A Breath of Fresh Air

by July 14, 2011

by Jeremy Bauman / @JBauman13

The Drew League was just coming about when Dino Smiley was a 13-year-old eighth grader who went to school just up the street from Leon H. Washington Park at Drew Middle School. Back in the day (beginning in 1973, to be exact), Smiley kept score at the Drew League using a ladder and some chalk, while using an air horn for substitutions and breaks in play.

Currently Smiley runs Drew, as he has for the last 27 years since he was 23. Over the years there has always been top-notch competition at Washington Park—that much has never been questioned. There was even a time where, among others, the Lakers Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper played at the Drew.

But of late, things have jumped to a whole new level at the basketball oasis located in South Central. There aren’t one, or two, or even three NBAer’s showing up—they are coming out to Washington Park in droves.

“I think the lockout has definitely had an effect on it,” stated Smiley. “But last year, we were starting to get quite a few NBA guys to come out because what a lot of people don’t realize is this era of NBA players in the L.A./Compton area—we have like a dozen players and they’re all in the age group of 20-25 years old. James Harden, Brandon Jennings, Nick Young, JaVale McGee—they grew up together.

“These guys say to their teammates, ‘Where do you play? Oh, I heard about that league’ and some people are flying out to come and play.”

Along with the aforementioned Harden, Young, and McGee, NBAers Tyreke Evans, Dorell Wright, DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Austin Daye, Terrence Williams, Pooh Jeter, and recently drafted Derrick Williams and Jeremy Tyler all made appearances this past weekend.

Even NBA mega-star Kevin Durant made an appearance a couple weeks ago—and enjoyed it so much that he began to organize a feature match-up that will pit some of the top players from the Drew against players from the similarly talented Washington Goodman League (another summer Pro-Am where KD, John Wall and Michael Beasley grew up playing) later this summer.

Why, you might ask, do all of these NBA guys bother with a summer league in South Central? During an offseason jam-packed with ongoing and oh-so-depressing lockout talk, the reasons are certainly plentiful.

The redundancy of drills and working out, a desire to compete at a high level, staying in shape, the uncertain future of the NBA, and peer pressure are all partially responsible for the steady influx.

The best answer, however, probably lies within the “Never back down” mantra within the gymnasium. The guys in the NBA are “just another player” when they step on the hardwood at the Drew—in actuality the overseas professionals and street ballers far outnumber the amount of NBA players who participate at the event. They are, in most ways, the tournament’s lifeblood. The drive and competitive nature provided by these players is in abundance and the logic is quite simple—everybody wants to prove himself worthy against the best competition, and playing against guys who have made it to the highest level is the best way to do it. Furthermore, it’s not every day where players have access to this opportunity, causing an extra level of excitement to flow through their body.

Perhaps nobody puts the Drew League into words better than Golden State Warriors shooting guard Dorell Wright, who has competed at the Drew for nine years—two as a high school kid and seven while in the NBA.

“Everybody out here are competitors,” explained Wright. “I’ve been playing out here for nine years and I used to beat plenty of NBA guys. Just because somebody plays in the NBA on a different team doesn’t mean nothing here. There’s no holds barred so everyone’s gonna come at you here, and it is what it is.”

Detroit Pistons small forward Austin Daye echoed Wright’s statement. “Everybody does,” snapped Daye when asked whether or not he had a target on his back. “NBA players don’t want to be shown up by the other guys who are around here and the other guys don’t want to get shown up by the NBA guys. There’s a respect amongst us.”

That being said, however, the NBA players clearly have a reputation to uphold—they are held to a higher standard and are liable to be heckled just as the bum at the end of the bench might be.

At one point, Terrence Williams was jacking up shot after shot—and missing—in the first half of his first game on Sunday. “Pass the ball,” and “You can’t shoot,” were two of the many complaints by the local observers, who shouted their remedies on to the court.

The Game and GO HAM

“I’ve been trying to play in this league every year, man,” stated The Game as he scarfed down a slider in a nearby locker room after his matinee affair with his usual NBA-laden squad.

You see Game is from Compton—just not this side of town. Heavily involved in the gang-banging lifestyle that comes with growing up in South Central, The Game is a Blood, and he wasn’t exactly welcome in this section of town when he was growing up—it is heavily populated with the rival Crips gang. He continues.

“They just don’t let me in. But now we’re in it, and we’re in it to win it. We bring a lot of NBA players down to the GO HAM team.”

Indeed, they have brought their fair share of NBA guys to the Drew. Kevin Durant played for him when he was here, and this week Derrick and Terrence Williams, DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis all played for GO HAM… and lost at the buzzer to an unheralded Nova Stars team who played their guts out.

“We done lost the last three games—we started out 5-0—but lost cause we not playing defense and we’re trying to find our chemistry, man. But we’re gonna make a cold playoff run, and gonna take the league.”

GO HAM was down 71-68 before an Ed Davis and one brought the crowd to its feet with 8.2 seconds left. After completing the three-point play, Nova put the ball in point guard Mark Peters’ hands, and he dropped in a mid-range bucket from the top of the key for a two-point victory just before the buzzer.

Fans stormed the court. DeRozan walked toward the exit in the corner, peeled his jersey off, and peeked back to check on the ongoing celebration. Terrence Williams followed, shaking his head as he exited the gym, and headed to the locker room.

“If I was on the other team I’d think it was cool to see that they’re not ‘Mr. Incredible’s,’” added The Game about his team’s unfortunate L, which seemed to make everybody’s day.

Affecting the Community

Perhaps the most thrilling aspect of the Drew League for the spectators from South Central is that watching the high-flying action takes nothing more than some dedication—other than that, it’s a free treat provided by Smiley and co.

“Even if it’s a dunk or a three, all the fans are out here to see that so they’re excited,” explained Derrick Williams, who happened to be making his first appearance at the Drew. “They can’t afford to go pay for Lakers games, Clipper games, and all of that but they can come out here and it’s free. All you have to do is be able to watch and get a good seat, and I think that’s the best part.”

Oklahoma City Thunder playmaker James Harden couldn’t agree more. “All the kids that don’t get a chance to watch NBA players in a real game get to come out here for free, so its definitely a blessing and I’m just out here having fun.”

Heck, even The Game, who “wasn’t allowed” to come to these games when he was a child has enough sense to comprehend that this type of atmosphere can be tremendously inspiring to kids in the area.

“I think this is big for the community, and that’s why I find the joy in it,” the rapper explained. “All these people get to come out and see players that they see on TV—not wearing their NBA uniforms, but wearing their GO HAM uniforms. It’s big for the kids—it’s a family environment, they got food, and everybody’s out here to have fun.”