September 5, 2011

Life Without the NBA

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The NBA lockout has made this summer depressing for all basketball fans. The players themselves believe this lockout may last the whole season as there has been talk of stars such as Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant playing in Europe, while some established players have already made the jump, including Wilson Chandler to China and Deron Williams to Turkey. To make matters worse, any news about discussions between the players and owners has either been negative or nonexistent — the two sides have met twice since the lockout began on July 1.

However, there has been one silver lining to this gloomy summer — the influx of NBA-level talent to several summer leagues across the country. Just because there is no planned training camp or preseason does not mean that NBA players have stopped playing basketball. Several players have retreated to their hometowns to play in high-level summer leagues, including the Drew League in Los Angeles, Calif. the Goodman League in Washington, D.C. and Rucker Park in Harlem, N.Y.

Despite the star power, these leagues would never be confused with the NBA. The web page for the Drew League looks more like a high school web design project than an official site. In the Goodman League, the games are held on outdoor courts in Barry Farm — one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America — with an unmistakable aroma of a certain plant on the court. An announcer roams the court throwing playful jabs and nicknames at the players over the speakers, something unimaginable in a professional environment. Speaking of professionals, the leagues do not pay the players to come play and only charge about $5 as an entrance fee for fans.

Despite the amateurish setup of these leagues, NBA players are showing up to play, with the full knowledge that this is no place to look for a million-dollar contract. So why are they coming out to play? The answer is about respect; they want to show off their talent and garner street cred in the city they were born and raised.

One of the unwritten rules of these leagues is that only locals should compete. For example, Kobe Bryant, a Los Angeles sports icon, stopping by one day to play in a Drew League game was met with some criticism from Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, a Compton, Calif. native.

“He wasn’t born and raised in L.A. You gotta be from L.A. to play for Drew. Show me a birth certificate,” Jennings said.

That’s not to say that superstars from different hometowns are not allowed; Paul and LeBron both played for the Baltimore-based Melo League while Durant made a legendary appearance at Rucker Park earlier in the summer. The Thunder forward scored 66 points in an extraordinary display, and at one point in the contest dribbled the ball up to the 3-point line on four consecutive possessions, sinking effortless 3s over triple-team defenses. Many people have argued that this display was more impressive than anything Durant has done in the NBA, showing the credibility of these summer leagues to basketball fans.

With the backing of NBA players, these leagues have held exhibition games against each other to advertise their product and give basketball bragging rights to the winner’s city. The first example of this was when a group of Drew League all-stars flew to Washington, D.C. to battle the best of the Goodman League. The Drew League included players like Jennings, James Harden and DeMar DeRozan, while D.C.’s best included Durant, John Wall and Ty Lawson. In total, the contest involved 19 NBA players at the sold-out arena at Trinity University.

Whenever a large group of NBA players gather for an exhibition game, it is expected that the game will be sloppy and lethargic, yet this game had intensity. The Goodman League squeaked out a narrow victory, 135-134, and the D.C. natives made sure to tell their Californian friends about it.

“They talked trash, we talked trash,” Lawson said. “The debate is over — we’ve got the crown now.”

Thunder teammates Harden and Durant even exchanged barbs across Twitter, showing that no professional allegiance is stronger than their roots.

Despite the success of the game from a basketball standpoint, there were many logistical issues. Fans were in the stadium an hour before players even began warming up and thousands of fans with tickets had to be turned away because a larger arena could not be reserved.

A similar all-star exhibition game occurred between the Melo League and Goodman League — which the Melo League won, 149-141. The Goodman League will visit Rucker Park on Oct. 1 and a rematch between the Drew and Goodman leagues is in the works.

These games are more than just an interesting look into the subculture of the basketball community. They show that NBA players are itching to get back to competitive action. Whether it is overseas or more exhibition games, players will find a way to play competitive basketball. We can only hope that there will be some sort of a viable moderator that can organize a schedule and ensure a safe environment for all the players. Oh right, the National Basketball Association.

Original Author: Albert Liao