While the Drew League remains one of the most popular Pro-Am leagues in the world for the dazzling displays of professional talent it puts on every week, some of its other endeavors are lesser known, but no less vital for the Los Angeles basketball community.
Among those efforts, The Drew League Foundation is a scholarship fund that raises money to help send kids to college and the Jr. Drew League skills camp is a summer program designed to ingrain younger kids with the skills, work ethic and leadership needed to advance their early basketball careers.
I spent an early Saturday morning on the roof of King Drew High School to watch, listen and learn about the program and how it helps kids become not just better players, but more complete individuals. The camp is open to both boys and girls, and the two rooftop courts are split between the two groups so they can get more personalized instruction from the volunteer coaches.
Maybe when they’re older they’ll be able to better understand the quality of the coaches available. Professional trainer Keion Kindred, who also coaches two Drew League teams (Redemption and LA Loop) and trains many of the elite players who will take the court downstairs, and girls’ coach Lasandra Dixon, or “San” for short, a former San Diego State Aztec who currently coaches and trains at Grossmont College in El Cajon. Other professional basketball players, such as Antonio “Swagg Champ” Biglow of the Drew team Houdini’s Problems, and former California Baptist point guard Elisha Taylor.
While I’m there, I watch both groups run drills to develop their defensive skills and learn a little about the coaches’ different styles as well. Keion has about double the number of boys, so it takes a little longer for them to get organized for their various drills. He tells me he focuses mostly on “fundamentals” to help them get back to basics.
“Raising them right, teaching them how to pass, how to dribble, how to defend, how to be a teammate, teaching them how to be basketball players,” says Kindred.
Apart from just basketball skills, Key says that he tries to instill teamwork, how to be good people, how to give effort and intensity.
San, has a ready made call-and-response drill to get the girls’ attention: “Clap once if you hear me! Clap twice if you’re ready!”
No one on her side doesn’t clap. On the boys’ side, Key has a little more work to do, lining them up by height and telling them that the longer they take the less time they’ll have to play in actual five-on-five games. They take a little while to get organized, but eventually they’re off and running playing 3-minute full-court games.
Key’s one rule change: no double-teams. Some of the boys forget, but he’s quick to remind them. Meanwhile, San has the girls running partnered one-on-one drills; each pair of girls has to take turns defending each other full-court, but if the defender manages to get a steal, she gets to bring the ball back for one attempt at the basket.
While the kids run drills, I take time to talk to some of the adults assembled to help them out. Some are trainers or Nike interns here to hand out the water and snacks that have been collected and laid out for the kids. They insist I help myself, since some of the kids are more excited to get downstairs and watch games than eat. One of the people I get to talk to is Jian Allen, Nike Basketball Brand Manager for the West Coast, and the main go-to guy for all things Nike at The Drew.
“In general, the kids are here and they’re inspired by these ball players at the Drew League, and we wanted to give them an opportunity to chase their dreams, work on their skills, get in better shape, and use the inspiration from these Drew League athletes to help them better themselves,” he says.
I also get an opportunity to catch up with one of Jr. Drew’s alumni, Ms. Kumi Tamura, a 14-year-old former Jr. Drew All-Star Game participant and current player in Nike’s California Storm Basketball Club, a youth league focusing on teaching young athletes to develop their skills.
Kumi reminisces on her experience in the Jr. Drew clinic, telling me that “the coaches help a lot for preparing you (for the next level of basketball), because they’re very interactive with the players.” Her favorite thing about the Jr. Drew was the opportunity to play in the All-Star game, which takes place the day of the Drew League Championship game.
Kumi’s dad, Eugene Tamura, who doubles as an IT Manager at USC when he’s not chauffeuring his burgeoning superstar athelete, says he sees improvement in the children’s games.
“A lot of the same kids come every week and the coaches are great,” he reflects. “You can really tell at the All-Star game, how much better they are.”
More valuable though, he says that the kids get to grow personally as well.
“They get to meet and interact with people they normally wouldn’t,” he says. “They get to be with others that share the same passion for basketball.”
The kids have all obviously had a great time by 10 a.m. when I have to run downstairs to work the grown-up games. Some of the kids will be selected by Keion and San to play in Sunday’s Jr. Drew All-Star Games — one for girls and one for boys.
It will be a chance for the kids to showcase the development they’ve made in front of an honest-to-goodness crowd of spectators, getting them used to the idea of performing at the next level, which for some will be high school ball.
They all seem to be looking forward to seeing who makes the cut, and to be quite honest, so am I. These kids are the future of basketball, and thanks to the Jr. Drew, the future is in good hands.