Inside LA's Summer Pro-Am Hoops Institutions, the Drew League and Venice Beach

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Inside LA's Summer Pro-Am Hoops Institutions, the Drew League and Venice Beach
Cassy Athena/Drew League
Kevin Durant at the Drew League.

Dr. Luther Gulick's instructions were simple.

The superintendent of physical education at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, asked a young teacher from north of the border to devise a game that could keep students occupied during the winter, and to "make it fair for all players, and free of rough play." 

In December 1891, Dr. James Naismith came back to Gulick with a list of 13 rules for a game he called "Basket Ball."

The game has come a long way since then, to put it mildly. That first attempt at basketball featured 18 players (nine on each team) tossing a soccer ball into peach baskets in a chilly corner of the Commonwealth. Today, it's played worldwide and year-round, from beach-side playgrounds and inner-city gyms to massive sports cathedrals filled with thousands of screaming fans and outfitted with cameras to broadcast the sport to millions more.

You might say the San Antonio Spurs, in eviscerating the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, came about as close to achieving and embodying the highest ideals of Naismith's creation as possible.

Players of all shapes, sizes, skill sets and national origins came together in San Antonio, empowered to contribute to a cause greater than themselves. The ball moved mainly via the pass, with the dribbling serving more as a secondary mechanism. Sharing and shooting took precedent over individual displays of brute physical force. There  was equality of opportunity for every person pulled off the bench by Gregg Popovich, whose own coaching roots can be traced back to Dr. Naismith (h/t CBS Sports' Matt Moore).

But even the Spurs' excellence isn't accessible to all. San Antonio only plays between October and June, at the latest, and generally pulls its players from a pool of 400 or so of the world's best professionals. That excludes nearly a third of the calendar year, along with millions of participants at all levels, from high school and college to semi-pro and street.

Not to mention the countless others who can't afford the price of admission to an NBA arena.

There may be no single utopia that touches every conceivable demographic of this beautiful game, though scores of smaller, local enclaves on the summer circuit of professional-amateur (i.e., pro-am) leagues come close.

"To be able to play against those guys and mix everybody together in the pot and throw the names out the window and resume out the window and just go hoop, you know, I think that’s always fun in front of people," Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford told Bleacher Report. Crawford, a legend in Seattle, runs his own pro-am event in the Emerald City.

His roots, though, can be traced back to a place that ranks as arguably the premiere destination for this more egalitarian brand of basketball: Los Angeles.

 

Legends of the Hidden Temples

Venice Basketball League
Fans watch a high-flying dunk at the Venice Basketball League.

So many of the city's local legends can trace their roots back to South Central LA, a concrete jungle known widely for hardship from which a rose of hope first blossomed some four decades ago. In 1973 Alvin Wills, the basketball coach at Charles Drew Middle School, decided to start a summer league for the school's alumni who had since moved onto high school and college.

That consortium of six squads has since expanded into the Drew League, a 28-team staple of sports and life in Watts. The Drew, as it's known around town, now stands as a magnet of sorts, attracting people from all over to a community from which so many residents might prefer to flee. Per the Drew League's own website:

The Drew League’s goal was to help young people form meaningful relationships on the court that would spill over into the neighborhood, as well as build an institution that would bring top local high school, college, and pro players back to the community.

Among those who returned to the Drew over the years—and, in turn, burnished the league's reputation around town—were some of the biggest names in LA basketball lore. Freeman Williams, Florence Williams, Cole Waters, Dee Raymond and Casper Ware Sr. may not ring a bell to casual fans, but to those who know the roots of hoops in the City of Angels, there are none bigger.

Except, of course, for Raymond Lewis. Known to many as "Ray Lew," Lewis starred at Verbum Dei High and Cal State LA before taking his talents to the NBA after his sophomore season. The Philadelphia 76ers selected him in the first round (18th overall) of the 1973 draft—a prescient pick, given the comparisons made since between Lewis, a slim and fearless scoring guard, and Allen Iverson.

Nowadays, there's another All-Star whose game mirrors Lewis'.

"The closest thing I’ve seen to Raymond Lewis, honestly, but I don’t think he has the same handles, is Stephen Curry," Dino Smiley, the commissioner of the Drew League, told Bleacher Report. "The way the ball is shot and the distance that it’s shot at. Raymond was doing those kinds of shots—fadeaways, crossovers—all in one package, and all of his shots were mainly from the three-point line because everything he did was falling out of bounds. It was just a show. People came from all over to see him play. He was just unbelievable." 

For all of its talent, history and proximity to Hollywood, the Drew is only now getting the Tinseltown treatment, courtesy of Baron Davis, a Drew League disciple-turned-two-time NBA All-Star.

This, more than 20 years after White Men Can't Jump exposed the world to the wonders and quirks of basketball at Venice Beach. Among those galvanized by the Wesley Snipes-Woody Harrelson classic and its backdrop was Nick Ansom, a French hoops enthusiast who would create the Venice Basketball League (VBL) in 2006.

Both the film and the VBL owe their ancestry to Kenn Hicks, the so-called "Godfather of Street Ball." In 1981 Hicks, then a recent transplant from New York City, organized the first National Outdoor Basketball Championship on Venice Beach over Labor Day Weekend. The tournament ran for more than 20 years, earning Hicks a Certificate of Appreciation from the mayor of LA in 2008. 

The VBL has since taken its place, with a season that began on June 1 and runs through Aug. 17 this year.

 

Fame by Association

Cassy Athena/Drew League
Before he became an NBA All-Star, James Harden started out as a Drew League regular.

Hicks' creation also transformed the Venice Boardwalk into one of the premier venues for offseason basketball, not just in LA but in the nation. The foundation of Venice's popularity was laid by local legends—including Ron Beals, one of the progenitors of the jump shot—but, like the Drew League, the venue was ultimately elevated by the NBA veterans who would flock to its concrete courts. 

Last summer, Indiana Pacers point guard George Hill and former No. 1 overall pick Joe Smith were among the notables who took part in the VBL. 

The year before, Kobe Bryant packed the courts for the debut of his Kobe 8 System shoe.

Back in 2008, LeBron James followed up Team USA's gold-medal triumph at the Beijing Olympics with a game of H-O-R-S-E against trick-shot champion David Kalb...and lost.

The biggest names in basketball don't just come to LA in the summer for promotional purposes, though.

"For an NBA guy, you want to go where there’s the best competition in the summer," Baron Davis told Bleacher Report. "For the NBA guys, they’re looking for a good game, about as closely simulated game as you can get to an NBA game without it being somebody’s charity event or pickup game."

"Generally speaking, seeing NBA superstars and role players alike around town isn't all that surprising. In LA, obviously, a lot of people stay there in the summer," noted Crawford, "so you can see a (Kevin Durant) there or guys of that nature that come through and are in LA in the summer time."

Unless you're in South Central, whose hardened streets weren't (and still aren't) always so welcoming to the wealthy celebrities spawned from the Association. 

"It wasn’t like Kobe was coming down there," Davis said. "You know, it wasn’t that safe, you know what I mean? It wasn’t that safe where like a high-profile guy in the NBA could come down to the hood. They were trying to stay as far away from the hood as possible (laughs). So it wasn’t like these dudes wanted to show love to the hood.

"Back in the day, things weren’t as accessible as they are now. It was just a struggle in that, but I knew that I could play, so no matter what, I would go back, you know what I mean? I would always tell dudes about the Drew League."

Among those to whom Davis spread the gospel of the Drew was LeBron James. Davis' pitch? 

"'The hood would love to have you. The kids in the hood would love to see you, bro. You’re their hero.' That’s all I say...He didn’t even hesitate. He was telling me, 'All right, BD, all right. You don’t have to give me a sales pitch.' I was like, 'Bron, man, the kids in the hood!' He was like, 'You don’t have to tell me that! LA? In the neighborhood? I’m going.'"

And so, during the summer of 2011, Davis called upon James to serve as his injury replacement on Cheaters II, much to the surprise of everyone in the building—including Casper Ware Sr., the team's coach and a longtime fixture at the Drew League.

"About two minutes into the game, the crowd starts screaming and yelling," recalled Ware Sr. "I'm like, 'Why are they screaming and yelling? Nobody did anything in the game! Nothing happened.' Then LeBron James comes in through that door. I’m looking and I’m like, 'Wow!' So I gave him his jersey. He went back, got dressed up, came on out, and I was like, 'Big fella, let me know when you’re ready.'

"They called a timeout, and right before we put him in the game, he told us, 'Look, don’t worry about me, you continue playing the way you play. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be OK.' For someone that plays in the NBA, that’s one of the top players in the league, to tell them that, it was amazing. Both of my sons (including Casper Ware Jr., a recent D-League call-up) were on the team at the time, and they did well. They won the game, played well. LeBron gave a great effort. LeBron went up and down the court with your son? That’s one I won’t ever forget."

It wasn't one that Bryant would forget, either. 

"Kobe heard about that," Ware Sr. said. "I was saying, 'How could LeBron and Durant come in your town and play and you don’t even play?'"

There wasn't time or opportunity enough to fit the Black Mamba into the Drew League playoffs when Bryant first made inquiries with Dino Smiley. Instead, the league quickly organized an All-Star Game of sorts, one that pitted Bryant against LA native and then-Oklahoma City Thunder super-sub James Harden, among others.

"He and Harden were going at it, back and forth," Ware Sr. recounted. "It was to the point that it was tied up. And you know...Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, he had to have the ball at the last time. It was at the point where he had it, Kobe Bryant and Harden right up top. Five, four..."

It's no coincidence that James and Bryant made their respective Drew League debuts in 2011. That year's lockout left LeBron, Kobe and their NBA brethren without any official means of keeping themselves sharp or refining their games during the offseason.

For them, the Drew League provided a venue to do just that, in what Davis called "the best-ran summer league out there." For Davis, out of the labor strife was borne an opportunity to boost the Drew's profile nationwide. 

"I knew the Drew had arrived. When LeBron said he was going to come play, I was just like, 'Damn, dude, this is what it’s all about.' Because it’s not about me, you know what I mean? It’s like, we’ve got to continue to keep this thing going, and it has to evolve with the times. And when LeBron came, I think that just like took us to a whole ‘nother level."


Grassroots and 10-Foot Hoops

Drew League
Baron Davis suits up at the Drew League (Drew League)

As much as the lockout did for the Drew in that regard, the league wouldn't be where it is today without Davis' consummate advocacy.

He was first introduced to the Drew League at age 14, when Darrell Roper, his high school coach at Crossroads in Santa Monica, brought him down to a game in Davis' own neighborhood. He didn't expect to play but wound up on the court alongside adults when a shortage of players all but demanded his participation.

"I was watching it and it was just good basketball," Davis remembered. "It was good, grown-man basketball. They were running professional sets and things that I had seen on TV, so I was like 'Wow.' That was the first time I played, when I was 14, and then every year after that I would play in the Drew, and I realized, 'Wow, damn, I didn’t know.'

"It took me to go to Crossroads really to get to the Drew, and that’s eight blocks away. And that just goes to show you the demographics of LA and how eight blocks away is a totally different neighborhood, with different consequences, different risks, you know, but great people."

Still, many of his peers shied away from the Drew at first, if only because of its less-than-welcoming location. Davis, though, didn't quit. Year after year, he came back to his old stomping grounds, strutting his stuff and dragging the occasional NBA teammate along with him.

All the while, Davis, who dominated during his two-year stint at UCLA before jumping to the NBA in 1999, paid it forward to the young stars who would follow in his path. In essence, he used his own spectacular game to sow the seeds of the Drew's future.

"They were with me all the time, so when them dudes were in high school and college, like James (Harden) and Pooh Jeter and Trevor Ariza and guys like that, I would always have them at my workouts," Davis said. "We were already like brothers and I was just big bro who happened to have made it and was reaching back—you know, Brandon Jennings—reaching back to try to help them as much as possible, and a lot of other young kids who really needed it, who didn’t have all the talent that these guys had who really needed it and needed that push.

"We were already like a big group, and they would just come and watch me play because I guess I had a game that people loved watching, you know what I mean?"

Even so, he refused to take credit for the Drew's ascension—despite the best efforts of others to confer it upon him. 

"He’s brought it to where he’s shown that even though you’re in the NBA and you’re making millions, you need to come and play in your home league, and that’s what he’s done," Smiley said. "I think he’s been vital. We used to call him the face of the league, and he’s been that. I think, with him, he has enhanced our popularity greatly."

The VBL doesn't have a Baron Davis, a product of its system who has gone on to bigger and better things and brought the fruits of his success to bear on his roots. Frankly, the VBL hasn't exactly been around long enough to cultivate its own superstar; this summer marks its ninth season.

And just the sixth for the Kids Venice Basketball League. In time, though, the KVBL could be the avenue through which Venice's summer league stumbles upon its own "face."

 

The Other Guys

That being said, the intent of the KVBL isn't necessarily to serve as "Venice's Got Talent." Rather, it's a means of enriching the children of the surrounding community, while the VBL enriches the lives—and, potentially, the bank accounts—of some of the lesser-known players who pass through its courts.

Take Christian "The Dragon" Young, a part-time teacher, actor and VBL regular who's used the summer pro-am as a springboard to opportunities in professional leagues around the world.

Or Brandon "The Mute" Fields, who has split time between the VBL and the Drew in the summers while enjoying stints in Central America, North Africa, Europe and Asia during the rest of the year.

The Drew, in particular, has been a hotbed for streetballers looking to make some scratch off their jaw-dropping skills. Some of the biggest names from the old And1 Mixtape Tour—including Syk Wit It, the Bone Collector, Bad Santa and Jerry Springer—got their respective starts in South Central.

"A lot of scouts are there, overseas—Japan, Italy, France, Mexico—everybody’s there," Smiley said. "There’s a lot of scouts, so it gives you a ground to prove yourself against high-caliber competition and get a chance to play overseas."  

Indeed, those scouts are vitally important to the players who are hoping to parlay their participation into paychecks. But it's the chance to compete against some of the best ballers in the world, particularly those hailing from the NBA, that attracts Young, Fields and their ilk to LA's summer runs.

"I think for the overseas guys, it’s an opportunity to establish yourself against professional talent and to prove that you belong there, as you see in a bunch of cases where NBA guys come down to the Drew and they get their lunch handed to them because they half-step it, and these dudes in the Drew are hungry," added Davis. "They’re professionals, too. For them and for the NBA guys, it’s a great place to get your skills sharp."

That intermingling of players from different levels of the game, then, gives rise to a sort of basketball symbiosis. The NBA guys get the reps they need, and everyone else gets the exposure to scouts and other talent evaluators that they so desire.

"Basketball is a beautiful thing," Davis said. "It brings people together. It brings people from all walks of life and all different backgrounds together."

 

For Everyone 

Cassy Athena/Drew League
Fans line up to watch the Drew League.

Davis' words apply not only to the players battling for eyeballs but also to the fans who flock to Venice Beach and King-Drew Magnet High to watch them play on those steamy summer weekends. In truth, basketball can be and often is a unifying force for a community, at once comprising and reflecting the collective culture and personality of its constituents.

To that end, the VBL is, in some ways, a creature of the quirkiness that defines the very boardwalk that it calls home.

Tourists, residents and local visitors alike frequent the arena court that Nick Ansom and his associates oversee on summer weekends. Some of the eccentricities of the boardwalk spill onto the court, where the league's commissioner can be found getting a shave and a man wearing a basketball skin on his head cheers with the crowd.

You won't find quite the same characters at the Drew League or catch out-of-towners flocking to Watts to watch basketball. What you will find there, though—just as you would at the VBL—are raucous crowds replete with folks from the neighborhood, many of whom wouldn't otherwise have the means or the opportunity to see in person the game being played at a high level by professionals of all ranks. The quality of their seats is based not by the prices paid for tickets but rather on how eager they are to get there early.

"For the young kids coming from the inner city, it’s when can you go to an NBA game? When can your family afford an NBA ticket?" Davis noted. "So it’s an opportunity for them to get as close as they possibly can to their future."

That's why play is suspended so LeBron James can suit up in South Central. That's why Kobe Bryant is greeted like the Beatles at JFK Airport when he limps to his courtside seat in the King-Drew gym.

Crawford added, "To be able to bring in a Blake Griffin or a Kevin Durant or a Kyrie Irving...allows these kids who’ve only seen these guys on SportsCenter on TV, watching games or in video games. To see them in person for free I think is like a dream come true, so to be able to bring that to them at this particular time is very special.”

Summer pro-ams like the Drew and the VBL bring everyone—players, fans and casual observers alike—closer to the game than even the NBA could. They are some of basketball's most important democratizing forces, imbuing the sport with a Lincolnian sense of hoops of the people, by the people and for the people. Like the city and country in which they operate, the Drew League and the VBL.

That's not so different from the idea that sparked basketball's inception. "Make it fair for all players," Dr. Naismith was instructed. What he came up with was a game that, at least in the summer, is fair for all people.

 

Find me at the beach, at the Drew or on Twitter!

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