NBA Summer Sadness? Pro-Ams Help Fill The Void

It’s often said that there’s no offseason in the NFL anymore.   It’s a 365 day sport from the Combine through the Super Bowl.   With NFL kickoff weekend in the books and the Warriors Championship feeling so last season, patient it’s more evident than ever for basketball fans this month, hospital that the NBA definitely still has an offseason.  When summer comes and the excitement of The Finals fades into the background, discount NBA fans often find their twitter feeds populated with vacation selfies, the free agency circus, and the occasional #riseandgrind shirt optional photo op –  yes please!

But it’s not all June gloom in the summer months for the NBA fan.  Thanks in part to the 2011 lock out, the 24 hour news cycle, and the explosion of social media as the go-to source for sports fandom, Pro-Am Summer Leagues assure us that even in the offseason, basketball never stops.

When it comes to summer basketball, on the West Coast, The Drew League reigns King.  Featuring NBA players alongside streetball stars from the LA area and college favorites, the Drew League is arguably the most recognized Pro-Am for the masses.  The Drew League tipped off in 1973 as a community youth tournament in South Central LA expanding to a 28 team invite-only league today.  With a rich 40-year history, King-Drew Magnet High School has played host to some of the toughest competition while remaining true to its goal of bringing talent back to the community while making meaningful relationships on the court.

In the early 2000s, NBA players would drop in from time to time and the Drew League had made a name for itself in Southern California, but its popularity among casual NBA fans took off in the summer of 2011 with the NBA lockout looming.  That summer, NBA All-Stars like Lebron James, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony took Pro-Am leagues by storm, but Kevin Durant started the trend producing the most Drew League headlines and YouTube hits competing on the Drew League’s GO HAM team.

The consistent presence of NBA players, many of who grew up playing in the Drew League, has continued ever since. This summer, James Harden, an LA Native, and the LAUNFD squad (pronounced L.A. Unified) defeated Nick Young’s Most Hated Players (M.H.P) for the 2015 Drew League Championship, a team that also stared Demar DeRozan – a Drew League player since he was 15.  LAUNFD, winning their 4th Championship in 6 years, started the playoffs as the #2 seed after being abused by a retired Baron Davis (Baron Davis!!!!) and his BB4L squad in regular season play.  To get to the Championship, Harden and LAUNFD had to top Klay Thompson’s CADC team on a star-studded playoff Saturday where Paul George, Reggie Jackson, Stanley Johnson and Andre Drummond all graced the King-Drew High School court.

As the self proclaimed “most elite summer league in the world,” the Drew League strives to maintain its high school gym feel but has undoubtedly raised its profile in the last few years. Now, the Nike swoosh can be seen prominently on the court, the banners and the uniforms since the iconic brand became a major sponsor in 2013.   But not everyone has been a fan of the corporate sponsorship presence.  Rapper The Game announced this year that his team, a fan favorite, would not play in the 2015 tournament citing a lack of authenticity and dedication to the neighborhood and the organization “going corporate.”

On the flip side, Drew League organizers cite the Nike sponsorship as bringing positives to the league that extend beyond the court.  In addition to uniform upgrades, and co-hosted basketball camps, Nike has taken the Drew League’s social media presence to new heights with @DrewLeague on Twitter and Instagram bringing exclusive Drew League content to 150,000+ followers worldwide.  While the game environment has strayed from what it was at its origin, now allowing for VIP parking and reserved courtside seats, the Drew League maintains its dedication to being a resource for the community with games every weekend from May to August, no cash incentives, and free admission for fans beyond the courtside seats.

On the other coast, what the Drew League is to Compton, the Entertainers Basketball Classic (EBC) is to Harlem.  A comparable summer league in New York City, the EBC touts itself as the premier streetball tournament in the world.  The EBC’s roots grew from a battle between Harlem hip hop groups in 1982, and the tournament’s ties to music have grown with it.  Moving to Harlem’s Rucker Park in 1987 to accommodate the thousands of fans attending games, teams entered by Def Jam and Bad Boy Records featured amateur players and streetball stars alongside a young Joe Smith and Kevin Garnett who helped establish the EBC as a place for inner-city fans to see NBA talent without a pricey ticket to the Garden.

The 2003 season raised the national profile of the EBC to its highest level when Jay Z entered a team to compete with rapper Fat Joe’s Terror Squad, the defending EBC Champs.  The two teams featured neighborhood and college talent along with NBA stars Jamal Crawford and Lamar Odom.  Jay Z claimed to have Lebron ready to play in the EBC Championship Game that year which was subsequently cancelled due to the massive August 2003 New York power outage.

While many wondered what could have been in that game, the EBC did not starve for memorable moments in the years that followed. Bill Clinton, Denzel Washington and Mark Cuban have all taken in EBC games at Rucker Park, before the 2011 summer where Kevin Durant dropped 66 points in a classic EBC game from which highlights still circulate 4 years later.

The vibe of the EBC differs from the Drew League in that it has never shied away from corporate sponsorship, and instead, thrives on the synergy between the flashy cultures of hip-hop and streetball.  In its first summer, the EBC was sponsored by Seagram’s Dewars and has continued to see sponsorship from global brands like Reebok, Monster Energy, New Era and AT&T.  There’s no high school gym feel at Rucker Park where players run wild on an NBA style outdoor wood floor, and have been treated to halftime entertainment from artists like Big Sean and Fabolous.

And no basketball tournament at any level would be complete without some good trash talk.   This summer, after much back and forth on Twitter between stars who came up through the West Coast Pro-Ams, Isaiah Thomas, Spencer Hawes, Dorell Wright, and Baron Davis finally got the battle they had been waiting for for years.  The Drew League’s All Stars traveled up to Seattle to take on the Seattle Pro-Am, another storied summer league, on August 28th.   In a Pro-Am match up to be remembered, Zach LaVine, Nate Robinson and Jamal Crawford led the way to a victory for the Seattle homegrown stars who will wear the West Coast crown until a rematch next summer in LA.

In between these Pro-Am All Star match ups, we’ll see a full NBA season, another championship, a new class of rookies and a month of free agency with story lines that rival the game itself.  But when mid-June comes around again, rest assured that the style, the swagger, and the moments that make basketball the sport that we love, never truly stop as long as you know where to look.

About the author: Jamie Litoff. NBA Correspondent. Jamie is an Evanston native and devoted Bulls, Bears, Cubs and Michigan Wolverines fan. A Big Ten girl through and through, Jamie graduated from Michigan before finishing her Masters degree in Sports Administration at Northwestern last year. Passionate about the intersection of sports and technology, Jamie works in digital media and sponsorship at Intersport in Chicago. In her free time, you can find her repping the 300 level of the UC at Bulls games, eating wings at the Birds Nest, laying on a North Side beach or listening to podcasts. Follow her @jamielitoff on Twitter and Instagram.

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