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Compton's Basketball 'Brotherhood'

How the homegrown AAU Magic went from 'broke as f--k' to NBA stepping stone without losing sight of their original purpose.
photo of Eric YeboahEric YeboahContributor IFebruary 9, 2021

Super Crip was there before the 90,000 Instagram followers. Before the endorsement deals. Before the AAU national championship. Before the NBA lottery picks. Before Compton Magic players felt the target on their backs every time they walked into a gym. 

Back then, they were the Compton High School team that just happened to play travel basketball. 

"We didn't even have no shoe deal," says Super Crip, aka David Hamilton. “They used to give us some Reeboks and a couple sweatsuits. We was broke as f--k."

In the last four years, the Magic have sent five players to the NBA draft, and they figure to send a few more over the next two years. Last year, the program saw its highest-profile player ever, Onyeka Okongwu, go No. 6 overall to the Atlanta Hawks. 

“The Compton Magic is the best way to get exposure if you're on the West Coast,” says Okongwu. “You build a brotherhood on and off the court.” 

Okongwu’s rise in the eyes of draft scouts everywhere can be partly credited to the 2018 Compton Magic team. The group swept its way to a national championship, going 46-2 with a group of kids who were homegrown and developed within the program: Okongwu, Evan Mobley, Johnny Juzang and Isaiah Mobley.

It’s hard to fathom now, but the program’s success came from humble beginnings.

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‘We Were S--t’

The Compton Magic’s rise was a “slow grind” to prominence, in the words of the program’s top executive, 51-year-old Etop Udo-Ema. 

"We started as a mud program,” says Udo-Ema. “Like we were s--t. No one gave a f--k about what Compton Magic was until 2008."

In 1993, Udo-Ema joined his UC Irvine college roommate and current UCLA men's assistant coach Rod Palmer at Compton High School as an assistant. The two coaches took note of national powerhouse Dominguez High School down the street, which took full advantage of the talent pool in Compton. They saw an opportunity to do the same. 

Dominguez implemented a system in which its team played together in both the spring and summer so it could create chemistry. Rod and Etop simply didn't want to lose the kids in the summer. They wanted to keep them out of harm's way.

“We were just tryna keep our kids off the street,” Udo-Ema says.

Udo-Ema kept his day job working in the financial sector to help supplement the program's needs. They would raise funds through basketball tournaments for team travel. He considers the small partnership with Reebok in 1997 as the moment he thought they may be on to something special. In 2001, they found another level of financial backing through a sponsorship deal from Adidas. 

Udo-Ema would run the Magic in the spring and summer while Palmer focused on Compton High. The division of labor worked. 

That’s when they began to snag local star talent like Tito Maddox, Jeff Trepagnier and David Hamilton. During Trepagnier's and Hamilton's time at the school, they started a traveling team to better develop players.

The 2008 team—led by players such as Roberto Nelson, Joe Burton and Justin Hawkins—was the first to make a statement on the national scene thanks to steady growth from a core of players. The Magic earned a Top Three national ranking and proved why with a win over an Atlanta Celtics team that featured Derrick Favors in the Adidas Super 64 17U Final Four. 

 

‘That’s the reason why you do this s--t’

In summer of 2015, Chino Hills assistant coach Darren Moore spoke to Okongwu about joining the Compton Magic his freshman year of high school. Moore knows Etop well and thought the freshman would grow and flourish in the program.  

Moore told him: “There’s this dude named Etop on the Compton Magic. Here is his number, holler at him.” 

Okongwu contacted Etop in the middle of his freshman season, and Etop attended one of his games. Etop paid a visit to Okongwu’s home to speak with his mother, Kate, about her son joining his program.

“He was telling me it [the Compton Magic] was a family. He was telling my mom that I would be taken care of. I was in good hands. And the Magic family, once you're part of it, you're a part of it for life.”

The then-19-year old wanted to show love to the man who welcomed him into his program when he was that ninth grader just scratching the surface. 

In late November, the Atlanta Hawks selected Okongwu with the sixth pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Okongwu, Zooming in live from Udo-Ema’s house, cried after Commissioner Adam Silver called his name, with Udo-Ema right there to embrace his player, alongside Okongwu's mother and siblings. 

Onyeka Okongwu, bottom right, reacts to news of going No. 6 overall in the 2020 draft, with his Compton Magic jersey hanging on the wall behind him and coach Etop Udo-Ema over his shoulder.
Onyeka Okongwu, bottom right, reacts to news of going No. 6 overall in the 2020 draft, with his Compton Magic jersey hanging on the wall behind him and coach Etop Udo-Ema over his shoulder.courtesy of the Compton Magic

“You sit back and go like, ‘That's the reason why you do this s--t',” says Udo-Ema. “A kid who had nothing and now he's about to have a little bit of something.”

 

‘I can't take Jalen Green’

Udo-Ema now regularly entertains offers for top-20 ranked players to join his program. 

The Compton Magic will in all likelihood send two players to the draft lottery in consecutive years. Potential 2021 top-three pick Evan Mobley is averaging 16.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game for USC. The latest mock draft by B/R’s Jonathan Wasserman projects Mobley as the No. 2 pick. 

Highly touted draft prospects such as Kijani Wright (ranked ninth by 247Sports in the class of 2022 and Dylan Andrews (ranked fifth in the state of California) will continue the pipeline. 

Although Mikey Williams now plays in North Carolina, he made his Compton Magic debut in 2019 as a freshman and is the second-ranked high school prospect in the 2023 class on 247Sports

Mikey Williams made his Compton Magic debut in 2019 as a freshman and is the second-ranked high school prospect in the 2023 class.
Mikey Williams made his Compton Magic debut in 2019 as a freshman and is the second-ranked high school prospect in the 2023 class.courtesy of Compton Magic

The Magic have “good problems.” If someone like 2021 projected lottery pick Jalen Green wanted to suit up for the Magic as a junior in high school, Udo-Ema says he would have politely declined.  

I don't care who the player is; I don't care if he's a pro, I don't care if he's going to Duke," says Udo-Ema. “I don't care where he's going or what. If it doesn't fit my mix, I'm not taking him.

I can't take Jalen Green. If Jalen Green wanted to come, I wouldn't take him. I love Jalen, but if I were to have had him early, that's different. But I can't add him onto my team as a junior. 

Social media has also complicated Udo-Ema’s job to maintain the integrity and fabric of Compton’s longstanding, all-for-one, one-for-all tradition. He’s witnessed firsthand the good and the bad of social media presence in the amateur basketball scene. 

"The difference now is that you have a bunch of parents—like the eighth or ninth guy on your team's parent—thinks he should be number two or number three because of social media, got their heads blown up,” Udo-Ema says. 

“Dealing with that is the hardest part about the transition from pre-social media age to social media age, where kids can all check on other kids' stats and other kids' offers, other kids' accolades and all these different things. Remember back then, you couldn't do that unless someone wrote about you.

To create a nest where future stars want to stay is tough business in the modern AAU world. Many programs see their rosters turn over dramatically in one summer. But the Magic have a strong track record of keeping players locked and committed to the program at a young age. 

Players like Mobley, Gabe York and UCLA's Johnny Juzang never wore another AAU uniform. Former UCLA point guard Jaylen Hands committed to the program in the ninth grade, as did fellow Bruin alum T.J. Leaf in the sixth grade.

York was approached by other programs like the Atlanta Celtics, Dream Vision and the Oakland Soldiers, but the fit and trust never felt right. Okongwu played with another program for a short stint before starting high school but wouldn’t look elsewhere after joining the Magic.

‘That’s My Friend

The model is simple but increasingly rare: developing handpicked players vs. the revolving-door reality where teams insert high-profile names whenever convenient. 

Equal treatment is spread throughout the Compton program no matter the status. Compton Magic coaches ask their phenoms to play unselfishly, despite camera phones and college scouts eager to see signs of stardom. 

Everybody's going to get the same amount of motherf--kin' shoes,” says Super Crip. “Everybody gonna get the same clothes.

When you talk with former Magic players, they talk fondly about the bond. The moments off the court. They felt they were treated like sons first and foremost. 

I used to stay a whole summer with Etop in Corona, California,” says former Compton Magic and Baylor standout Isaiah Austin. “Me and another player would share a room at Etop's crib.”

Austin was one of the first big-time nationally known prospects the Magic had starting in 2010. He would blossom into a 5-star prospect and the fifth-ranked player in the country, according to 247Sports

Despite all that, he knew his stature and popularity could also help shine the spotlight on a teammate in need.

He [Etop] would play other kids over me at some tournaments, and I wouldn't care,” says Austin. “Because I knew, that's my friend. He wants to go to college and get offers just like I do. 

Before he caught the attention of NBA scouts at Baylor, Isaiah Austin happily deflected attention while playing for the Compton Magic.
Before he caught the attention of NBA scouts at Baylor, Isaiah Austin happily deflected attention while playing for the Compton Magic.Eric Gay/Associated Press

I was No. 1 in the country. No. 2, 3 in the country. Etop used the elite players that he had to get exposure for some of the players that wouldn't have got that much exposure.

I just knew it was a big family, says Austin. 

Etop recognizes and appreciates the family-like environment that has been built and sustained all these years. He understands the impact and everlasting bond that it creates. 

“All those kids have lived in my house. It's gonna be a different level of relationship,” Udo-Ema says. 

But he also is quick to point to the resources, activities and outings that make being on the Magic so special.

“We do stuff like go to Cabo every year. We take the senior kids and their families to Cabo. We're not playing any basketball. We're just going there and bonding,” Udo-Ema says.

They also require players to participate in feeding the homeless, diaper drives and distributing books to elementary schools in the Compton School District...once the five-month season concludes in August. Whenever the Magic travel to Atlanta for a tournament, they will always schedule time to visit Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic site, Ebenezer Baptist Church and his home. 

Players like York sensed the level of unselfishness in himself and his teammates.

We did treat each other with the utmost respect,” says York. “It didn't matter who you were. It didn't matter what your name was. If you wore that Compton Magic across your chest, you were a part of the family, and at that point, you're going to go to war for your family. You're going to almost die for your family.

“When we saw one person doing great, it was joy. It wasn't like 'Oh, damn, now I need to go shoot my five shots in a row because he has 30 and I need to catch up to him.' It was just more us clapping, joking and having a great time. And I'm sure there's pictures and video of all that during every game. There wasn't one game that all of us weren't hyped for each other. We were so close that it didn't matter.”

 

‘It Shines a Light on the City of Compton’

You probably have an idea what would surface if you searched “Compton” on YouTube right now. Features about “streets,” “ghettos” and “gangs” populate to the top of searches with a song by rapper Kendrick Lamar and a clip from the movie Straight Outta Compton sprinkled in the mix. No shock there; that's how Compton has been presented to the rest of the world. 

“And it lets people know that it ain't all just on the news,” says Super Crip. “You got good kids out there getting scholarships. You got gentlemen out here that's still in the community, 20 years later.”

The Compton Magic are an example of the legacies that are built in Compton. From 1990 to 2005, every single player on their roster was from Compton. Even if you leave Compton, nobody really leaves. All these years and they’ve still kept an office on Compton Boulevard. 

The Compton Magic has flourished and became what it is today because it shines a light on the city of Compton,” says Super Crip. 

It’s a Saturday summer afternoon in L.A., and Etop Udo-Ema has gathered decades of alumni together for one message. He’s decided to organize an event, The Magic Bubble, centered around racial injustices in America. As you look around, the gym banners with “Equality,” “Peace,” “Justice” and “Change” hang from the ceilings.

The Magic's alumni have ventured into different professional careers. David Hamilton has relocated to Georgia, but he made time for The Magic Bubble. He always makes time for Compton. 

Compton Magic alumni pose with program director Etop Udo-Ema during the program's Magic Bubble event this past summer.
Compton Magic alumni pose with program director Etop Udo-Ema during the program's Magic Bubble event this past summer.courtesy of the Compton Magic

Beside Udo-Ema are two cops, Sterling Byrd and Genesis Maciel, who played for the Magic in their day. In front of him are Okongwu, Mobley, Williams, Isa Silva, Allen Crabbe and York. 

The players would later play a few scheduled games. They hustled up and down the court with "Taylor," "Arbery" and "Floyd" on the backs of their jerseys to honor the lives of those killed by the hands of police and the lives of those the police failed to protect.

“It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of that, to witness what it has become," says Hamilton. 

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