Basketball-starved fans wet appetite during offseason at prestigious summer league
When it happens once, it's embarrassing, but you can walk it off and laugh about it later. When it happens again,you better start taking things a little more seriously.
Such was the case for one of the newest members of the Los Angeles Lakers, Nick Young, as he found himself on the wrong end of a poster dunk not once, but twice this summer — the second one by former University of California, Los Angeles star and current overseas professional player, Dijon Thompson, instantly went viral.
Young was just one of many current and former NBA players who took part in the Los Angeles Drew League, held at King Drew Magnet High School, a summer professional basketball league where they suit up alongside many local high school, college, and overseas standouts.
"I've been playing in the Drew for about six or seven years now," said Young. "It's been a while."
Founded in 1973 by Alvin Wills, the Drew League started out with only six teams, focused on strengthening community relations in South Los Angeles by incorporating basketball with everyday life situations.
It was also designed to give professional players a chance to give back to the community that many of them came from.
Young, who was a standout at Cleveland High School in Reseda, Calif., and went on to star at the University of Southern California before being drafted into the NBA, is one of those hometown heroes, dubbed "I Am Legend" by George Preciado, the official announcer of the Drew League.
"I look forward to coming here," said Young. "I know there's going to be a lot of support, a lot of fans. There's gonna be a lot of talking trash, but that makes it fun too."
Currently in its 40th year, the league has grown to 28 teams by invitation only, and is run by Dino Smiley, who took over for Wills in 1985.A seven-game schedule is played every Saturday and Sunday from mid-May until mid-August, culminating with playoffs and a championship game.
Under Smiley, the league established the Drew League Foundation, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to helping inner city youth in Los Angeles through gang and drug prevention, counseling and mentoring, and sports.
Admission to the league is free, with proceeds from the snack bar and Drew League apparel going to benefit the foundation.
Aside from supporting an important cause, fans are treated to some great, hard-nosed, competitive basketball. You never know who might show up to play.
According to Los Angeles native and current Portland Trail Blazers forward, Dorell Wright, who has been participating in the Drew League for 13 years, the league soared in popularity during the NBA lockout the summer of 2011.
"It's always had that buzz in the streets, but the lockout year when we brought in all these big names, everybody wanted to see what the Drew League was all about," said Wright.
That summer, on three separate occasions, fans were treated to seeing Miami Heat superstar Lebron James, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, and Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant.
"Just to get those kind of megastars to come to a little, small gym is amazing," said Wright. "Everybody comes out each weekend to see what's going to happen and who's going to show up."
With players unable to train at team facilities, and the official NBA summer league in Las Vegas canceled due to the lockout, the Drew League became a hotbed with word spreading that it was a place to get in good workouts and play against great competition.
Originally located at Charles Drew Middle School in Los Angeles, the league has moved twice to accommodate larger crowds, first to Leon H. Washington Park in South Los Angeles, and currently settling at King Drew High School.
Despite the larger venue, games are still packed with fans, with long lines beginning to form hours before the doors officially open.
While the NBA's official summer league is usually reserved for rookies, second or third-year players, and long-shot hopefuls, leagues such as the Drew give more established veterans the opportunity to stay fresh during the doldrums of the offseason.
The reputation for tough competition at the Drew League is what draws some of these players in such as the Los Angeles Clippers Darren Collison who played in the league for the first time this summer.
"I'm trying to grow, trying to get better," said Collison. "They've got the summer league for the NBA and the [Team] USA mini-camp that's going on, for the players that are not participating, you should play in something. I'm having fun out here."
NBA players who show up expecting to breeze through the competition are in for a surprise, as they often find themselves on the receiving end of embarrassment.
"Guys are playing really hard out here; it's good competition for a summer league," said Charlotte Bobcats forward Jeff Adrien. "Now it's got great exposure and great representation."
"A lot of guys out here are either playing in Europe, the [NBA] D-League, college athletes," said Wright. "Guys are coming out here trying to get their name and NBA guys are trying to get their game right and you always want to compete at the highest level and they know it doesn't get any better than this."
For players like Adrien, and the Boston Celtics Jordan Crawford, who have been classified as journeymen in the NBA, bouncing from team to team and playing limited minutes off the bench, the Drew League allows them to show talent they are rarely able to display in the NBA.
"It's definitely a place to sharpen NBA skills," said Crawford. "I take it real seriously, I want to win the championship here."
And yet for others, such as Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson, the Drew League is a way to reconnect with a community from before they made it to the NBA.
Gibson attended both Stoneridge Preparatory High School in Tarzana, California, and Calvary Christian High School in San Fernando, California before playing college basketball at USC.
"It's really close-knit; most of the guys on my team [in high school] I've seen around and played against them," said Gibson. "It's great to come back and feel at home. It's like a big high school reunion."
Gibson said he enjoys playing in front of local fans, many of whom watched him grow in high school and college. To him, playing in the Drew League was always one of his goals.
"I wanted to play here, but guys were much bigger than me, and I said hopefully, if I get good enough and reach my goal of becoming an NBA player, I've got to come back and play," said Gibson. "Slowly but surely, everything became a dream come true."
For more information, visit drewleague.com and drewleaguefoundation.org