Live At The Drew, Basketball's Greatest Pro-Am

Compton's Drew League became legendary—and attracted NBA talent, from Kobe to LeBron to Kevin Durant—because of its unique combination of community and competition.

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Aug 16 2016, 2:29pm

Photo by Louis Keene

I missed the first one because I'd been watching live basketball in thick indoor heat for going on four straight hours, and a toddler waddling by in crisp Cement 4s fractured my hoop glaze at just the wrong time. So while I didn't see the unknown guy actually spike one on the NBA star, the howling of five hundred Drew League faithful told me all I needed to know. The announcer bellowed OHH, SHIT! into the mike, and Andre Drummond staggered back upcourt; it was easy to guess what happened. Then, ten minutes later, it happened again, this time with Drummond on the business end of a D-Leaguer's two-hand tomahawk, the crowd suddenly seismic, strangers grabbing each other just to hold on. THIS GAME IS OVER!

If you don't like that, you don't like pro-am basketball. You should also probably ask yourself whether you like basketball, full stop.

The Drew League, which meets in South Los Angeles, bills itself as the most elite summer basketball circuit in the world; that it has become a staple of the NBA offseason and a destination for basketball pilgrims from all over suggests that this billing is true to life. Posterization-induced rapture notwithstanding, it's certainly the most serious pro-am on Earth right now. The 28-team league plays a full slate of games in this high school gym every Friday-Saturday-Sunday from June through August, features as many actual pros as aspiring ones, and stages a brand of entertainment that leans decidedly more competitive than expressive. I'm here on a Sunday to take in the last five of a seven-game schedule; with eight-minute quarters, each game runs about an hour.

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The convergence of professional and amateur—read: pro-am—at Drew League yields a nutrient-rich ecosystem for all its participants. It's affordable weekend entertainment for the area families in the risers and a de facto job interview on the court for the hopefuls. It's a proving ground for no-name ballers, and a door opening onto basketball lore for established stars. The grizzled sideline fixture known as Pops says it's a glorified after-school program for his players, all of whom are adults. You will not be surprised to learn that a global sneaker brand has planted its flag here since 2013.

And yet—even with Nike tapping The Drew's grassroots mythology to extend its market reach; even as players, and sometimes whole teams, come increasingly from out of state; even though the weekend showdowns are no longer a blighted neighborhood's best-kept secret—the organic spirit of this community jewel is thriving. Admission is free and first-come, first-serve, as it has been since the pro-am's inception in 1973. There's no video board, no TV timeouts, no metal detectors, and no air-conditioning, just George Preciado doing play-by-play on the mike. The crowd skews young—though plenty of old-timers still hang around—and stays involved; the only food vendor on the premises is also the commissioner's wife.

"A lot of kids [here] don't got money—they don't get a lot of chances to go watch an NBA game," says Jesus Crespo, 35, a Drew League aficionado who grew up in South Central and has been going to games for 15 years. "So when you come out to The Drew you get to see players like that, from the NBA, for free. It's like you're going to a park game. There's no rules, no security looking at you, saying you can't walk up to that player. When you go to different arenas, you can't do what you do here, you know?" He gestures across the gym. "Look who just came in the building! Staaanley Johnson."

Johnson is one of three NBA players who have dropped in to suit up for Salvatori's ICEO in a game later this afternoon. Hank Salvatori, who died that Saturday, underwrote much of the league's activity for as long as Jesus has been a fan, and several teams bear his name. There are no NBAers in the game being played while Jesus and I speak; it looks like Pops, whose Jaguars have surrendered their lead to the Blazers, could use one. At halftime, he takes my two sideline questions. "What happened," he says, "is that players like to do dumb shit." He's wearing a big white tee and white polyester sweats, with a white towel slung over his shoulder. Next half? "Just watch." The Jaguars get absolutely firebombed in the second half and lose by twenty.

A retired government employee who moonlights as a basketball fixer with connections all over the world, Pops has been with the league since its founding and has coached in it for three decades. When he's not coaching, he's sitting at halfcourt, where people constantly approach him to pay their respects. "I teach life survival skills to my players," he told me. "Whatever they learn from me as a coach, they take it to the community, and the society that we live in." Having said that, "some of these guys think their shit don't stink. So I cut 'em."

Coaching 'em up. Or cutting them, it depends. Photo by Louis Keene

The rapper and Compton native Game is the manager of Birdie's Revenge, which plays next. Before the opening tip, Game is recognized at center court for his activism on behalf of people of color. The kids sitting behind me are geeking out over their newly autographed copies of The Documentary, the platinum debut album Game dropped 25 or so pounds ago.

It occurs to me that I'm here on behalf of VICE Sports to find out whether Game can play. My answer is that it's good and important that Game is a positive force in the community, and that he has contracted the services of several fine players to cover up his deficiencies. He's got a couple guys who are at least 6-foot-10, one of whom looks unnervingly like Goran Dragic, and Birdie wins despite a blonde kid on the other team called "Johnny D" going supernova on them from deep. (Looking it up later, I learn his name is actually just: Johnny Dee.) Anyway, Game can't shoot, though he's adequate around the rim; there is, to be polite, an insufficiently large sample size for a verdict on his passing.

Staaanley Johnson's game is next, so I quickly head to the mezzanine to hydrate, a prudent decision that swiftly becomes day-altering. For two dollars, I fill up on Drew-Aid, a coral-colored concoction scooped out of a giant cooler. I can't tell you what's in this potent nectar other than the frozen strawberries at the bottom of my cup—the recipe is a secret of Stephanie Smiley, the commissioner's wife—it tastes peachy, and the Drew League website says it possesses "notes" of watermelon. I can tell you that it cut the heat for five incredible minutes. I drank it as slowly as I could.

Dino Smiley, a big, easy guy with a graying goatee, has been commissioner for 33 years, a span that has seen a humble eight-team rec league turn into a cultural landmark. "The community embraces it," Dino, 56, told me. "They're proud of it." Like Pops, he grew up in South Central and stayed here. "You know, in our community, a lot of people used to not want to tell people they live here," he said. "But now we notice with Drew League ... that it's okay to live in Compton, and Watts, and Inglewood." These neighborhoods are 99 percent minority and have been ravaged by poverty and violence for decades; as of the last census, the poverty rate in Compton is about one in four, and the LA Times reported that homicides had tripled there in the first five months of 2016. The Drew grew up here, too, and so, Dino said, "we want to keep it here."

Projecting a positive image of South Central is meaningful in its own right, especially considering the narrow aperture of inner-city woe though which society tends to view it. The faces of the league—Pops, Dino, George—are all people of color. And free entertainment really can have a profound social impact here. Over the course of this weekend, a couple thousand people will sit on these risers, and a lot of them will be from the area, even if not most of them. What's more, The Drew has gone beyond being a figurative escape; most notably, it served as an actual safe haven during the L.A. Riots of 1992. These days, a non-profit Drew League Foundation awards 10 to 15 scholarships of $500 to promising neighborhood teens annually, and Dino is working to schedule a Drew League game against an LAPD team to stimulate community building.

It wasn't until the 2011 NBA lockout that The Drew began attracting national hype. By then the choice run for Southland natives like Baron Davis and Nick Young, Drew League that summer became a destination. It seemed like every other day a new superstar was showing up to drop 50 at The Drew, to shut down The Drew, to deliver the Good Viral Content to the hoops-starved masses from The Drew. Kobe, Durant, and LeBron came on separate occasions, each flooding the gym with rabid apostles and authoring a signature highlight; Davis co-directed a hugely entertaining 2015 documentary about The Drew that features footage of a Drew League shootout between James Harden and Kobe Bryant that may be the hero-balling'est few minutes ever committed to film.

Quickly, the throngs—once made up mostly of South Central locals—were coming from all over the city. Looking to increase seating capacity, Dino moved the league from a park gym to its current home at the King Drew Medical Magnet. The commotion caught the attention of Nike, which entered a sponsorship agreement with the league in 2013.

The Drew now sees NBA regulars every weekend starting July 1, when contracts first allow it. Some, like Harden on LAUNFD, are permanent members of a team and play most weeks; others, like Klay Thompson, just dip their toes during the regular season and return for the playoffs if schedules work out. A few, like Damian Lillard on this afternoon, sit courtside, soaking in the action and patiently gratifying a selfie-seeking crowd. They all know Dino, who said The Drew's attitude toward the NBA elite is, "we respect you, but we don't fear you. No matter who you are, this guy over here was probably just as good, but he didn't have the break that you had."

That may explain part of the appeal for the stars—feisty competition with none of the one-upmanship that bogs down some of the other pro-ams; Drew games are high-scoring, but that's more due to pace than a lack of defense. Still, that doesn't cover all of it. The Drew is also a site where guys making millions can go to cement their street cred. Legend is, shout out to Judith Butler, performative; a NBA player going there is roughing it in South Central, ostensibly, and putting on a show hits the sweet spot of hoop authenticity. Of course, that's also precisely what Nike wants to mine for the swoosh. The Drew's slogan—coined in the eighties by Dino—is "No Excuse, Just Produce."

It's that peculiar search for kleos that resonates even with the league's most accomplished players. But it is just as much a desire to give back. "I've been trying to catch up with the Drew League for the last five years, man, since I've been in the league," Kyrie Irving told me when I asked if he'd be dropping by to play this session. I caught up with the Irving at a Nike promotional event, which included two Drew matchups staged in a converted airplane hangar. Uncle Drew vowed to debut at King Drew in 2017. "The show that I would put on for these fans would be unbelievable," he said. "I've played in a few other places, but The Drew is where I need to be."

Even if Drew League's entrenchment in South Central is sacrosanct, its local flavor has undoubtedly diminished during the commercial era. Around a third of the Drew League crowd these days comes from neighborhoods close by, according to Michael McCaa, Drew League CFO. Those demographics have shifted dramatically since 2011. "You want to keep it connected to the community," McCaa told me, "but you also want to bring individuals from outside the community into the community for that economic growth." Striking a balance that satisfies everyone is hard, and the mandate of free general admission makes it even trickier.

When you get the chance to grab a selfie with Dame Lillard. Photo by Louis Keene

It's also possible that local interest has dropped off with the decrease in homegrown representation on the court. The promise of fierce competition may bring in the best players from all over the country, but it means that on the day Kyrie shows up in Compton's backyard, he's not playing against its neighbors, friends, and relatives. And it means that on all the other days, those no-name guys on the court—even the pros, no matter how talented they are—have nothing emotional to pique local interest. Every hour or so, ball girls throw free stuff into the risers every hour or so. It's a fun little analog to big-time entertainment that gets people to cheer, and yet the routine feels somehow out of place, a bit of NBA Crowd Motivation Best Practices grafted onto something much more intimate.

Nike has greatly contributed to the professionalization of the aesthetic here, and has taken the pro-am's exposure to new heights. The company provides sleek jerseys and performance sneakers and hangs big vinyl NO EXCUSE banners on the walls; it handles media and operates the league's website. It also underwrites the lease agreement with the school district and gives the league points on merchandise. (While we're at it, Nike also pays for King Drew's jerseys—two athletic teams a year on a rotating basis—though that's the only connection between the league and its host.) "When you have a company like Nike associated with you, that means you're good, because they're not gonna associate themselves with no junk," Dino said, proudly bearing his trademark black Nike stretch-fit hat. "We have the stamp of approval that someone wants us, and wants us to be part of them—our chest sticks out." He chuckled. "All I wear is Nike stuff!" he added sheepishly.

Salvatori's ICEO—the team with Stanley Johnson, Kelly Oubre, and Andre Drummond—is falling behind. As it happens, the free throw line is 15 feet away from the basket in South Central, too; Andre Drummond is painfully and repeatedly reminded of this fact here, just as he is in the NBA. Pops is sitting in his usual spot with his newest acquaintance, Daryl Morey, who rather amusingly is sweating it out in a sport coat. ICEO's opponent, #Juglife, has no one I recognize, but they're cohesive, fast, and like every other team in this league, startlingly athletic. Well, I'm not as startled by it anymore. A precious little tyke waddles by me in crisp Cement 4s. I miss the big moment when it happens, until the roar pulls me back.

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