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How the 2011 NBA lockout helped set the stage for Ice Cube’s Big3

Stars brought national attention to the summer leagues that are pillars in their communities

Kevin Durant walks the ball up the court, squaring up with his rival, friend and on-court nemesis, LeBron James. Durant makes a slight stutter step before pulling up for a jumper 2 feet behind the 3-point line — over James’ outstretched arms. The shot goes in. James grabs the inbounds pass and dribbles down to the post, backing Durant down to the baseline. He takes a dribble away from the basket and launches an impossible fadeaway off his back foot and over Durant’s 10-foot wingspan. Nothing but net. The crowd erupts into hysterics.

This isn’t a scene from the 2017 NBA Finals or even the 2012 NBA Finals. This showdown took place at Los Angeles’ King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, in front of nearly 2,000 rabid fans. The year was 2011. The NBA was in the middle of a lockout. Players were antsy, bored and dying to get back on any basketball courts they could find. Shoe companies were also looking for ways to get eyes on their signature sneakers. So NBA ballers flocked to summer league courts that had been pillars in local communities across the country. And summer basketball leagues changed forever.

“The lockout year was our golden year,” said Chaniel Smiley, commissioner of the Drew League. Like many other basketball leagues across the country, the Drew had humble beginnings, launched in 1973 by community organizer Alvin Wills as a way for kids in Compton, California, to do something productive with their summers. Willis saw teenage and adult players flock to the Charles Drew Middle School gym to compete at all hours of the day, so he founded the Drew League as a six-team tournament. The league became a staple in the community, home to future NBA stars such as James Harden and Nick Young.

“The lockout year was our golden year.” — Chaniel Smiley, commissioner of the Drew League.

The 2011 NBA lockout put the Drew League and others like it — Dyckman and Rucker leagues in New York, Atlanta Entertainment Basketball League (AEBL) and Washington, D.C.’s, Goodman league, just to name a few — on the national stage. Now the spotlight on these leagues stands to get even brighter as Ice Cube and his Big3 league of former NBA players are going to be broadcast on national television starting June 25, bringing more attention to the world of non-NBA summer leagues. “Before the lockout, [it was] our locals who mostly knew about the league. But when the lockout hit, we went from being known on the West Coast to being known across the country,” Smiley said. “Players started posting [on social media] about the games, and videos were all over the internet.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Durant was continuing his amateur domination. His next stop would be Harlem’s legendary Rucker Park. The New York park is known for its ultracompetitive games and for legends such as Julius Erving, who got his infamous Dr. J name at the park, to then-Lou Alcindor showing up on random summer days to play. Rucker Park gave birth to the popular early-2000s And1 Mixtape, a video series highlighting the most memorable plays to take place in the park. Allen Iverson made an appearance in 1998, as did Kobe Bryant in 2002. But these moments all happened in the pre-YouTube and social media era. When Durant showed up in 2011, everyone knew about it in real time. Especially when he scored 66 points.

“The Rucker is the pinnacle,” said Jahi “Jah” Rawlings, founder and CEO of the AEBL, a competitive summer tournament of 360 players. It was founded two years after the lockout exhibitions took over the country. Rawlings grew up in New York and cut his teeth in amateur 3-on-3 leagues such as Hoop It Up, where teenage teams from across the country competed for national titles. He also grew up playing in the parks across the city. “When Durant went to those parks, that’s when summer basketball went to another level. We got the wave, and everything just kept expanding.”

Sheer boredom wasn’t the only reason players were heading to these courts. Shoe companies needed to get their products seen, and they needed to get these products seen on their athletes’ feet on basketball courts. So they embraced leagues such as Dyckman in New York City.

“2011 was an incredible year,” said Kenny Stevens, who founded the Dyckman Basketball League with Omar Booth and Michael Jenkins. “Nike put together a team of superstars and had a $5,000 bounty to see if anyone could beat them. … People came out like crazy to see who would be on these teams. The park was packed.” Of course, one of those athletes was Durant, who rocked his KDs on the court while giving Michael Beasley’s team more than 40. Now, Nike outfits leagues such as Dyckman with gear for their tournaments every year.

For Stevens, such mainstreaming of his dreams always seemed like a dream. “It all started with word of mouth,” he said. Stevens, along with Booth and Jenkins, used to play pickup games on the Dyckman courts in the Washington Heights Park in Manhattan. Eventually, they had the idea to organize. “We got some refs together and some teams and made our own shirts. That was our first year.”

Twenty-seven years later, the Dyckman Basketball League is one of the most famous basketball leagues in the country. Now 98 teams compete. More than a thousand fans attend each game every week. And both NBA and NCAA ballers — the WNBA is still in season during the summer, so its players don’t make it — come out to play every summer during the doldrums that come between basketball seasons.

The NBA season lasts from October to June, but anyone who grew up with a love of playing the game can recall hot summer days on blacktops playing with friends they met on the courts. This pickup game culture — whether it be games of 21, 3-on-3 half-court scrimmages or full-court games — has been manifested into a deluge of summer leagues and organizations that embrace the need to play the game after the NBA seasons are over. “Teams go out there and compete against pros and legends, and they realize that they can play on the same level,” said Stevens. “And the level of competition just grows every year.”

These leagues are more than just basketball. They become community centers. These leagues are cultivated by communities looking to — via food drives, scholarships, back-to-school donations and just plain fun — maintain positive and productive environments for their kids in the summer. So as these leagues grow, they understand the importance of community service and giving back. “We try to make our league comfortable for families,” said the Drew League’s Smiley. “All of our games are free, and we keep our food cheap. They’ve given so much to us, and we want to give back. That’s one reason we stay in the community.”

“To me, basketball connects the world,” said Rawlings. His AEBL, which started in 2012, has become a cornerstone of westside Atlanta community-building and engagement, with 1,300 fans crowding the courts every week to watch former players, current stars and celebrities hoop. “It’s about us taking care of the community, making sure the community is getting the resources and support it needs.”

“Players started posting [on social media] about the games, and videos were all over the internet.”

These leagues have always been return destinations for players who grew up playing in them. They come back after turning pro, giving back to their communities and soaking up the neighborhood love. But after 2011, NBA players were strategically seeking out these leagues in the offseason. Now, as soon as July 1 (the first day players are eligible to play exhibition games in the offseason) arrives, NBA and NCAA players rush to summer leagues to tune up and to create viral moments. Leagues are so popular among players that they work closely with the NBA and NCAA to become sanctioned, ensuring that players are approved to play in the offseason.

And it’s not just athletes getting in on the summer leagues — celebrities are involved too. While legends such as Fat Joe and Jay Z have been involved with New York leagues for decades, there’s a heightened engagement on a national level from A-listers. Besides Ice Cube’s 3-on-3 league for retired NBA players, there’s also the Champions Basketball League that just announced Snoop Dogg as its commissioner and Ice-T as a team owner. The AEBL hosts a celebrity game at the end of its season that attracts 3,000 fans.

While Ice Cube’s Big3 league will surely land more eyes on alternative leagues, summer basketball has been a part of black communities for a century. The beauty of these leagues is that they understand and embrace the idea that basketball is a means for upward mobility and community building. That’s why neighborhoods embrace the leagues, as leagues give back to young ballers and families alike. If you’re looking for the “it takes a village” phrase brought to life, look no further than basketball leagues in communities across America. They’re as beautiful as the sound of the first ball bouncing off a blacktop on a June afternoon.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.