When four UCLA Bruins stepped onto the hardwood floor at King Drew Magnet High School in the Willowbrook community of Los Angeles, they were continuing an LA basketball tradition that began in 1973.
In its 46-year history, the Drew League has aimed to bring together the best high school, college and professional players from around South Central Los Angeles every summer.
“This gym is a legendary gym,” said UCLA men’s basketball rising redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal. “You have to come in here and earn your respect, and they won’t give it to you easily no matter who you are.”
Game No. 3 of Saturday’s six-game slate featured two UCLA men’s basketball players – O’Neal and rising sophomore forward Kenneth Nwuba – playing for Tuff Crowd, one of the 24 teams entered in the Drew League this season. O’Neal said Tuff Crowd is a team composed of players from the greater O’Neal family who wanted to play.
“The team came together into a family,” O’Neal said. “(Former NBA guard Brandon Jennings) is a close family friend, (Nwuba) is my teammate – for (Kenyon Martin Jr.), our dads played together. I got my cousins, my brothers – everybody on the team is family.”
Nwuba said he looked at the Drew League and Tuff Crowd as a pathway to being a leader at UCLA and beyond.
“This kind of event is why I play,” Nwuba said. “I try to be a beacon of hope for my friends and family and come out here and have fun with the opportunity I have.”
Two other Bruins who suited up Saturday played in the opening game.
Rising freshmen wings Jake Kyman and Jaime Jaquez Jr. both played for CABC So. Cal – normally a travel-Amateur Athletic Union team – with some seasoned college and professional players added to the roster for its summer Drew League run, including UC Irvine’s Collin Welp and former California and Baylor Bear Gary Franklin.
But the Drew League doesn’t just boast college athletes.
Kyman, Jaquez Jr., O’Neal and others who have yet to play NCAA basketball are forced to match up with Stephon Carter and Jennings – who graduated high school in 2009 and 2008, respectively.
Jaquez Jr. said players in his position gain valuable experience from battling against professional basketball players who can sometimes be upward of 10 years older than their competitors.
“It’s a really good experience, particularly for the incoming freshmen,” Jaquez Jr. said. “It gets us adjusted to the way that college basketball will be played because players are stronger and have played a lot longer.”
Kyman said individual areas of his game have had to grow to keep up with the level of competition present in South Central.
“A lot of it is the IQ part – these older guys have played a lot of basketball and you see a lot of different tactics and stuff from players,” Kyman said. “Also refining skills like shooting and ball control helps, as well as working to be stronger, bigger, faster.”
And while the Drew League may be built on community, superstar athletes aren’t afraid to take over the Drew gym.
Montrezl Harrell of the Los Angeles Clippers appeared Saturday to suit in a league game. Players such as the Houston Rockets’ James Harden, Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant and Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James have made appearances on the court in previous summers.
Shaquille O’Neal and Lonzo Ball have shown up to see family members Shareef and LaMelo play this season, and the man described by Jennings as “the Godfather of Los Angeles basketball” – UCLA alum Baron Davis – has played, coached and visited more than maybe any other NBA player.
Despite the superstar cameos, the Drew League is still about local athletes, either looking for a professional opportunity or tuning up in their high school or college offseason.
“It’s an awesome place because everyone can come together and play some basketball,” Kyman said. “It’s not about sizes or ‘this school, that school.’ You see tons of great players from the South Central and LA area. It’s a cool community feeling.”
Saturday’s Week 6 Games
Kyman and Jaquez Jr.’s CABC So. Cal lost to the previously winless Jaguars 85-71. USC rising sophomore guard Elijah Weaver dropped 23 points for the Jaguars, while 2013 Cal State Bakersfield graduate Carter finished with 20 points.
Welp led CABC with 19 points. Jaquez Jr. and Kyman added 11 and seven points, respectively, in the loss, dropping CABC to third place in its 12-team division with a 5-2 record.
“We’re coming off of two losses now where our shots haven’t really been falling,” Jaquez Jr. said. “We’re trying to play the same basketball that we’ve been playing – hit our shots, play defense and do the best we can to win games and ultimately the Drew League championship.”
Tuff Crowd, on the other hand, emerged victorious over BB4L 98-93.
Down 14 points after the third quarter, BB4L stormed back to take a one-point lead with just under two minutes remaining, but a subsequent 3-pointer and dunk by O’Neal and Martin Jr. sealed the victory for Tuff Crowd.
O’Neal led the way with 26 points and 10 rebounds. The Drew League is O’Neal’s first official competitive play since heart surgery forced him to redshirt his first year at UCLA.
“I would say I’m up at about 50%,” O’Neal said. “I always have the thought in the back of my head about my surgery and slowing down. It’s really a process, I don’t feel 100% yet, but it’s coming soon.”