By: Aaron Williams
Saturday’s matinee game brought a buzz of excitement to the Drew League, as the marquee matchup marked the return of wayward, local star Jayceon Taylor, better known as rapper The Game, to Drew High School, along with his new, revamped team: Birdie’s Revenge. Birdie Taylor and his new gang, including veteran guards Tim “Bugatti” Johnson and Frank “Nitty” Session took on the always-hungry Hank’s Panthers in an electrifying tilt that went right down to the wire.
The Panthers had plenty to prove this week after a bad loss to Basketball 4 Life in week one; they were unable to overcome that team’s high octane offense without their big guns, Jojo Morgan, Kevin Houston (who was in France), and Donald Lee. Meanwhile, Birdie’s revenge was not only able to pay back Houdini’s All-Stars Coach Allen Caveness for poaching their high-flying forward Kwame Alexander in 2014 by stealing back both of their star guards. They added coach Ivan “Ice” Lattimore to their bench, which brought the defensive efficiency Game’s teams have lacked in the past; he favored a full-court press with Robin Hoodz Project in 2014, but lacked the personnel to ride the strategy long term. After a year with Houdini (who likes to press as well), Bugatti and Nitty were more than up to the task. They were backed up down low by big Willie Reed, who absolutely dominated the paint throughout the game.
From the outset, one thing was clear: Birdie’s Revenge is Jayceon’s team. He played nearly all 32 minutes of the first two games of the season, which can both help and hurt his team. If you can’t say anything else, he’s pretty entertaining to watch, from his unorthodox, foot-shuffling 3 point shooting form, to attempting a bounce-pass alley-oop that didn’t quite connect early in the first quarter. His teammates and coach took it in stride; Session noted that when Game gets the ball on the wing, he knows “it’s going up. You better go get a rebound, or get back, but it’s going up.”
Despite a pair of those early 3 point attempts going in, the Panthers led Birdie’s Revenge 20-16 at the end of the first quarter.
They were able to hold the lead through most of the first 2 quarters by attacking the rim and aggressively crashing the offensive boards. Game himself responded by throwing himself into the passing lanes, diving on the floor for a loose ball steal, and dishing a nice touch pass assist to Markus Monroe in transition. Nitty got a rise out of the crowd at 5:45 with a dazzling dribbling display through traffic on a broken possession that resulted in Stephaun Branch scoring on a banking layup that tied things up at 26. Branch gave Birdie’s Revenge a 2-point lead on his next possession, another contested shot off the glass.
Not to be outdone, Jojo Morgan dished a beauty of a pass to Don Don Parham for 3 to keep it close and a Phillip Reed mid-range closed to 1 midway through the second quarter, 34-33. Frank showed off all his moves on a drive that led to a reverse, but Jojo ran all the way back and caught a lob and dunked at full speed, getting his rhythm back for a corner three that put Panthers back up 42-40 at 1:06.
Don Don hit a mid-range that gave the Panthers 48 with 3 seconds on the clock but Jayceon flipped up yet another long 3 that banked in to give Birdie’s 45 at the half. I guess the basketball gods heard Ice’s prayer: “Go in!”
The third quarter was an erratic affair – and that’s putting it nicely. No one made a shot for almost 3 minutes of game time; the less said, the better. The Panthers started to pull away, but Birdie’s Revenge held their composure in recognizing that they had time to get back in it. Frank hit Willie Reed inside for the first score of the quarter, but Jojo dunked a put-back while Birdie’s stood around looking to maintain the 5 point lead.
At 3:00 almost exactly Jojo elicited more oohs and aahs from the crowd with a mean Euro-step and left-hand layup that gave the Panthers 53.
With the Panthers firmly in the driver’s seat with 30 seconds left before the final frame, Birdie’s continued to press and tighten the screws on defense. Reed swatted Vincent “Hot Dog” Harris’ final shot attempt, but Birdie’s was unable to score in transition, leaving them 5 points behind,
They finally realized they had a near-7 footer in Willie Reed for the first bucket of the 4th, and chased down the Panthers to prevent the comeback score. Birdie’s’ guard Julian Caldwell threw a lob to Reed to close to 3, but Jojo refused to let them stay within range, hitting another 3 from the right corner to extend the lead to 6 with 62 points to Panthers. Birdie’s battled back yet again, using Willie Reed’s size to rack up another block and a man-sized dunk to tie the game at 62 with 4:20 and force a timeout.
Julian go ahead 3 put the pressure back on the Panthers. Houston responded with a contested layup that kept it to 1. It looked like things might get out of hand after a Sessions forced a turnover and a breakaway lay-in, but Jojo hit yet another big 3, keeping it to one possession with Birdie’s in the lead with one minute left to go. Phil Reed caught a teammate’s airball and put it back to tie at 69 and the Panthers fouled the attack on the ball back to Birdie’s with 11 seconds exactly on the clock. They shut down Frank’s drive and recovered the rebound, but Daryl’s last second desperation heave rimmed out to send the second game of the day to OT.
Birdies’ scored twice in rapid succession to start the extra time. Phillip Reed left 2 points at the foul line, leaving the Panthers in dire straits with 35 seconds left at 73-69. Donald Lee forced the turnover to Jojo who gave it right back for the And-1 lay-up. Lee did his job at the line, and Panthers used their last foul to give. The Panthers picked off the in-bounds pass but Lee bobbled the pass out of bounds, forcing Jojo to foul Julian to stop the clock. He made one free throw but missed the last one long; Willie Reed long armed the rebound and Sessions drew the foul for the last free throws of the game. He hit the first, hit the second, and iced the game. Markus Monroe showboated a runaway dunk just before the buzzer to Birdie’s to win, 78-72.
Due to a technical glitch, we are unable to print any detailed stats, but the Player of the Game honors went to Frank Session. “It’s hard to rip me; if they’re gonna gamble, I’m gonna make them pay for it. Whatever the defense gives me, I’m gonna take; if they come up, then I’m passing. If they don’t come up, I’m passing. I’m a scorer, I’m a passer, I’m a shotmaker,” he told me after the game. He definitely showed he earned his nickname; on the court, he’s a professional assassin.
Panthers need a win, badly. They’re a playoff team if they can get going, but the Drew League season is short, so they better handle their business against Salvatori’s Spirit Saturday at 3:15. Birdie’s, now 2-0 to start, looks to a make a meal of No Shnacks at 12:30 but it won’t be a walk in the park; they’ve got some athletes now and looked very good against Problems this week, despite a loss. Week 3 starts FRIDAY NIGHT with a triple-header at 5:30.
Aaron Paul Williams is a freelance writer and has written for DrewLeague.com and Clipperblog. He is also the creator of Compton Beach, a lifestyle brand and media company that seeks to change the way the world views South Los Angeles and benefit the communities he and so many others reside in, work in, and love. Catch him on Twitter: @aaronsmarter.