Drew League has long history of showing its charm

LOS ANGELES – A lightning-quick 5-9 college guard named Casper outplayed Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden.

Former NBA Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans' team lost handily to a team with no current NBA players.

But the highlight of Saturday’s Drew League play at Colonel Leon H. Washington Park in Florence was even more … righteous.

The man the locals call Jesus provided the most entertaining action of a thoroughly entertaining eight-hour Saturday at the Drew League, coming in from the free-throw line to pick up a teammate's errant shot attempt and tip-reverse-dunk it in for a miraculous, monstrous slam that had the crowd buzzing for a good 10 minutes.

It was emblematic of what people have come to expect from the Drew League, generally considered one of the top summer-league outfits around.

“You can't find this level of basketball anywhere in the U.S. besides here,” says Jesus, also known as David Patten, an Orange County native who played collegiately for Pepperdine and Weber State and now plays professionally in Mexico. “This is fantastic basketball.”

Your first question: How did he pick up the nickname?

Patten, a dunk contest competitor in college who has long surprised people with his dunking abilities, has played in the Drew League for three of the last four summers. His first year, a homeless woman walked into the gymnasium at Washington Park and was impressed by the high-flying acrobatics she saw from him.

“She didn’t know who I was, but I’m white and I had a beard and long hair,” Patten, 27, says now. “So she called me Jesus.”

Since its inception in 1973, stories like that one have always been part of the charm of the Drew League. And, while that's largely staying the same this summer, the talent level has taken a big jump as NBA players flock to a mostly-nondescript park in South L.A. to log some time on the basketball court.

“I mean, it's definitely like this because of the lockout,” says Bobby Brown, a former Cal State Fullerton guard who spent parts of two seasons in the NBA and now plays in Greece. “Everybody wants to come out here and play. We had a few NBA guys last year, but this year it's getting a lot better.”

Saturday was Evans' first go at it in the Drew, but he was joining his Kings teammate Pooh Jeter, who has played in it for most of the summer. The Lakers' Steve Blake, Shannon Brown and Ron Artest have all played this summer, as has the Clippers' Craig Smith, and Ike Diogu plans to soon join him. Baron Davis has promised he'll make an appearance at some point. Kevin Durant caused a stir when he came last month and shut the gym down with a pass-to-himself dunk, but there a number of other NBA'ers of varying profile levels, usually with some sort of Los Angeles ties.

“It’s amazing,” said Malcolm Thomas, the second-leading scorer for San Diego State last season, when the Aztecs made it to the Sweet 16. “I played two years ago and there weren't that many NBA players in it -- it was like JaVale McGee and Nick Young and maybe a few others.

“This year there are a lot more, and I think it's great for the Drew League. It's a competitive league, and it's only gonna get better.”

Thomas, 22, was projected as a likely second-round selection in this year's draft, but he went undrafted. In a normal year, he'd stay in the U.S. and hope to latch onto an NBA roster through the league's Las Vegas summer league and training camps, but it's not a normal year. So, last week, Thomas signed a one-year deal with South Korean club Mobis Phoebus for $350,000. He reports Aug. 15.

The Drew League, spanning from late May to mid-August, is the last American basketball he'll play for a while, but he says he doesn't mind at all.

“Kevin Durant was here,” Thomas said. “That says something about what the league's doing. It's good for guys like me, testing your skills against NBA superstars.”

The elephant in the gym Saturday, as it has been in many basketball circles this summer, was what caused Thomas to sign in Asia -- the current NBA lockout. It affects players in the Drew League in other ways than most other circles, because the majority of them spend their seasons playing professionally overseas.

And when NBA players like Deron Williams are agreeing to deals overseas, that lowers their leverage and value to teams abroad by diluting the pool of available players.

“There is a trickle-down effect,” says Patten, who also has played in Spain, Poland, Argentina and the Netherlands. “Things are going a little slower than they normally would. Everybody's waiting. The Deron Williams thing had a huge ripple effect, because, normally, they wouldn't even be looking at guys like that. Now, all of the sudden, all these guys are all in play across the world.

“If those guys are thinking about doing it, that means the lockout's serious and they're very far apart. You never know what could happen, so it slows things down a lot.”

Not on the court. Saturday's action was as fast-paced as any summer league, with point totals going into the 90s with regularity, as they have been for 38 years now, as Drew League commissioner Drew Smiley will happily tell you.

So will the speedy, short college guard named Casper, or Casper Ware Jr. He and his father, Casper Ware Sr., are legends of the Drew League, with at least one of the father-son tandem playing in all but two or three of the league's 38 summers.

Ware Jr. averaged 17 points and four assists per game last season at Long Beach State, where he'll be a senior this fall. He has played in the Drew since he was a sophomore at Cerritos Gahr High. The quality of play is the best he has ever seen it, he says, but it's not just because of the uncertainty with the NBA.

“There's two reasons,” says Ware Jr., who scored 40 points for his Cheaters II squad to beat Harden's team in one of Saturday's best matchups. “One is because of the lockout. Two is because there's competition here.

“Why not come here, play some good ball, have a good time and play for the community?”