Nobody likes coming in second place. It bruises the ego, coming just short of greatness. And contrary to the famous saying, runners-up generally are remembered, for one year, at least. That year is their window. It’s the one time they have to course correct history before they are consigned to anonymity. It’s their chance to make things right.
Nationwide Blue Devils—renamed from Nationwide Souljas—know that feeling all too well. The pressure is on and the clock is ticking on their 2019 redemption campaign after losing in last year’s Drew League championship game to none other than a team called Redemption. The twist of the knife: Nationwide coach Roland Jones and Redemption coach Keion Kindred used to coach together, back when their joint team was called Nationwide All-Stars.
Roland started at the league nine years ago, bringing the name Nationwide with him from his hometown of Dallas, Texas. He would play in local tournaments under the name Nationwide All-Stars, and when he was first brought into the league alongside Kindred and fellow veteran coach Wally Moore, he dubbed his first team “NWA,” despite the obvious local connotations. The name changes were due to the split and a new partnership with another coach. The new Blue Devils moniker has a simple explanation: Roland wanted to play off the popularity of superstar forward Zion Williamson by cribbing the title from Duke’s heralded team.
The thing that brought Roland and Nationwide to the Drew all those years ago was the league’s reputation, of course, but what kept him there is “the environment.”
“I think a lot of people don’t realize, to come play in this gym, to play with somebody like George on the mic, can easily intimidate you,” he says. “This is a big stage to play on. It makes it special because you get a mix of pro guys, European guys, that all get to play on the same court. You gotta bring it. It doesn’t matter how much money you’re making, you can easily come here and struggle.”
Few times embody that philosophy like the Nationwide Blue Devils. This year, the squad returns with its vital core, which consists of Crenshaw’s Marcus Williams, a hot-shooting point guard known affectionately as “Mr. Iso,” Trevone Williams, a 6’6 shooting guard from Westchester, and paint-dominating center Glen “Big Baby” Davis.
While Davis continues to play professionally for the Big 3 league, Mr. Iso has held spots on teams all over the world. They form a lethal combination that drowns opponents in buckets, bolstered by scorers like Mike Martin, Kwamere Gredic, and Chris Allen, along with defensive menaces like AJ Harris.
Although they’re in the same division as Redemption this year, barring a repeat of last year’s final game, their rematch is guaranteed to be a can’t-miss barnburner. Meanwhile, the Louis Merritt Division is so stacked with similarly high-scoring teams, they’ll definitely have their work cut out for them racing to 100 for the next 11 weeks.
Nationwide was within a half of basketball of taking down Redemption for the title last year, and have returned hungrier than ever for one of LA’s most coveted hardwood honors. Second place won’t do this time around; the Blue Devils want to win it all and for any team that gets in their way, there will be hell to pay.