From Hoops to Housing: How Devean George is Helping Revitalize North Minneapolis

Jun 07, 2018 | by Drew Wood, Mpls St Paul

If it weren’t for J.R. Koch spraining his ankle, Devean George wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Or, maybe he would be, but under different circumstances. But I’m getting ahead of myself. On a recent Monday afternoon, the one-time L.A. Laker—6-foot-8-inches tall and still looking game-fit—is making a mockery of a lounge chair scaled to normal-size people. We’re in the lobby of The Commons at Penn, his affordable housing community on the corner of Penn Avenue and Golden Valley Road, in North Minneapolis. The development stands out in its own way: Not a lot of attractive new homes get built in North Minneapolis—a fact that hasn’t been lost on its mostly African-American residents.

The school day has just ended, and kids filter into The Commons, which is just down the block from the off-white foursquare home where George grew up. (His father still lives there today.) The three-time NBA champ greets each kid with the fist bumps and casual hellos of someone they’re seeing for the hundredth time. Between salutations, George talks about his vision for revitalizing North. Under the banner of his for-profit company George Group North, the 40-year-old has been dabbling in commercial real estate for years. But he has only recently turned that real-estate savvy toward his hometown through his nonprofit, called Building Blocks. George splits time between his own family, in Los Angeles, and his Building Blocks family in Minneapolis. 

As residents come and go, George recounts how, as a kid with no Division I scholarship offers, he took out nearly $70,000 in student loans to play at DIII Augsburg—and still managed to reach the NBA. And, oh yeah, he reflects on how this whole story might be different, had that random Iowa Hawkeye not turned his ankle one fateful day in 1999.

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