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Hip-hop Hoop

At Drew Middle School in South L.A., the games can best be compared to New York's legendary playgrounds

July 07, 2006|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

From the street, the South Los Angeles school appears vacant on a Sunday morning. But walk deeper into the heart of the small campus and sounds resonate from within the banana-yellow gymnasium.

The screeching of shoes. The chatter of young men. The cheering of fans. The pulsating rhythm of a ball against hardwood.

Basketball is being played here. Only the games barely resemble anything seen in the NBA playoffs or the NCAA tournament.

This is the trash-talking, ankle-breaking variety that's more hip-hop and neo-soul than jump-stop and pick-and-roll.

And nowhere in Southern California is it played better than at Charles R. Drew Middle School.

Inside, a banner with the names of former Drew League players is draped on a wall. NBA stars Gilbert Arenas, Baron Davis, Corey Maggette and Andre Miller. Street ball legend Raymond Lewis.

"It's our Rucker," says Kenny Brunner, a point guard from Compton, comparing the gym to New York's famed street ball courts. "Whenever you want a good run, everyone knows to go to the Drew."

What started more than 30 years ago as a loosely organized opportunity for a small number of local players to come back home and play during the summer months has grown into a league of 21 teams that include some NBA players. Weekend games at Drew draw standing-room-only crowds.

The games themselves, though, can be compared to organized playground exhibitions. There are referees and standings are kept, but there are more similarities to street ball than differences.

"For big games, the music is loud, the adrenaline is pumping and the crowd and announcer are going to let you know whether you are playing bad or not," says Dino Smiley, commissioner of the Drew League for two decades.

The games are characterized by a frantic pace -- scores routinely reach the 80s and 90s in 32 minutes -- in which elbows fly freely but fouls are hard to come by.

The lone basic rule: If it looks good, it's legal -- prompting players to practice moves with colorful names such as "the whirlwind," "the blessing" and "the breath and stop."

"It's basketball at its purest form," says Todd Boyd, a critical studies professor at USC. "The game grows out of the street. Many of the players who make it to the NBA started playing basketball in a street ball environment."

The playground style has its critics, however. Some contend that the emphasis on flashy moves and one-on-one duels -- popularized in video games and by the shoe company And1, which sponsors a traveling show of top street ball players -- lures young players into embracing a style of play that won't sit well with a high school, college or professional coach.

"And1 is leading that kind of play as the new-millennium Harlem Globetrotters," says DeAnthony Langston, a former college player who is now a coach. "But real basketball players going somewhere know they can't do that stuff."

The street ball culture got a boost into the mainstream when And1 received a grainy compilation of the playground moves of former New York street ball legend Rafer Alston. Soon after, Alston became the first player without an NBA contract to sign a shoe deal.

From there, other legendary street ballers were brought together and today And1 players tour 25 cities during the summer months, have their own video game and a show on ESPN.

Alston now plays for the Houston Rockets and only five of And1's original players remain on the roster, which features new talent each season. Two recent additions to the team are Los Angeles products -- former USC forward Jerry Dupree (known on tour as "The Assassin") and Brunner ("Bad Santa"), who in a troubled college career bounced among five colleges, including Fresno State, which he left after being charged with threatening a student with a samurai sword. Those charges were later dropped.

Dupree and Brunner honed their skills on the courts at Drew, where Dupree says, "It's fun to just get out there and show your athleticism."

Brunner played opposite former Clippers center Keith Closs and rapper Jayceon Taylor, better known as The Game, in one recent game, which featured several behind-the-back and no-look passes, alley-oop dunks and a couple of 360s. All the while, an announcer trailed the action, urging them over his microphone to go one-one-one and embarrass whomever was on defense.

"Basketball is a show," Brunner says, summarizing a typical performance. "It's all about who can do what the best."

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