McMenamin: All-star pick-up games are bright side of lockout

The chance to see players like Kobe up-close has made the lockout all-star games popular. Noah Graham/Getty Images

You want the bright side of the NBA lockout?

How about a bunch of all-pro pickup games sprouting up like flowers through cracks in the pavement.

With NBA owners and the players’ union still at odds over economic issues, the league’s players have jumped at the opportunity to share the game with diehard fans all over the country.

Not since the days of Julius Erving and Connie Hawkins visiting New York’s famed Rucker Park and Wilt Chamberlain and Guy Rodgers appearing in the pro-am Baker League at 25th and Diamond Avenue in Philadelphia have so many stars stocked the summer league circuit.

Earlier this week, NBA commissioner David Stern threatened that the first two weeks of the regular season would be canceled if the two sides could not reach an agreement on a new labor contract by Monday.

While representatives from both sides will surely meet over the weekend to try to reach an eleventh-hour deal to save the season, some of the NBA’s brightest talents will entertain fans with two more star-studded pickup games.

Miami’s trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will host a charity game on Saturday at Florida International University, and on Sunday at the Pyramid in Long Beach L.A.’s Drew League will host Washington D.C.’s Goodman League in a rematch pitting stars from the West Coast against stars from the East Coast.

Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Washington’s John Wall are slated to play in both games, and will compete against a Drew League squad featuring Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Oklahoma City’s James Harden, Washington’s Nick Young and Golden State’s Dorrell Wright among others.

The Drew League is calling the game, “The Big Payback,” after Drew sent its players to Trinity College in D.C. in August and came away with a 135-134 loss to Goodman.

“It’s real basketball,” said Drew League commissioner Dino Smiley. “It’s a rivalry that has just started.”

The original Drew-Goodman game sparked a slew of charity games over the summer, from Chris Paul hosting a game in his home state of North Carolina to Hakim Warrick getting together with former college teammate Carmelo Anthony to organize a “Team Philly” vs. “Team Melo” game at the storied Palestra in Philadelphia.

Nike has gotten in on the act, providing their sponsored athletes warm-up shirts that read “Basketball Never Stops” to wear during the exhibition games.

Durant, the NBA’s reigning back-to-back scoring champion, has been the star of the summer. He scored 66 points at Rucker, 59 points when Goodman played Team Melo, 48 points in Paul’s game and 44 points when Goodman played Drew.

Before any of those performances, however, he played in a pair of regular-season Drew League games at the tiny 800-seat Colonel Leon H. Washington Park gym in South Los Angeles in June. The Heat’s James and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant soon followed suit.

“When Durant came it was great. When LeBron came, it took the league to a whole other level. And then when Kobe came, it just took it over the top,” said Smiley. “For them to see three of arguably the top five players in the world to come into the inner city and play their game, not with a big entourage and all this, but to actually interact with these kids and these citizens here in South L.A., it was huge. Everybody got a big kick out of it. Everybody was excited. It brought a lot of pride to the community.”

Fans whose only glimpse of their basketball heroes had been through a television set or from nosebleed seats at Staples Center, now sat up close. They saw the true reach of Durant’s arms. They heard the dance in Bryant’s footwork.

It's an intimate experience. Picture U2 playing the Echoplex next time they come to L.A. instead of the Rose Bowl.

“How could we be right here in the front row and able to talk to and touch Kobe Bryant? We could never do that at Staples Center,” said Smiley, recalling a conversation he had with a community member who was one of the lucky ones to show up the day that Bryant did.

And they saw these All-Stars go up against players from their own neighborhood, locals looking to make a name for themselves by challenging the NBA’s best.

“They knew coming into Drew that they were going to be challenged and they were going to have to play their A game,” said Smiley. “It wasn’t one of those olé defenses where you would let people go up and down the court. People were really digging in and they had to work.

“To me, it’s really helped the NBA,” Smiley said. “It might not be helping it right now, but I think in the long run, it brings more fans. It brings more people to know these players on a personal level and be able to say, ‘I didn’t know LeBron was that nice.’ Or, ‘I didn’t know Kobe talked that much.’ We see things that we don’t get a chance to normally really [experience].”

Smiley expects a sellout at the 5,600-seat arena for Sunday’s game. Tickets aren’t cheap but they’re they’re a whole lot less than a seat at Staples: $100 for courtside seats, $30 for seats with a chair back and $25 for bench seats. (For comparison’s sake, courtside seats to a Lakers game at Staples Center will cost $2,700 a pop next season.)

While the Drew League has garnered a lot of attention this summer, it’s not a new thing. The league has been around since 1973.

But the lockout has led to a renaissance, and Smiley thinks NBA players will come back to the Drew League, and other basketball bastions like it, in years to come.

“I think it’s here to stay,” Smiley said. “I don’t think this is a one-day, one-year wonder. I think we’ll be seeing NBA players playing all over inner cities throughout the United States in the future.”