At Drew, stars and aspiring stars square off

There was a time when Mike Taylor was a bit of a phenomenon on the Los Angeles hoops scene.

Drafted by Portland in the second round in 2008 out of Iowa State, the 6-2, 165-pound guard was traded to the L.A. Clippers on draft night.

Taylor was overshadowed by fellow Clippers rookies Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan and was buried in the depth chart on a cluttered roster that was led by a rehabbing Baron Davis and a trio of big men -- Chris Kaman, Zach Randolph and Marcus Camby -- who could never seem to stay healthy at the same time.

But in late March of that forgotten Clippers season, Taylor caught lightning in a bottle. The Clips were on the tail end of a brutal late season six-game road trip. They had lost the first three games of the trip, and 11 of 13 overall, when they arrived at Madison Square Garden to play the New York Knicks. Taylor, who averaged 5.7 points his rookie season, exploded for 35 points on 14-for-20 shooting, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. The Clippers won. The rook was rewarded with major minutes in the Clippers next game in San Antonio. He came through again with 23 points on 10-for-13 shooting.

Taylor averaged 29 points on 72.7 shooting in those two games, yet hasn’t played a game in the NBA since the end of that season.

Fast forward four years later. Taylor is on the court playing against a team that includes James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Terrance Jones. It’s not the NBA, it’s a Sunday at the Drew League -- L.A.’s own summer pro-am league -- and Taylor is up to his old tricks, scoring the game’s first bucket and crowding Harden immediately after the ball fell through the hoop, unapologetically playing full court defense against a guy who outweighs him by about 60 pounds and who was both an All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist in the last calendar year.

“It’s professional basketball,” Taylor said after the game was over. His team, Kings of L.A., trailed team Money Gang by 16 at the half but battled all the way back, losing 103-100 when Taylor missed a desperation 3 at the buzzer.

Taylor finished with 30 points on 10-for-18 shooting, six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Two other players scored 30 -- Harden, who signed a five-year, $80 million deal with Houston last fall, had 35. Dorrell Wright, Taylor’s teammate, who signed a two-year, $6 million deal with Portland this summer, had 33. Taylor, who played in the Czech Republic last season and later with the L.A. D-Fenders, the Lakers’ D-League affiliate, is simply looking for a training camp invite where he can show what he can do against that competition the same way he does it in the Drew.

“We got high-level professionals out there,” Taylor said. “Even though it is kind of recreational, summer league basketball, when you have that caliber of players out there, it gets kind of serious.”

The Drew League in South Central L.A. is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season.

It’s serious and big time and mom-and-pop all at the same time. Some of the headliners who show up are the same names you’re likely to see participating in NBA All-Star weekend (and Nike has stepped up as a corporate sponsor), yet at the concession stand you can purchase a cup of homemade “Drew Aid” for just $1.50.

The games don’t matter nearly as much to the big-name players who run in them as an NBA regular-season game would, yet in a way, they matter more. Admission is free and many of the NBA stars that are regulars grew up in the area, so the stands are filled with family, friends and neighbors who usually only get to see them play games on TV.

For a guy like Taylor, it’s about proving something.

“It’s just being a competitor,” Taylor said. “I like to compete and from the very first jump, it doesn’t matter who’s out there. I’m going to give my 200 percent.”

For a guy like Harden, it’s about getting a good run in, not getting embarrassed and putting on a bit of a show in the process. While it seemed like Harden was coasting for much of Sunday’s game, he still ended up as the game’s high scorer and did most of his damage in the fourth quarter to make sure his team -- a star-studded collection of talent culled by the rapper The Game -- held on for the win.

For guys like Bobby Brown, Marcus Williams and Hassan Adams, who all had brief stints in the NBA at one point and played in the game that tipped off just before Harden and Taylor’s, it’s about pride. Their Drew League team, L.A. Unified, is consistently a top squad every summer.

For guys like Gilbert Arenas and Nick Young, who played on the same team even earlier in the day (Arenas scored 33, Young scored 31), it’s about continuing a brotherhood that started back when Arenas’ father coached Young’s AAU team and continued when they became teammates on the Washington Wizards.

There are basketball players at all stages of life in the league dumped into one big melting pot. The D-League hopeful, the Euro journeyman, the budding NBA superstar, the marginal NBA guy scrapping to stay in the league, the guys who peaked in high school but still love to play, they all share the same stage.

Harden was in a rush to leave the gym Sunday because he was taking his nephews to the airport to catch a flight. As he made a beeline towards the exit, politely declining a handful of photo requests along the way and doing the walk-and-talk with a couple other acquaintances who approached him, there was one guy for whom he stopped dead in his tracks: Casper Ware. Ware, a 5-10, 175-pound guard who finished up his college ball at Long Beach State in 2012, was the Drew League MVP last season. Harden might be an All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, but he’s no Drew League MVP. He paid his respects.

The Drew League’s been known in L.A. for decades, but really gained recognition on a national level during the NBA lockout of 2011 when everyone from LeBron James, to Kevin Durant, to Kobe Bryant suited up to play at the dilapidated little gym at Washington Park (the league has since moved to King-Drew High School to accommodate larger crowds, and might need to move again, as evidenced by the line out the door at least 200-people deep trying to get in for the Harden game when the gym was already at capacity).

With the work stoppage situation looking bleak, NBA players flocked to pro-am leagues and hastily arranged charity games throughout the summer as a show of solidarity that the owners could lock them out of the NBA, but they could never take the sport of basketball away from them.

Bryant’s appearance at the Drew was one of the signature moments of the summer, a bright spot for hoopheads who were being demoralized from talk of “BRI” and “B-list issues,” and flocked to YouTube videos of performances like Bryant at the Drew or Durant at Rucker Park, to get their fix of the sport.

“That was an epic game,” Drew League commissioner Dino Smiley recalled. “We asked in the locker room, we knew Kobe was going to play and we had all these NBA guys -- DeMar, James (Harden), Derrick Williams -- so I said, ‘Kobe wants a real game, who is going to make him play hard?’ And James Harden raised his hand and said, ‘I got his ass.’ That’s where it all started.”

Bryant broke a 137-137 tie by hitting a fadeaway from the foul line at the buzzer over Harden. Bryant finished with 45 points, Harden had 44. The two have developed into fierce competitors against one another ever since, with Harden getting payback by knocking Bryant out of the playoffs in 2012 when he was still with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and then luring Dwight Howard away from L.A. to come play for the Houston Rockets.

“It’s a good rivalry and it’s fun to watch it,” Smiley said. “We’re proud to say it all started at our place.”

There will be many more rivalries started in the Drew League. More friendships forged. More careers attempted to be turned around. More stories to be told.

There will be many more players like Mike Taylor in the Drew, married to the game, for better or for worse.

“It’s been a rocky road, but this is the life that I chose,” said Taylor.