LOS ANGELES -- When they talk about fitting endings, this is what they mean.
Only a championship game like Saturday’s could have capped off a revolutionary summer at the Drew League in South L.A., complete with appearances by some of the biggest and brightest stars in the NBA, breakout performances by low-key locals and up-comers and all kinds of crazy finishes, week in and week out.
Saturday’s 3 p.m. final at Colonel Leon H. Washington Park took it to a new, slightly unbelievable level. With the league charging an entry fee for the first time in its 38-year existence and limiting the number of fans allowed on the premises, there was a line forming outside the gymnasium two hours before tip-off. By the time they opened the doors, a half-hour before the start, roughly 400 people had snaked around the 800-capacity gym in anticipation of the final between defending champions L.A. Unified and Hank’s Blazers.
Then Unified, led by former NBA point guards Bobby Brown and Marcus Williams and Nuggets first-round pick Jordan Hamilton, took a double-digit lead a few minutes into the first quarter, stretched it out to a 23-point lead by the third and the buzz in the super-compact gym seemed to disappear.
Blazers forward Kenneth Faried, also a 2011 first-round selection of the Nuggets, changed that quickly, helping to start a run for his squad with an and-one off an offensive rebound that lowered Unified’s lead to 20 points with two minutes to go in the third. And, after Detroit Pistons forward Austin Daye, also a Blazer, poured in a 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter to make it a 89-78 game, Faried followed it up with another tip-in.
Then, during a timeout, Brown sprinted out the gym and into a car and headed 10 miles due west on Manchester Boulevard to Los Angeles International Airport, where he had a flight to catch to Germany, where he will play this season, taking off in less than 90 minutes. That gave the Blazers a big boost, and they rallied to get the game as close as 89-85 with a little more than two minutes left.
But Daye had a one-on-one opportunity to score from the top of the key with Hamilton guarding him but couldn’t convert, and Faried got called for a crucial offensive foul while attempting to grab the offensive rebound. By the time Daye did hit a big shot, it made it just 95-90 and there were only 31 seconds left. Unified held on for the dramatic 99-90 victory.
“I thought we were gonna come back and win the game, actually,” Daye said afterward. “But they got a good offensive rebound and we took a bad shot, and that was it right there.”
“But, hey, at least we put in a good effort and made it interesting.”
The Blazers did make it interesting. And, for the umpteenth time at the Drew this summer, they also forced the crowd to its feet late in the game, when Daye had the opportunity to make it a one-score game. It was an appropriate, if not unexpected, ending.
“It’s the championship -- those guys didn’t want to go out without a fight,” said Hamilton, a Compton Dominguez High product who had 20 points in the final. “They came out, played hard and did what they had to do, but we did more of it.”
Unified coach Wallace Moore, a local street-hoops coaching legend, has now won a combined six titles in the last four years from the Drew and the Say No Classic, two L.A. summer-league staples. Coaching a team of college players in the Say No, held this year at L.A. Trade Technical College, he has won each year since 2008. And, coaching a team of both college and NBA players in the Drew, he has now won in 2010 and 2011.
“I would say this is a dynasty,” said Williams, who last played in the NBA for Memphis in the 2009-2010 season. “We’re going to try to get a three-peat, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.
“No team has ever three-peated.”
Long Beach State guard Casper Ware Jr. was named the 2011 Drew League MVP in a halftime awards ceremony. The son of Drew legend Casper Ware Sr., he beat out four established NBA players for the honor, including Oklahoma City’s James Harden, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Washington Wizards guard Nick Young.
Ware, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior-to-be for the 49ers, led his Cheaters II squad to the second round of the playoffs by putting up consistent 30-point games all summer. He also had Miami Heat forward LeBron James join him for one game last month.
“He’s a star,” Drew League commissioner Dino Smiley said of Ware. “I’m looking forward to him being a big thing next year at Long Beach State and definitely being drafted and being an NBA player.
“He grew up here -- no, he was born here.”
Other award-winners included former Cal State Dominguez Hills guard Thurmon Sutton as Most Inspirational Player, who beat out other nominees like former UC Riverside guard Mark ‘The Heart’ Peters.
For the $5 entry fee, Drew League staffers and local police set up a stand at the entrance to the gym and collected the money upon fans’ arrivals, passing out wristbands in exchange, which allowed them in-and-out privileges. In previous weeks, oversized crowds had caused local fire marshals to take notice and threaten Drew staffers with possible in-game evacuations if the Washington Park gym got too crowded again.
“I'm sorry we had to charge five dollars to get in,” Smiley told the crowd at halftime. “I hope it was worth it, I hope there's not too many complaints.”
A few minutes after the game ended, standing on a champagne-soaked gym floor, Smiley said his hopes were answered.
“I think it went well,” he said. “Nobody really made any complaints and I think everybody knew that, to control this type of atmosphere and to make sure everybody was comfortable, we had to charge.
“If not, it would’ve just been wide open.”
There will be no more Drew League games played at Washington Park this year, and maybe not next year, either. Parks and recreation officials will contemplate moving the games to a bigger venue, depending on what they expect turnout to be during normal, non NBA-work-stoppage summers.
But one more game remains: the Drew vs. Goodman League battle organizers are calling ‘Capital Punishment,’ a cross-country matchup of two of the most-hyped pro-ams around. It’s scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Aug. 20, on the Trinity University campus in D.C., where the Goodman is based.
“It’s been a hell of a year,” Smiley said. “But we’ve got one more to do. We’ve got to get all these guys in tune over the next couple days, get out to D.C. and make something happen out there.”
The planned Drew roster includes Harden, DeRozan, Young and Golden State Warriors guard Dorell Wright, among the nine NBA players allowed. The three non-NBA’ers scheduled to play are Sutton, from K&E Bulls, and guard Mike Efevberha and center Doug Thomas from Problems, a team knocked out Friday in the semifinals.