LOS ANGELES -- Welcome to NBA summer league, South Central style.
Just north of Watts, one block east of Compton Avenue, inside a gym so packed with bodies that the local authorities make regular stops to enforce the fire code, millionaire basketball players arrive in droves to one of the country's most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods. The gang members who come to watch abide by the unspoken code of conduct, meaning everyone's safe because there are kids present and the Drew League is a family affair.
Still, it speaks volumes that the 31-year-old rapper known as The Game -- a reformed gangbanger who went by Jayceon Terrell Taylor before his success in music -- is one of the many faces of this franchise. It's equal parts delightful and dangerous, a sideshow during most Julys that has now been elevated to main-attraction status in the absence of the official NBA summer leagues that have been canceled as a result of the lockout.
The Game took part in one of a dozen games last weekend at Leon H. Washington Park, a place where you either put on a rousing show for the locals or prepare to be heckled by the P.A. announcer who doesn't acknowledge celebrity status or offer red-carpet treatment. And The Game was hardly the only big name in these games.
Kevin Durant was here recently, along with Ron Artest, James Harden, JaVale McGee, DeMar DeRozan, Tyreke Evans, J.R. Smith, Dorell Wright, Austin Daye, Steve Blake, Craig Smith, Nick Young and recent draft picks Derrick Williams and Jeremy Tyler. To name a few.
And nearly two weeks into this lockout life that will likely go on much longer, it's becoming increasingly hard to say that the players are just posturing.
Maybe they do just want to play, whether the games are in Southern California, Washington, D.C. (more on that later), or the many European locations they now say they're considering (see Deron Williams to Turkey, pending FIBA approval). Maybe they don't care about the risk, how their contracts could be voided by their respective teams if they were to be seriously injured. Maybe this isn't just a negotiating ploy, a way to show those draconian NBA owners that they're willing to take their talents elsewhere if they can't play here.
Through all the talk of goodwill negotiating between both sides and optimistic hopes that a deal could be struck despite the gulf between them, we may have forgotten how contentious these discussions once were, how prideful the players proved to be when the notion that they weren't needed was so foolishly raised. But little has changed since February 2010, when a passionate group of players that included 10 All-Stars descended on Dallas to send a strong message of defiance during an All-Star weekend meeting.
They took great exception to reports at the time in which team executives insinuated that they were replaceable. Most notably, in a CBSSports.com report, one anonymous executive was quoted as saying, "If [the players] don't like the new max contracts, LeBron [James] can play football, where he will make less than the new max. [Dwyane] Wade can be a fashion model or whatever. They won't make squat and no one will remember who they are in a few years."
Now comes the counterpunch, be it genuine or contrived.
In the wake of Williams' decision to sign with the Turkish team Besiktas, the Nets' star point guard told ESPN.com that he envisions players staying overseas long term if the lockout is as long as so many except it will be. The large majority of players who spoke to SI.com at the Drew League were already considering their international options.
"We're not going to let the lockout hold us back from going somewhere else to play, so I think with D-Will doing that, it was a big statement and a lot of guys are going to be looking to go there," Golden State's Wright said. "I think [his decision] jump-started the interest."
In other words, the Plan Bs and Plan Cs are quickly becoming Plan As. The perceived hopelessness of the labor situation is at the root of these ruminations, with players eager to find alternate outlets for their competitive juices. Durant did just that this week, when his plan to create an East vs. West streetball championship came to fruition in the form of an Aug. 20 faceoff between the Drew League and the D.C.-based Goodman League.
The D.C. native and back-to-back NBA scoring champion has been a regular at the Goodman League for years, but he stopped by the Drew League on June 20 to see what the West Coast hype was all about. His presence caused quite a stir even before tip-off, with people piling in to see the Oklahoma City star in action.
He played in the noon game, then was so impressed by the quality of the play that he asked league commissioner Oris "Dino" Smiley to add him to a second game later in the day. Somewhere between his now-legendary off-the-backboard, alley-oop-to-himself dunk and his flight back east, Durant came up with the idea to create the kind the exhibition game that team officials might have advised against if the lockout hadn't prevented them from speaking to their players.
Los Angeles natives Wright and Baron Davis are handling the logistics. Wright says he wants to make it a "huge, huge, huge deal," and the game is expected to take place on the court where the likes of Durant, John Wall, Michael Beasley and DeMarcus Cousins so often play in the inner-city D.C. neighborhood known as Barry Farm. Smiley said ESPN has shown some interest in airing the game. The best NBA players from both leagues are expected to team up with some non-NBA players. The trash talk already has begun.
"There's been big talk of who's the best," Smiley said. "I think their league has been going on 36 years. We've been going on 38 years. We play in the inner city. They play in the inner city. So it's a matchup that a lot of people would want to see, [and] we're going to try to make it happen on Aug. 20, then fly out there, just take care of them and come right back."
Leagues like the Drew and Goodman are benefiting from the lockout. Players can't use their team facilities and need trusted places to compete whenever the daily training regimen gets too dull. But while the Drew League has hosted NBA players since its beginning, the unprecedented amount of professionals coming Smiley's way is proving problematic -- even if it's a good problem to have.
"Now I'm in a situation, because it's a lockout, where we have a deadline on rosters and I have to freeze the roster this week, so I'm telling NBA guys to get down here [to avoid not being able to play]," Smiley said. "[Players have] said, 'The Drew League had a lockout, just like the NBA.' But we've got to find a way to get these guys in, because if we do a freeze of the roster this week and Kobe Bryant walks in, what am I supposed to do?"
The Drew-Goodman game isn't the only one being discussed. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported Monday that an NBA group headed by Durant, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Andre Iguodala and Mario Chalmers might play the Smart Gilas Pilipinas on July 25 and 26 in the Philippines. But exhibition games like these, one would have to imagine, can only fill the players' hoops void for so long.
Only time will tell how whether the overseas market is a viable option for more than a few players, but it has clearly piqued the curiosity of the masses. Most players are only interested in deals that include what should be deemed the D-Will clause, an opt-out that gives them the contractual freedom to return to the NBA when the lockout lifts.
In addition to Williams, Hawks center Zaza Pachulia is set to join Besiktas despite having two years and $10 million left on his contract. Yahoo! Sports reported that Bryant would consider international offers, and Wade told The Associated Press that he would weigh the idea as well. Durant can now be added to that list. His agent, Aaron Goodwin, told SI.com that he is exploring overseas options for his most high-profile client.
"If the opportunity presents itself and the lockout persists, he's going to have to consider it just as other players are considering it," Goodwin said. "Kevin has shown some interest to know what the situation is and we'll reach out to the players' association and make sure that they're aligned with the guys in case they do take an offer. But I think what you're going to see happening is a lot of players are going to look at the opportunity if the lockout prolongs that they can go somewhere and play basketball.
"If they're not allowed to play in the NBA, they've got to look at other opportunities. If you have teams that want you to play and the NBA is willing to sit out a year, why sit out a year?"
Goodwin said free agent Jamal Crawford has serious interest from two teams and is contemplating an offer from a Turkish club, though he wouldn't specify which one. It remains to be seen how wiling teams will be to offer the D-Will clause.
"So far in the conversations for Jamal Crawford, teams have shown [both a] reluctance and a willingness to have that clause in there," Goodwin said. "Obviously, we would never pursue it without a clause being in there where the player can opt out."
A league source said Iguodala also is considering an overseas offer. Evans told SI.com that he would think about the option depending on how long the lockout lasts. Ditto for DeRozan, who spoke for so many of his colleagues when asked how he sees that potential opportunity.
"It's definitely a consideration," the Compton native said. "Basketball is what I do."
No one on DeRozan's team did it well enough on Sunday. The star-laden group included DeRozan, his Toronto teammate Ed Davis, No. 2 pick Derrick Williams of Minnesota, Houston's Terrence Williams and The Game. Even the Compton born-and-bred rapper came with a decent basketball résumé. He has said in numerous interviews that he had a scholarship at Washington State some 10 years ago before it was revoked because of drug-dealing allegations.
But they would lose to a team that was without NBA talent, beaten on a buzzer-beating jumper by Mark Peters, a diminutive point guard whose smile would stick for at least a half hour after the celebration. Derrick Williams looked uncomfortable throughout, his one monstrous dunk off a pick-and-roll the aberration in a game where he could hardly get his hands on the ball. DeRozan futilely forced the isolation action more than a few times, once drawing a menacing glare from The Game as he stood unguarded in the corner.
"That's what comes with it when you play with so many pros on one team," said Derrick Williams, who would be preparing for Las Vegas summer league later this month in any normal offseason. "You don't really get to showcase what you do. But it was a cool experience. A lot of people come out here and they want to see everybody play, so even if it's only a dunk or a three, that's all the fans out here want to see so I was excited.
"You train so much one-on-one, or one-on-none, and it gets boring playing against yourself basically. This was fun."
The players want to play, in other words, whether in the NBA or elsewhere. And they're not playing around about that stance.