The National Basketball Association is America’s sole professional basketball league. There hasn’t been a viable professional competitor since the American Basketball Association (ABA) merged with the NBA in ‘76. Other basketball leagues like the Continental Basketball Association come, go – thanks Isiah Thomas! – and may eventually be resurrected but don’t really impact the NBA’s bottom line or grab media headlines. The National Basketball Developmental League (NBDL) and Vegas Summer League serve as the NBA’s minor league affiliate and summer camp, respectively. There is little interesting to say about the CBA, NBDL or Summer League. But the Drew League is a different story; a fascinating basketball association that little is known of and few have witnessed in person. James Harden doesn’t ball in Vegas Summer League. He does suit up for the Money Gang in the Drew League though. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant don’t grace the hardwood in Vegas to prep for the upcoming season. All have donned various Drew League jerseys at some point in their professional careers though.
The Drew League is not a multi-city, semi-pro league broadcast on an obscure cable channel. It isn’t a traveling team like the Harlem Globetrotters, entertaining fans with behind-the-back passes and silly tricks. It’s a Los Angeles based basketball league that runs the course of the summer. The league’s rosters are a mix of matured talented amateurs, aspiring young players and real NBA talent. It’s this odd mix of ball players plus a unique history and up-tempo style that make the Drew League so intriguing.
The Drew League’s home court, located at King-Drew Magnet High School in South Central LA, was built to hold 900 fans – it often burgeons to more than 1500 when the Drew League’s NBA stars are in the house. A league that started 40 years ago as a way to promote teamwork and sportsmanship among urban youth has grown into pro-am basketball at its best. In 1973, it wasn’t even a 900 person capacity high school gymnasium. Games were played in a junior high that held no more than a couple hundred spectators. What once was just another destination for mid-level basketball lovers to play turned into a spectacle as soon as the basketball elite trickled into the gym.
Twenty-eight invitation only teams make up the Drew League. Funky names like Money Gang, Problems and Roley Boyz mix with uninteresting monikers like Jaguars and Kings of LA to fill the ranks of the two fourteen team divisions. An eleven game season is played from mid-May through early August. The regular season battles in this clean, bright high school gym result in a sixteen team, two division – Alvin Willis Division and Sam Sullivan Division – playoff. It is the most competitive amateur summer league in existence. The talent is top-notch and the intensity is high, making it a hotspot for locals who crave organized basketball with a street flair. Its structure and cool factor make it a league that NBA talent is willing to play in. And have they…
The 2011 NBA lockout grew the list of professional basketball players that have graced the hardwood of the Drew League. Before the most recent lockout, it wasn’t a surprise to see a Southern California born-and-bred NBA star visit and play a few games at King-Drew Magnet High School. But, with teams’ practice facilities closed to players, NBA athletes from around the country turned to the Drew League to fulfill that need, a win-win if there ever was one. Lakers superstar, Kobe Bryant yearned for competition, joining a rotation of NBA players that, at one time or another, donned Drew League jerseys. The likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Paul Pierce and James Harden have also entered the gym at one time or another. James, a surprise one-game addition to the Cheaters II team in 2011, dropped 33 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists on LAUNFD (LA Unified) and took time to encourage local players like Casper Ware throughout the game. Other stars – anyone from JaVale McGee and Brandon Jennings to Andre Miller and John Wall – have found their way into the Drew Leauge, challenging one another and exciting urban Los Angeles youth. Basketball pros have taken time to teach up-and-coming amateurs and street ballers on the fine points of basketball. Baron Davis, a Drew League recruiter of sorts, helps bring in top stars like the aforementioned King James and hypes the league to inner basketball circles. The Drew League was started to give back to the youth of LA. Sponsors like Nike sign up because of stars like James and Durant, allowing league administrators to do more for the greater good.
With the NBA season ready to begin, the Drew League enters its quiet season, its off-season. But come next summer, there’s no telling who will walk through those gym doors and suit up for a Drew League team, a league few know about and even fewer talk about.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com