The Rowley Park hoopers file into the gym for the Friday night run, kids from the playground outside and students from the junior college nearby, men who either just finished their shifts or haven't started them yet. They shuffle through the lobby, hightops in hand, past pictures of children playing tennis, fliers for a coed softball league, metal signs that read NO DUNKING ALLOWED. One guy pedals in on a red low-rider; his buddy cruises in on a matching green one. The gym is surrounded by the stucco bungalows and swaying palm trees of south Los Angeles, but it could be anywhere in urban America. Painted silhouettes of basketball players, once bright blue, are peeling from the windowless walls. Nine overhead lightbulbs have burned out. Trash talk is too muffled to hear. There are no uniforms, no referees, no stat keepers, and the electronic scoreboard is not working. Sand blows through the open door on windy days and slicks the court.
This is an article from the Oct. 10, 2011 issue
Pickup games have already begun when the guy on the red bike parks along the baseline. He is 6'1" and 169 pounds, slender but well-built, especially compared with his doughy counterparts. He is wearing a white T-shirt with the name BRANDON JENNINGS on the back, in honor of the Bucks' 22-year-old point guard, who grew up a few blocks away in Gardena. At the end of the first game, the guy on the bike dismounts and takes the floor with four friends. He is matched up against a 15-year-old boy in a sweater. He spins the ball in his hands at the top of the key, shuttles it behind his back, dribbles it three times between his legs and drives hard to his left. He gives one defender a head fake, two more a shoulder shimmy, rises over another and throws down a furious tomahawk jam in front of one of the no dunking signs. A few spectators, spread across five rows of wooden bleachers, look simultaneously delighted and puzzled. Welcome to the 2011--12 NBA season—or lack thereof—where the guy with the BRANDON JENNINGS shirt at your neighborhood gym actually is Brandon Jennings.
Training camps were scheduled to open this week, NBA players ushered back to their suburban training facilities and lacquered practice courts. Instead, they are entering Month 4 of a lockout with commissioner David Stern warning of "enormous consequences" if a deal isn't reached soon. So the pros are playing in parks and field houses like rock stars at karaoke bars. This summer, Kevin Durant scored 66 points in a game at Rucker Park in New York City. Kobe Bryant scored 43 in the Drew League at Col. Leon H. Washington Park in L.A. John Wall scored 41 in the Goodman League at Spingarn High in Washington, D.C. Charity exhibitions are drawing standing-room crowds, and fans are rushing the court after deep threes. In a twist that owners could never have foreseen, the lockout has produced mix-tape basketball that is arguably more entertaining than Nets-Cavs and brought stars closer to a public that cannot afford courtside seats. "People want to touch you," Jennings says. "They want to feel you and see how you really are. This is their chance to see us up close."
Jennings has become the union's underground ambassador, appearing in more pickup games than Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. "Where they hooping?" he tweets in the morning, with a hashtag for his location. He considers all offers, and if he chooses one, he tweets the address in case anybody wants to stop by. He is like a taco truck, serving broken ankles. The day that Jennings went to Rowley, a group from El Camino College in Compton saw his tweet and came to challenge him. They might as well have walked into a sparring session with Floyd Mayweather. "He gave us a chance," says Mathew Rodriguez, an El Camino student and tutor. "But not much of a chance."
Jennings did not come to the park with pros. He rolled in with childhood friends he calls AIS, which stands for Alwayz Into Something. Dunking aside, they adhered to the Rowley rules: three-pointers count for two, two-pointers for one, first team to 15 wins, winner plays again. The score was kept on a hand-operated flip board. Kids shot at the open basket when action shifted to the opposite end. Players kicked the ball when they got mad and peeled off their shirts when they got hot. AIS won the first two games easily, with Jennings at three-quarters speed, but was tied at 10 in game three. "F---!" Jennings yelled, before heaving a full-court pass for a layup, drilling a 35-foot step-back jumper, then pulling up for a 40-foot clincher. "Next," he said. After one more game, not as close, he hopped back on his low rider and pedaled into the darkness, past the softball players warming up for their beer league, all the way to his aunt Marsha's house for dinner. "A lot of guys play for the money," says Rodriguez. "Out here, you can see who would play without it."
In his 1970 book The City Game, Pete Axthelm wrote, "Basketball is the game for young athletes without cars or allowances—the game whose drama and action are intensified by its confined spaces and chaotic surroundings." Many NBA players grew up in the chain-link crannies Axthelm describes. They shared asphalt courts, and if they wanted to play, they had to win. When Jennings was three, crying because his cousins blocked his shot in the driveway, Aunt Marsha told him, "Go around them." She made it sound so simple, and for Jennings, it was. He started playing at Rowley Park when he was five, even though no one else was allowed until they were eight. He developed a street-ball style based on blinding drives and no-look passes. He called basketball hoop, basketball players hoopers and the basketball gym hoopington. When Jennings was at Dominguez High in Compton, he asked his mother to drop him off at L.A. Fitness every day at 5 a.m., because he assumed that was when Kobe started hooping.
Jennings adapted to more structured environs, moving across the country to play at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.; across the Atlantic to play for Lottomatica Roma in Italy; and then, after being taken 10th in the 2009 draft, to Milwaukee, where he learned the NBA game under commanding coach Scott Skiles. Jennings became well-known just two weeks into his career, when he scored 55 points against Golden State and took his place alongside Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook in the point guard revolution. Jennings broke his left foot last season, and while he still averaged 16.2 points and 4.8 assists, he did not progress as dramatically as Rose or Westbrook. Jennings studied his statistical splits and noticed that he shot nearly three percentage points better at home. He decided to turn the lockout into the most hectic road trip of his life.
Jennings played against Marquette players at Homestead High in Milwaukee, Duke players at Central High in Durham, and high school players in a midnight run at HAX Athletic Club in L.A. He played against Durant in a pro-am at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore and with him in a charity game at Morehouse College in Atlanta. In New York City he played outside at Dyckman Park and inside at Gauchos Gym; in D.C. he played inside at Springarn High and outside at Barry Farms. They say no one wins in a work stoppage, but Jennings could be Lockout MVP. He scored 81 points in a charity game at Long Beach (Calif.) City College, 51 in the Goodman League and 38 for the Drew League. In one game he made three straight shots from just inside half court; in another he threw a pass to himself off a defender's head and scored. In a third, he threw an alley-oop to himself off the backboard and dunked. Jennings has been spending a lot of time in Baltimore, where he is interning at Under Armour (job title: Curator of Cool), and he works out at the company gym. "I told all the employees they can play me in one-on-one whenever they want," Jennings says. Obviously, he is undefeated.
Jennings was in New York City for a weekend with Under Armour's director of pro basketball marketing, Kris Stone. One morning Jennings left early. At first, Stone assumed he went shopping. But Stone was with Jennings last summer, when they drove by the fabled West Fourth Street courts in Greenwich Village. Jennings shouted, "Stop the car!" and proceeded to win six straight games. Stone should have known Jennings was not shopping. "I was just hanging out in the city and a guy called and asked if I could play in Long Island," Jennings says. "I was like, O.K."
The crowd on Long Island jeered when he loafed through the first five minutes—a reminder that not all of Jennings's appearances are layups. Teammates at the Melo Center in Baltimore froze him out for showing up a local star. Even in L.A., Jennings was banned from a Drew League event because the playoffs were starting, and he had spent so much time out of town. Jennings promptly announced on Twitter that he was headed to Rowley with the AIS crew and would buy dinner at Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles for any five who could beat them. (Jennings has the logo of the L.A.-area chain tattooed on his left arm and has it embroidered on his signature shoe.) "In the hood or out the hood, ref or no ref, he will go to your town and shut it down," says Barry Barnes, part of AIS.
Jennings has a clause in his contract called Love of the Game, common for NBA players, which allows him to perform in unsanctioned events. "Brandon maximizes that clause," says his agent, Bill Duffy. Durant told Jennings he was overdosing on lockout ball, and indeed, a glance at the Twitter feed @H00dFavorite reveals a hoops junkie in constant withdrawal: "I want to hoop in Philly, Houston, Seattle, Boston" ... "LA needs to set up a travel team and travel to different Hoods and hoop!." ... "I just wanna hoop, why not go to different hoods and Just Hoop!!!" Jennings constantly changes his Blackberry Messenger status from "Hooping" to "I want to hoop."
Sitting in the lobby of a hotel in downtown L.A. last month, he tweeted, "Soooo where is everybody hooping today???? #LA." He scrolled through invitations from San Diego, Orange County and Calabasas. "It's easy to find a game," Jennings muttered. "It's hard to find a good game." Frustrated, he checked his phone again, and nodded slowly. "Westchester park," he says. "Be there."
Two and a half hours later, Jennings parks his Jeep Wrangler outside the Westchester Recreation Center and walks past the teenagers in the skateboard park, the toddlers on the playground. He wears a red backpack, to carry his shoes. Jennings has already renovated an outdoor court at Rowley Park, and someday he'd like to make the indoor gym look more like Westchester Rec. The walls are brick, with cutouts for windows, and all the lights are on. Even the scoreboard works. The rules are a bit different: three-pointers still count for two and two-pointers for one, but the games last 10 minutes on a running clock, and the team that's ahead at the buzzer plays again. Everyone contributes $2 for expenses. Jennings scrawls his name on the bottom of a list at the scorer's table and waits to be called. It's as if Sergio García strolled up as a single to the 1st tee of a muni course. Jennings waits a half hour.
Students from Westchester High, who follow Jennings on Twitter, trickle into the gym. So does 24-year-old Matt Fosburg, an architect's assistant on his way to LAX. "Now I don't have to pay $250 to see the Bucks at Staples Center," he says. Jennings sinks his first shot, a 25-footer coming off a screen on the right wing, but then goes cold. The game is tied at 11, and he is in danger of another long wait. Jennings nails a pair of threes—er, twos—one from the right corner and another from the left wing, to keep the court.
The competition at Westchester is much stiffer than at Rowley. Marcus Johnson, who played at USC and professionally in Croatia, teams with Jennings. Leon Jacob, who played in Mexico, and J.R. Lewis, who played in Spain, Germany and Finland, go against him. Gabe Pruitt, who played for the Celtics two years ago and in Israel last season, sits in the bleachers and tries to arrange a night game with Paul Pierce at Inglewood High. "I have to step it up," Jennings says after one game. When he catches the ball on the perimeter, he has a hand in his face. When he drives inside, he is slammed to the ground. Players call their own fouls, and just about every call prompts a shouting match. Jennings wins the first three games, working inside more than he did at Rowley, sending the high school kids into hysterics with his crossover dribbles and slithery scoop shots. In the final seconds of his fourth game, with the score tied at 10, he steps back and splashes a 35-foot fadeaway over two defenders.
Jacob and Lewis walk back to the bleachers and check their phones. They are waiting for calls from their agents with overseas offers, but spots are scarce because of the lockout. International teams, which used to settle for American players who couldn't make it in the NBA, suddenly have a shot with the league's megastars. "It's frustrating because those guys are already millionaires," Lewis says. "They don't need the financial help and we do. But they love the game too, so they want to play." According to a list on hoopshype.com, 59 NBA players had already agreed to contracts with foreign clubs at week's end. Jennings thinks seriously about returning to Italy. Of course, he also thinks about forming his own inner-city barnstorming team and about coordinating his own Bucks training camp. The possibilities can seem endless one day, unrealistic the next.
Over the next week Jennings continues to tweet requests for games in L.A., but he doesn't like any of the proposals, with college players back at school and college gyms overrun with students. UCLA's Student Activities Center was a refuge during the 1998 lockout, jammed with so many NBA stars that general managers stopped by to watch. This summer, the fabled 3 p.m. games drew Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Jrue Holiday, David Lee, Kevin Love, JaVale McGee and dozens more. But UCLA's men's and women's volleyball teams are now using the Student Activities Center. Of course Jennings could always head to Las Vegas, where more than 70 NBA players are training at the Impact Basketball Academy, but the destination does not appeal. "Too many distractions in Vegas," he says.
He returns to Westchester and makes more 40-footers in front of more giddy high schoolers. He wins five straight games, scoring nine of his team's 11 points in one of them, and all 11 in another. He is bothered only after he cuts his hand on the rim with a dunk. "He put one move on me, and I'm still not sure what it was," says Khalif Parker, a 26-year-old Transamerica Retirement Services employee who used to play at Clark Atlanta University. "I think it was a behind-the-back, spin-move, 80-foot fadeaway. What can you do? We're giving him the best we've got. It's just not enough." Parker looks out at the court, where Jennings continues to expand his range, though not quite to 80 feet. "Do you know why he's here?"
It is a question for Stern and union leader Billy Hunter, busy at the bargaining table. Hoopers, Jennings says, hoop. He has spent the summer digging up his playground roots, rediscovering the streetwise confidence behind all great scorers. But it is possible, as Durant suggested, to overdose on pickup. Basketball is not simply performance art. True stars strike a balance between the park and the practice facility, creativity and control. Jennings hasn't just spent the past four months throwing balls off people's heads. He has honed his midrange jumper and added 10 pounds of muscle, which should allow him to absorb more contact and get to the line more often. From his hotel in L.A., he looks out the window at Staples Center. "I shouldn't be here," he says. "I should be in Milwaukee." With all due respect to the students of El Camino College, it's time to get ready for Rose.
Finally, after 13 pickup games, Jennings loses one. The guys who beat him scramble to their phones and tweet the news. They took down @H00dFavorite. They neglect to mention that after 90 minutes playing without a break he could barely walk. Jennings slumps into a folding chair on the sideline and, with whatever breath he has left, tells anybody who can hear him, "I'm looking for another place to hoop."
Watch LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and more NBA stars play in a charity game in Miami, live at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 8.