For a city that is the home of a 16-time NBA champion, is one of just two markets to house a second NBA team and features a state university that has won 11 NCAA basketball championships, Los Angeles doesn't always get the respect it deserves as a hoops Mecca. You could throw out a starting five of current All-Stars including Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Paul George, Tyson Chandler and Kwai Leonard and the media and fans would still find themselves hyping New York or Chicago before sunny Southern California. The new documentary “The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce” isn't intended to rectify that misconception, but it provides a lot of historical fodder to support the argument that basketball's real hot spot is Los Angeles.
Directed by both former NBA and UCLA player Baron Davis and newcomer Chad Gordon, “No Excuse, Just Produce” is a love letter to The Drew League, a semi-pro summer league that has been a fixture in the LA area since 1973. Davis and Gordon do a good job trying to explain how the league worked in its early years based out of a small middle school gym in South Central LA. Originally, it was meant as a way to get young men off the streets and, eventually, became a no-gang zone where members of competing Crips and Bloods would play alongside each other, ignoring their rivalries once they stepped into the gym. Fast forward a few decades later and The Drew has grown from six to 10 to 28 “invitation only” teams that feature high school, college, professional and amateur players. There are hundreds of stories Davis and Gordon could tell about this venerable local institution, but they do their best to provide a general overview that has its pluses and minuses.
If anyone is the star of the film it's the league's longtime commissioner Dino Smiley. A fixture at the league since the beginning, Smiley took over in 1985 and his entire family has essentially kept it going through some very tough times. Whether it's been paying the bills to keep the lights on, seeing players gunned down due to gang violence or weathering the 1992 LA riots, Smiley has persevered by keeping the league as a place where multiple generations of families can flourish together.
Davis (who played in the league) and Gordon try to give some attention to less familiar names such as Kenny Brunner, who made a personal and professional comeback after playing in the league; current player Tyrone “Big 50” Riley; or legendary point guard Casper Ware Sr., whose son played for the Philadelphia 76ers, but they also want to entertain the audience. It's clear there was less archival footage from the '70s and '80s than you'd hope for, so the third act of the documentary focuses on the events surrounding the 2011 NBA lockout. That's the summer the Drew League finally earned some national attention.
As the lockout dragged on, NBA players became restless and began looking for a place to simply get some run against solid competition. Before Smiley and his crew knew it, some of the biggest names in the game such as Kevin Durant, Lebron James and Kobe Bryant were turning the Drew into a mob scene. It should be noted that by playing, the players were publicly reminding the owners what they were missing out on, but it was all to The Drew's benefit. And, like a perfectly scripted Hollywood movie, Bryant's participation featured an epic showdown vs. a relatively young James Harden and a last-second game winner that only endeared the legend of the Black Mamba to his LA fans even more (if that was even possible).
As Smiley notes, the publicity and star power of that season helped save the league. Today they have very visible corporate sponsors such as Nike and Time Warner Cable and can easily pick and choose which teams will join the league.
Davis and Gordon edit this footage wonderfully and you can't fault them for using James and Bryant to draw attention to a league they so passionately care about. During a Q&A following the film's premiere at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival, Gordon remarked about how there were at least four or five different documentary subjects touched upon in the film and that's the doc's biggest fault. For better or worse, “The Drew” leaves you wanting to know much more about the stories of the unknown players who ran up and down the courts in that small Junior High gym. But, as a document of LA's impact on the global basketball scene? It's a slam dunk.