The Game’s jump shot is ugly as all hell.
He knows it too; occasionally, before letting fly with his unorthodox release, he’ll cross himself in a joking pantomime of prayer and kiss the ball goodbye, playing to the crowd who loves every second of it.
Usually the comical efforts sail long, or short, or sometimes clang off the side of the backboard, but every once in a while, sometimes with absolutely absurd frequency, the ball goes through the net, and it’s always a swish when it does. The crowd goes crazy.
This is the rapper out of his natural element, hanging on the court with NBA superstars and overseas professional basketball players, yet somehow his team, Birdie’s Revenge (inspired by 1994 Tupac vehicle Above The Rim), currently sits just two games away from the most coveted title in Los Angeles sports, with an undefeated record to boot.
The Drew League is an LA institution. Founded 44 years ago in the South Central area, what was once a recreational men’s league has become one of the premier Pro-Am leagues not just in the United States, but worldwide. Plenty of current and former NBA-level talent grew up there; from former point god Baron Davis, to his heir apparent, two-time MVP runner-up James Harden, dozens of All-Stars, benchwarmers, and Hall of Famers have graced the Drew League hardwood. So how did a 6’4” rapper from Compton end up so close to accomplishing a goal all of them sought but intriguingly few have ever achieved?
The answer, like so many things in life, is shockingly simple: Trial and error. This isn’t the first year Game has participated. Born Jayceon Taylor — but known at The Drew as Chuck Taylor, for the iconic hoop shoe that has also become synonymous with LA gang culture he proudly flaunts in his music — has used his rap money to fund multiple Drew League teams. From the Roley Boys to Money Gang to La Familia, since 2011 he’s been going strong. 2011 was also a landmark year for the league, when the NBA lockout brought superstars Kobe Bryant and Lebron James to South Central to play for free out of love of the game. But The Game was involved long before then, and he also makes sizable donations to the Drew League Foundation, a scholarship fund started by the former commissioner Dino Smiley to send kids to college.
Those early experiments were all busts, largely due to Game’s tendency to value star power over consistency. While he used his considerable influence as a popular figure in hip-hop to entice players like DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Kyle Lowry, and even Kevin Durant to play for his teams, they’d often play as guns-for-hire, dropping in on a random weekend to drop 40 points, then disappear, leaving his rosters thin and his regular players fed up with being benched in favor of big names. That, combined with the oft-derided strategy of keeping himself in all 32 minutes of every game — a strategy that most Drew players have called playing “4-on-5” — have kept him from any level of playoff success.
This year, however, brings a new strategy: No NBA players (they’ve bent this rule a bit, bringing in NBA forward Iman Shumpert to play a game late in the season, but gave him a reduced role). Instead, Chuck has chosen to put all his hopes for this season in the capable hands of a lanky, local point guard from the Jordan Down housing projects in Watts named Franklin “Nitty” Session, and a coach who formerly helped design Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 1 clothing line.
Nitty (as in: Frank Nitti, famed Capone family enforcer) is not a professional player; in fact, his only experience at any level beyond high school came from tiny Ogden, Utah university, Weber State (which also produced NBA point guard Damian Lillard). In his day-to-day life, Session manages a Verizon and raises his daughter with his wife, Nicole. He hoops every day though, and despite being mostly self-taught, has risen through the ranks to become the Drew League’s biggest star, featuring prominently in their social media coverage and highlights. His explosiveness and crafty handle have given rise to posters and viral clips have sparked the question: Why isn’t he in the League?
Meanwhile, coach and fashion designer Tracey Mills often corrals and calms the sometimes rambunctious rapper and his colorful crew of misfits. When asked how he manages the fiery personalities that Game has pulled together for this historic run, he merely points to his experience working with Kanye. Often seen prowling the sideline in his own designs — he currently heads up his own brand, A Visitor On Earth — fingers adorned with gold rings and many matching necklaces, Mills directs the feisty rapper’s scrappy team with poise and composure they sometimes lack on court.
The mercurial Game can be as aggressive as he can be lackadaisical on court, just like his music, and his natural proclivity towards provocation is less acceptable as he tries to bully defenders, refs, and opposing coaches. Mills keeps him from getting too boisterous, even going so far as to bench him, something prior coaches have been wary to do with the guy bankrolling the whole operation.
Those two elements — and a whole lot of luck — have factored into a historic undefeated run (the last team to go undefeated, Basketball 4 Life, did so last year with two full-time NBA players) that has Birdie’s Revenge and the rapper with the ugliest shot in the world staring down a semi-finals rematch with the one team that almost beat them in week ten of twelve. That game came down to a controversial call at the final buzzer and a heroic last-second shot from Birdie’s Revenge’s end-of-the-bench backup point guard. The Game probably would have loved to have made that bucket himself, but that jump shot of his would never have allowed it. No matter who you are, you just can’t have everything.