Behind the Scenes in L.A., the Wide-Ranging Summer World for NBA Players

Jared Zwerling@JaredZwerlingNBA Senior WriterSeptember 18, 2015

Jared Zwerling

Magic Johnson's arrival in 1979 signifies, to many, the birth of the modern NBA, when the league left its financial and off-court struggles behind to become the multibillion-dollar enterprise it is today. It seems appropriate, in that light, that Johnson also helped make his then-new hometown, Los Angeles, the epicenter for the NBA's offseason.

While Johnson was at the beginning of NBA superstardom, Kiki Vandeweghe was the main attraction at UCLA. And with the help of a former Lakers ball boy named Adam Mills, a teenager living across the street from the UCLA campus who frequented the Bruins' basketball gym to rebound for the players, the three made UCLA the place to be in the summer for the best NBA pickup games, especially through the 1980s.

Johnson invited his Lakers teammates and NBA friends, Vandeweghe rounded up his Bruins buddies, and Mills organized the runs while arranging access for NBA coaches and general managers. It was the start of L.A.'s evolution into the most popular basketball, business and entertainment landscape for NBA players in the offseason.

"On one team, you had guys like Magic, [Michael] Cooper, Mike McGee, Larry Spriggs, [James] Worthy and A.C. [Green]," Mills said. "Then you had guys like [Reggie] Theus, World B. Free, [Clyde] Drexler and [Jerome] Kersey on another team. I'd have six teams and I'd have two teams sitting out. It got really competitive if you had to sit out, so it got tougher. You would have Kurt Rambis and Mitch [Kupchak] going at it, and they would leave with scratches on their necks and their shorts torn. It was just a really old-school battle."

Kupchak remembers how much Johnson refused to back down.

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"He never lost a game," the Lakers general manager said. "One, he's a great player; two, he's a great competitor and he just wouldn't get off the court—he called a foul on almost every play. And if you did lose, you'd have to sit for half an hour."

At the time in L.A., there was also the Summer Pro League, which started in 1969 as an outlet for NBA teams to work out new players. But it wasn't until the UCLA pickup games that NBA stars traveled consistently to L.A. every summer. And Johnson was the key facilitator.

"Back then in the early 1980s, [players] were still in the mindset that you'd come to training camp to get into shape," said Lon Rosen, Johnson's longtime agent. "Magic wanted to be in shape, and a number of the guys followed his footsteps. Players from all over the league would come to play, and it was their summer training camp."

Inside one of the older UCLA pickup games with Jim Farmer (shirtless), Shaquille O'Neal (middle) and Sedale Threatt (right).
Inside one of the older UCLA pickup games with Jim Farmer (shirtless), Shaquille O'Neal (middle) and Sedale Threatt (right).Courtesy of Adam Mills

The Evolution of Summer Hoops

Now, Mills said, he's "fighting to get guys to play" at UCLA. But that isn't because L.A. has lost its luster with NBA players. On the contrary, the city has become a crossroads—not only featuring a diverse pickup game and training environment, but also one rich with business and entertainment opportunities for players. At the root of that attraction is L.A.'s lifestyle, beaches, weather and women and the city's close proximity to Hawaii for vacations and Las Vegas for weekend getaways and the NBA Summer League.

"Everybody wants to come here in the summertime," DeAndre Jordan said.

Matt Barnes provided a specific number: "Probably like 60 percent, 70 percent of the NBA is here. It just continues to grow for the simple fact: Who doesn't want to be in L.A.?"

Mills added, "It's a totally different world in L.A. as far as summer basketball and training. There are so many independent trainers now, too, which is crazy. I heard [former NBA player] Olden Polynice is training people. In the last five years I've seen a huge change in the athlete mentality as far as playing so much like gym rats. Now, some days I have an empty gym. I would probably say four years ago it started to get difficult. The Clippers' [practice center that opened in 2008] got more popular around then."

Indeed, when you talk about the best pickup games in L.A. these days, the Clippers' facility tops the list. "They changed the game," former NBA star and L.A. fixture Baron Davis said. "It's the top run." It became the talk of the town in 2011 during the NBA lockout, with Chris Paul leading the charge and players getting access to the $50 million center's amenities, including an extensive hydrotherapy area and state-of-the-art cardiovascular and weight training equipment.

"The facility is real nice—breakfast, cold pool, hot tub, you can get taped, Gatorade machine, everything," said former NBA player Bobby Brown. "Why not play pickup in an NBA practice gym against NBA players?"

In the past, superstars such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving have played in the closed-door runs that go from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays, sometimes with two courts of games at the same time. Before the opening tip, the gym is occupied for Paul, who usually works out at 7 a.m., and Blake Griffin, who comes in at 10 a.m. Once the runs start, they're so private that reporters and player reps aren't allowed inside to watch.

Even Jay Z, who owns Roc Nation Sports, had to get special clearance once.

This summer, James Harden stopped by to play, as well as non-Clippers Trevor Ariza, Jordan Clarkson, DeMar DeRozan, Victor Oladipo, Julius Randle and Jonas Valanciunas. They all needed to sign a liability waiver before taking the court, which the Lakers also do for pickup games at their facility. Sometimes, other teams, such as the Raptors this summer and the Thunder in the past, take over the Clippers' center for private player development.

For fans, there are NBA runs at Nike Air West, Santa Monica College and the Westwood Recreation Center. But the most entertaining, and public, games in L.A. are at the Drew League, which was founded in 1973 and has become arguably the pre-eminent summer basketball league in the world. It's such a draw that for a 3 p.m. game, fans start lining up outside King Drew Medical Magnet High School at 9 a.m. to be among the 1,000 inside. That's why longtime commissioner Dino Smiley plans to move the playoffs next year to a local junior college.

"I tell people, 'You get to see an old veteran, a McDonald's All-American, an NBA All-Star and a street legend on the floor together,'" Smiley said. "The Drew League is now on the tongue of everybody. All the pros want to come here and grace the floor."

Davis added, "After the NBA title, the Drew is the next best coveted trophy."

This summer's NBA participants included Harden and Jerome Jordan (whose team, LAUNFD, won the championship), Nick Young and DeMar DeRozan (whose team, Most Hated Players, was the runner-up), Andre Drummond, Stanley Johnson and Klay Thompson. During the title game in August, Ariza, Clarkson, Durant and Paul Pierce cheered on courtside.

"It's incredible how big it's evolved on the national scale," DeRozan said. "Some of the greatest players to ever play the game came and played at the Drew—Kobe, LeBron, Kevin Durant. So many guys have wanted to be a part of it, and it's just a great feeling."

Davis recalled how gangs divided people, including his own teammates, when he was growing up in L.A. He credited the league for being "a peace mechanism," adding the tournament represents "unity and camaraderie" among NBA players.

"We all hang out with each other; we're in business with each other, like me and Trevor, DeMar, James [Harden], Pooh Jeter and Dorell Wright," Davis said. "Trevor's got a few Buffalo Wild Wings [franchises], Pooh just opened up a sneaker store and we have all been collectively looking at property in L.A. I just think it sets a hell of an example of what we can do as athletes, and what we can do if we localize ourselves and unify ourselves. We want to make a change and an impact here in our community in L.A."

Inside the Training Industry

When it comes to the NBA summer scene in L.A., nothing is more expansive than the training world.

For starters, the area offers a variety of environments, from the UCLA track to Runyon Canyon (where the Heat ran in August) to Sand Dune Park at Manhattan Beach (where Chase Budinger, Richard Jefferson, Steve Nash and J.J. Redick played in a volleyball tournament) to Venice Beach (where Thompson spent the summer biking, surfing and skateboarding).

Also, the city sees some of the most sought-after trainers in hoops set up shop in town for the offseason: fitness instructor Gunnar Peterson, skills coaches Drew Hanlen, Rob McClanaghan and Idan Ravin, shooting specialist Mike Penberthy and ball-handling expert Johnny Stephene.

"L.A. is a really good place to learn because everyone is out here and you can do competitive stuff," said Hanlen, who worked with Clarkson, Bradley Beal, Anthony Bennett, Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins in L.A. this summer. "There are just so many opportunities to do other things as far as hills, boxing and beach workouts to break away from routine. And it's a great place to hang out and relax, and get rid of stress during the season."

Peterson is arguably the most renowned personal trainer in L.A. In addition to working with hundreds of different athletes (including Carmelo Anthony, Roy Hibbert, Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo and John Wall), he consults with A-list celebrities and actors to prepare them for movie roles.

He wakes up every weekday morning at 3:45 a.m. to begin his workouts before his first client arrives at around 6 a.m. His first NBA player was Kurt Rambis in 1994, and since then he's added Lakers, Clippers and dozens of other All-Star-signed framed jerseys from his clients all around his gym walls, even on the ceiling. His specialization is basketball-specific exercises that mimic movements on the court.

Hibbert started working with Peterson during this year's All-Star Weekend, and he was so impressed that he bought a house just two blocks from the trainer's gym entering the summer before he was traded to the Lakers.

"He was my first NBA guy in this summer, and he never missed a workout," Peterson said. "He dropped a ton of body fat, he got stronger, his movement improved—his head is right."

While NBA training takes place throughout L.A. at different colleges and high schools, the most unique setting is at a private residence up on a hill with no cellphone service in Bel Air, where its owner has built a replica of the Staples Center. Not only does it feature a regulation-sized NBA court with the Lakers' on-court design, but there are also retired team jerseys and championship banners hanging on the walls. The detail even extends to actual courtside seats like the ones at Staples.

Though some NBA teams practice there during the season, Hanlen and McClanaghan are granted special access inside once the summer starts. On a particular day in early August, Wall pulled up in his silver Range Rover, with Courtney Lee and Terrence Jones arriving soon after—their agents joined them—to see skills coach McClanaghan, who works out multiple players daily for about seven straight hours at the house. Right after the first group was done, Derrick Rose showed up for a solo workout in his Cadillac Escalade with an entourage of friends in other cars.

McClanaghan, who's been coming to L.A. since 2008, reflected on his most memorable training session, which happened last summer.

"I had Love, Durant and Melo for a week, and that was pretty amazing," he said. "To have guys like that, it's cool because one guy might be tired, but the other two will pick him up. So it's a competition almost within the workout, like, 'You've made three in a row? Oh, OK. I'll make three in a row.' They won't say that, but you can tell they're competing within the workout. That was a great group."

Business and Entertainment

Los Angeles also caters to players' many interests off the court. Some conduct summer camps, such as Jrue Holiday. Some shoot commercials (LeBron James and Andrew Wiggins this summer), and others meet with their agencies—many are based in L.A., as well as production studios—to discuss new deals for the upcoming season.

This past July, Durant had a two-day brand summit in Santa Monica, where all of his endorsement companies—including 2K Sports, Nike, Panini America, Sonic Drive-In and Sprint—outlined their plans for him this season. The 2014 MVP, who makes L.A. his summer home in Hollywood Hills, also worked out in town with new Thunder coaches Billy Donovan and Monty Williams, as well as the team's shooting specialist, Adam Harrington.

Players also engage in post-career development in L.A., especially those with an eye toward the Hollywood scene. Some attend acting programs, such as Lee, Corey Brewer, Larry Sanders and Amar'e Stoudemire, who appeared in Trainwreck. Others film cameo appearances, as Chris Bosh did this summer in the TV shows Rosewood and Hot & Bothered.

Amar'e Stoudemire utilized the skills he learned in a Los Angeles acting school in this summer's comedy <i>Trainwreck</i>.
Amar'e Stoudemire utilized the skills he learned in a Los Angeles acting school in this summer's comedy <i>Trainwreck</i>.Evan Agostini/Associated Press

"There's a ton of stuff that these guys can immerse themselves in and contacts they can make, so that there's life after basketball," Peterson said. "When they come out here, some of those guys go and do internships or they sit in on production company meetings. I think is great because they are going to get hit up to fund X, Y and Z project, and if they know a little more about it, if they had some courtside seats to those deals, that's going to serve them down the line."

That isn't to say work fills all the time. After all, plenty of clubs and restaurants are willing to help an NBA player dispose of some of his income. 1 Oak, Katana, Mastro's, Warwick and XIV Sessions are just a few of the regular haunts for players in the summer months.

"Everybody always tries to get you free drinks and s--t, but I ain't much of a drinker," Davis says, smiling. "Last time, the fellas got together at the Ivy At The Shore in Santa Monica. They treated us well, gave us a little discount."

Wall's downtime consists of comedy shows and bowling, which he did about three times per week in L.A., improving his scoring average to 170.

"L.A. is great; we all hang out," he said. "I'm cool with a lot of guys like DeMar DeRozan and Paul George. Those guys live out here, so I'm always around them, kicking it, having a good time. So L.A. is easy for me and it's fun."

A typical August night at the exclusive Hyde Sunset Kitchen + Cocktails finds Lee, Clarkson, Taj Gibson and DeAndre Jordan all at separate tables with friends. Generally, players spend around $2,500 on average for bottle service, according to Frankie Delgado, a partner at Hyde and another club, Greystone Manor.

"I look forward to the summers because this is when you've got a bunch of the NBA players, European soccer players, NFL players and the hockey players, so it's like the biggest event for everyone," Delgado said. "All the athletes really do make a difference in the economy of the nightlife, that's for sure."

The time on the West Coast also makes a difference in the connections players make with one another. With the hectic, and long, NBA schedule, players hardly have time to catch up during games. They're on the plane at midnight afterward and checking into their new city's hotel in the wee hours of the morning.

"L.A. is huge because a lot of times things get really competitive or fierce during the season, and then you see someone in the summertime and it's all good," Barnes said. "So it's a good chance for everyone to catch up and really get to know somebody, because most of the time we don't during the season. We only play against them for two hours a night. In L.A., you get the real bond, you get to know the real him."

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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