and business partner Rich Kleiman.

"[The Union], they broke everything down, from what they wanted to do in the community, to the campus that they want to build in Chester, how they want to impact the youth leagues even more, and putting it all back in a community that is predominantly black," Durant told ESPN. "It just made sense."

The Union were not Durant's first choice in terms of investing in an MLS club. Durant confirmed that he held talks last year with D.C. United, his hometown club.

"The talks just didn't get far enough," Durant said.

When word of the breakdown in discussions with DCU reached Sugarman, a business associate reached out to Kleiman and talks began late last year. Sugarman said that the coronavirus pandemic delayed the finalization of the deal.

Granted, the success of Durant's partnership with the Philadelphia Union will need more than just a personal connection with Sugarman, but there appear to be other areas in which the two are in sync. Durant experienced the emotional lows of coming close to winning a championship with theOklahoma City Thunder as well the highs of his two titles with the Golden State Warriors. The Union are a team on the rise, having won a playoff game for the first time in 2019, and Durant's experience with multiple teams will certainly provide the Union with some valuable insight. There are indications that Sugarman and the Union have already taken some of that on.

"Jay and I talked a lot about what my experience was like playing on the team in OKC, making it to the championship and losing, and my experiences as a player winning championships," Durant said. "So I felt like they respected everything I've been through and that was easy for us to kind of connect, and that's just built from there."

There also is alignment in terms of what the Union want to do in the community and Durant's philanthropic works. The Washington, D.C., native has long been active in social justice causes, whether near his hometown with Baltimore's Inner Harbor Project or on a national level with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. When the Union's stadium, Subaru Park, was built in Chester, it was followed by a string of broken promises made by outside firms and government entities in terms of development. Sugarman admits that having more of a far-reaching economic impact on Chester "has been a bit of a struggle," even as the team has engaged in efforts such as restarting the soccer programs at Chester High School and building a mini-pitch in the city.

Keystone LLC, the entity that owns the Union, also has bought land on the Chester waterfront with an eye toward developing it.

"There's no question that we need a lot to do a lot more work [in Chester]," Sugarman said.

With the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis and the conversations those demonstrations have sparked, Durant's addition to the ownership group should add some heft in terms of those efforts.

"This is an important moment in society," Sugarman said. "We want to be part of the progress that will come out of the moment, and you know Kevin's perspective and advocacy here is going to be a really important guide for us because we want to be part of the solution."

Durant agreed.

"I think we can make a huge impact, especially with how we have everybody's ear now," Durant said. "They understand what goes on in these communities. So the resources that we have to pour back into the community, we're looking forward to doing it. And it's also having a conversation with the community on how we can help, as well."

It sounds like a lot to ask of an investor with a 5% stake, but Durant anticipates that the presence of Thirty Five Ventures will help in that regard.

"We've got a lot of bright minds that will help with this project," Durant said. "So the Union, whatever they need from us ... I'm not saying go over there and take anything over. But if we can be of some help in any type of way, that's what we want to be, but not step on anybody's toes.

"We're looking forward to the partnership. I think it'll work out perfectly."

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