To watch the best basketball in Los Angeles, go south on the 110 to the Staples Center and keep driving. You're headed to King/Drew Magnet High School in Compton, sixteen minutes south of the locker rooms where the Lakers and Clippers are licking their wounds. This is the Drew League, and if you haven't been, two-time NBA All-Star and documentary director Baron Davis takes you inside the small school gym in his salute, The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce, which premiered this weekend at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Every Saturday and Sunday of the summer, a small school gym invites the fiercest, most-competitive athletes in the city to dunk on each other for the hooting stands. The ballers are ruthless and they know how to rally the crowd. The Drew League's announcer, George Preciado, isn't much tamer. When a guy lets his opponent slip past and score, Preciado hoots, “There's doo-doo on the floor!” Marv Albert must be jealous.
“You gotta be confident in your game to play here,” says former NBA shooting guard Stephen Jackson. Even just keeping the league going for 42 years is a feat. Founder Alvin Wills launched the Drew in 1973 to give the young men in his neighborhood something to do. (Today, there's still no movie theater for miles.) Under current commissioner Dino Smiley, who took over in 1984, the Drew has expanded from six teams to 28. It's smoothed over countless squabbles on the court and dog-paddled through times when money was even tighter than usual. In the '90s, the Bloods and Crips deemed the gym a neutral zone where they could literally join the same team, but off the court, player Kevin L. Dandridge was murdered. (The Drew named a trophy in his honor.)
“This is like hell, man,” adds local star Big 50, one of the league's top scorers, “but it's like heaven to us.”
Davis and his co-director Chad Gordon, could have made a whole documentary about Big 50. As a boy, he witnessed his mother get shot right in front of their apartment. He grew up big and bitter—the type of kid who had good excuses to do bad things—but basketball gave him focus.
“There's like six other documentaries you could make about the Drew,” admits Gordon at a Q&A after the film. There's the parallel rivalry between Davis and talented point guard Kenny Brunner, who was sidelined by an attempted murder charge. (“Basketball saved my life,” says Davis.) The time Smiley was forced to cancel games during the L.A. riots, or the team that had a Blood coach and a Crip assistant coach. Or the story of how the 2011 NBA lock-out reinvigorated the Drew when restless pros like Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant drove down to play. (Metta World Peace was recently spotted on the court.)
Gordon and Davis chose to include everything, even old VHS footage of Worthington Ford commercials that had the audience snorting. The sweeping No Excuse, Just Produce (the league's motto) is best at introducing the Drew and making deserved heroes from Willis, Smiley, and Smiley's wife Stephanie, who runs the snack bar, sells buckets of Drew-Aid, and keeps morale high.
“There's not a lot of hope coming from the inner city,” explains Davis. “There's a lot of really good people that come from here. That's the stuff we should be celebrating on TV.”
Adds Smiley, shaking off the embarrassment from seeing old footage of himself in high-waisted short shorts, “I went from 180 to 340 pounds, but it was all worth it.”
Amy Nicholson on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: