This offseason, many of the NBA’s biggest stars have come through Los Angeles to play in pick-up games. The list includes LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. There have been 378 California-born NBA players, according to Basketball Reference, and the list would be longer if it included individuals who were born elsewhere but then raised in the state. Local players come back in the summer and many come from out of state because, well, it’s L.A.
“Most of these guys who are playing pick-up in L.A. are actually from L.A. or some part of California,” Los Angeles native Dorell Wright told HoopsHype. “I think we have the most guys in the NBA [of any state]. The guys who are from L.A. come back here and the guys who are from other parts of California move to L.A. once they’re in the league because they know this is where the great pick-up games and facilities are at. That’s a big part of it.
“But also, who doesn’t want to come to L.A. in the summertime? When you’re playing in a city that gets really cold and snows, who doesn’t want to run to L.A. for a bit? You get to come to L.A. and you know you’re going to get some great pick-up games and workouts, so it’s an easy decision for a lot of players.”
“L.A. is so special because every NBA player wants to live in L.A.” San Diego native Jared Dudley told HoopsHype. “Everyone wants to be there. I’ve played in the Drew League a couple times and I’ve played at UCLA a lot when I was younger. It was three courts and they were always packed.”
While players also mentioned Joe Abunassar’s Impact Basketball in Las Vegas and Chris Brickley’s Life Time Athletic in New York, the two places that came up the most when discussing the best offseason pick-up spots were the Drew League and the men’s gym at UCLA (which is officially named the UCLA Student Activities Center). Those are two of the few gyms where you can consistently witness some of the world’s greatest basketball players competing each summer.
While the Drew League only recently became a household name for NBA fans, it has been around since 1973. Alvin Willis was the founder and, from 1973 to 2005, games were played at Charles Drew Middle School. Dino Smiley first got involved with the Drew League at 13 years old, helping out wherever he was needed around the gym, and he eventually became the league’s commissioner. Dino recently passed the commissioner role to his daughter, Chaniel, who currently holds the position.
Today, the Drew League is a 28-team, invitation-only league that features current NBA players, retired legends, overseas standouts and college phenoms. Games are now played at King Drew High School.
Some of the biggest pick-up moments in recent years happened at the Drew League. It’s where James Harden and Chris Paul teamed up for the first time this summer, giving Houston Rockets fans a glimpse of their star-studded backcourt in action. It’s where LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant (among many other stars) decided to play during the 2011 NBA lockout, which made huge headlines and interested a ton of fans who desperately wanted to see competitive basketball.
The lockout is really what put the Drew League on the map nationally, giving it massive exposure. The league had been drawing California-born players for years, but now every NBA star knew about it and fans from across the country were suddenly interested in the tournament.
“I would say the pivotal year that allowed us to become the league we are now was 2011, when the NBA had its infamous lockout,” Chaniel Smiley said on the Hollywood Hoops podcast. “It was such a unique year for summer basketball and we were just put in the right position, at the right time. It started back in the ‘70s with a small group of players and coaches within the community. Now, to see where we’re at today, it’s just awesome.”
“The Drew had already been around for a long time before the 2011 lockout, but I feel that’s the year that pushed it over the top and made it a national sensation,” said Cassy Athena, who was the Drew League’s photographer. “I think the biggest reason, and least credited reason, is media. When I first started shooting, it was just me taking pictures and a few video outlets filming highlights – places like Ball Is Life, HoopMixtape and Mars Reel. The action happening in this small gym in Watts mainly spread by word of mouth before the actual visuals came in. There are a lot of talented basketball players in Los Angeles, but there are also a lot of talented artists. The combination of high-level sports talent mixed with the photos and videos sent the Drew League’s name flying all around the country like wildfire. People who had never been to L.A. got to experience a taste of what was happening here. The players could share these highlights on their social media platforms with their fans from all over. I feel like it was a ‘right place, right time’ situation with the Drew. When Nike stepped in as a sponsor in 2013, they really upgraded the entire look of the Drew League brand and it has continued to grow into what it is today.”
Wright credits Durant’s appearance for shining a spotlight on the Drew League. Durant inspired other superstars, like Bryant and James, to participate as well.
“During the lockout, KD hit me with a Twitter DM like, ‘Yo, what’s up? I’m trying to play in the Drew League.’ I told him what time our team was playing, but he ended up getting there early and playing with [the rapper] The Game,” Wright said. “He shut the gym down. I remember he threw the ball off the backboard to himself, flew down the lane and dunked it. That really set things off for the Drew League and it made other guys want to be a part of it too. After that, you had Kobe and LeBron play. That really gave the league that buzz. We’re talking about All-Star players – MVP-level players – coming to the Drew! And this was before we were in the new gym. These guys were coming to play in our little gym, which only had a few rows of bleachers and then a ton of people standing baseline damn near on the court.”
Wright, who has been playing in the Drew League since he was a kid, is thrilled to see it thriving. He credits the league for helping him develop as a player since he got the chance to compete against (and play alongside) NBA players as a high-schooler.
“My dad is the one who introduced me to the Drew League; he played in it back when he was younger,” Wright said. “He always talked about it. Also, one of my close friends is Chris ‘Ghetto Bird’ Young and this is his 20th season playing in the Drew League. He was always trying to get me to come out and play. I started playing when I was in 11th grade and I’ve been playing ever since.
“It helped my confidence and made me a better player. I had to earn my stripes. Early on, I was more of an energy guy – playing hard, getting rebounds and chasing loose balls. The older guys were established and some were pros, either playing in the NBA or overseas. It made me learn how to play the game without the ball. When you’re ‘the guy’ in high school, you get most plays called for you and you get a ton of shots. Playing with the older guys, the pros, I learned how to play the right way – moving without the ball, making the extra pass, becoming a better defender and a lot of other stuff.”
Like Wright, many California-born players have been participating in the Drew League since they were in high school or college. These locals include Harden, George, DeRozan, Baron Davis, Paul Pierce, Trevor Ariza, Nick Young and Brandon Jennings among others. Some players – like JR Smith and Lou Williams – aren’t from the area, but they spend a large part of their offseasons in L.A. or own a summer home there.
How has the Drew League been able to attract such big names?
“It comes natural,” Smiley said. “We’ve had people like DeMar DeRozan or James Harden or Nick Young playing in the Drew since they were in high school and they vouch for it and tell their teammates, ‘Hey, when you get out here, you have to play on my team or at least check it out.’ The players themselves are often the ones making this happen. And the guys like James and DeMar, who have been coming here since they were 15 years old, they love it. They’re doing something they love, giving back to the community, and it’s something they look forward to every summer. That’s how I know we have something special – the fact that players keep coming back. If that continues, this could last another 40 years; you never know.”
“The L.A. basketball world is small, but when something happens here, it creates a jolt of excitement that travels throughout the world,” Athena said. “Now, imagine being at the heart of that jolt; that’s what a Drew League game can do. It starts off as rumors about who will be in town, which quickly spread. Fans from all over make their way to Los Angeles to get in line early in hopes of making it inside the gym before these big players make their debut. It’s an excitement that is unmatched because you witness things that can’t be seen anywhere else. You see the NBA players match-up, and you can watch high school players like Lonzo Ball play against NBA stars. There are so many interesting combinations that fans don’t get to see anywhere else. The best way to describe the atmosphere is just excitement – excitement for the experience and the possibility of meeting your favorite player.”
It certainly doesn’t seem like the Drew League is going anywhere, especially with All-Stars like Harden and DeRozan coming back to compete each summer.
Nearly every NBA player who spoke to HoopsHype said UCLA’s practice gym is home to the best pick-up games in the country. It’s where a teenage Kobe would make surprise appearances as he was honing his game after joining the Lakers. Last decade, pick-up games at UCLA would commonly feature players like Baron Davis, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Elton Brand, Ron Artest, Cuttino Mobley, Andre Miller and Danny Granger.
“When I was growing up, we played at UCLA every day,” Wright said. “There were three courts and it was booming. That’s when you had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Cuttino Mobley, Baron Davis and other legitimate pros in there every day. There were some overseas players and we’d sprinkle in the UCLA guys since we were using their gym, but the majority of the guys were NBA players.”
“You didn’t know who you’d see,” Dudley said of playing at UCLA when he was younger. “Derrick Rose would be there one day. Then you’d see Russell Westbrook the next day; he’s been playing there for years, before he hit his prime. You had NFL players like Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens playing pick-up with the NBA guys. You had Baron Davis. It was really cool.”
As Dudley mentioned, Westbrook has been playing there since the summer before his freshman season at UCLA – back when he was an overlooked recruit who wasn’t even on the NBA’s radar (as Fred Katz of CNHI Oklahoma broke down in this excellent article). Now, he’s the best player in the gym and everyone knows he takes these runs very seriously. One NBA player joked that the UCLA pick-up games often become “Russell vs. Everybody” given his intensity and knack for single-handedly taking over games. Just as Harden and Paul teamed up in the Drew League, Westbrook and Paul George (who are both from L.A.) played together at UCLA this summer in preparation for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season.
“Man, Russell and I went to the same high school; he was a freshman when I was a senior,” Wright said. “I was watching Russell before anyone knew who Russell was, so to see how he’s developed and the type of player he’s become is just so great. You always love to see someone from your backyard have that success. Russell used to practice with us, even though he was on the JV team because he was too small. But Russell has been playing the exact same way since he was a freshman in high school – he just got a little bit bigger and more athletic. It’s great to see where he is now.”
While the Drew League is organized and has even turned away some big-name NBA players since it’s a tournament and teams can’t add anyone once the playoffs begin, pick-up games at UCLA’s gym come together organically. There aren’t refs and there’s no room for spectators; when you walk in the gym, you’re stepping onto one of the three courts. It’s basically like a pick-up game you’d play in… except the guys in this gym are much bigger and typically have NBA experience on their résumé.
“The only thing I didn’t like about UCLA compared to Impact Basketball was the lack of refs,” Dudley said. “Guys would have to call their own fouls and you’d be there all day arguing over calls whereas at Impact, you have NBA or college refs and either the foul is called or it’s not and the game moves along. I think L.A. has the most talent, but when it comes to the combination of structure and talent, there’s nowhere better to train than Impact.”
There have been some star-studded pick-up games this offseason, but these organic, seemingly spontaneous runs at UCLA may go extinct in the future.
“I don’t think younger guys play pick-up as much anymore,” Wright said. “Now, I think good pick-up games can be hard to find. Guys are so locked in to working with a trainer and that’s all they do. I think that’s why a lot of these guys play like robots – they aren’t playing pick-up, they’re just doing their workout moves in a game. You can tell which guys play pick-up by the way they play in NBA games, just look at guys like KD and Jamal Crawford.”
Hopefully this isn’t the case, as these pick-up games are a great way for current NBA players to hone their game. It’s also great for the future of the NBA, as it allows up-and-coming phenoms to get better and face elite talent for the first time. Just as Westbrook, Harden, DeRozan and Wright used the Drew League and UCLA runs to develop when they were in high school, one of the kids playing alongside their favorite players in L.A. today could eventually take the torch and become an NBA star themselves.
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