The Day Baron Davis Introduced LeBron James to L.A. Basketball: Reflecting on "The Drew"

When Davis isn't directing and executive producing documentaries, including his latest on the Drew League, he still has his sights set on a NBA return.

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Complex Original

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Baron Davis was introduced to L.A.’s Drew League as a 13-year old in the summer of 1992, when his high school basketball coach took him to the Drew Middle School gym, handed him a jersey, and told him he was playing.

“They were cussing me out,” he remembers, “they didn’t know I was a kid.” That didn’t dissuade him from going back, though. Davis had found a home. “It was like being raised by your O.G.’s and I was just a baby soaking it all up.”

Nearly 25 years later, Davis not only still plays in the Drew League, which has since moved twice from Drew Middle School to accommodate larger and larger crowds, he’s also become its official biographer. Davis served as the executive producer and director of The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce, a documentary that premieres on Showtime Friday at 8 pm ET.

For Davis, who’s been interested in film almost as long as he’s played basketball, the Drew was a natural subject to tackle. “I would say four years ago I was just itching to direct something, itching to put my taste in the market,” he says. “It was like ‘alright, let me do something that's safe. Let me tell a basketball story, let me find the right basketball story to tell.’ L.A. basketball when I started really thinking about it, nobody really talked about L.A. basketball and what it meant to L.A. people, and what the perception we wanted to be around the world. And I’m going to the Drew and I’m just like, ‘man, this is it.’ This is the perfect place to show where we come from, from L.A. and what our style and our brand of basketball is all about.

“And then as I started getting deeper and deeper into the film, other themes and storylines started coming about: Fatherhood, community, sacrifice, you know what I mean, togetherness. And all that just really just embodied what the Drew was and from that point what was going to be a 10-minute short turned into a full length documentary.”

The Drew takes it all the way back to the beginning, when the league was just a safe haven for East Side ballers in the ‘70s—local legends like Casper Ware, Sr., whose son would go on to play in the NBA—and runs all the way through the present, where visits from LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant turned it into an internationally known summer basketball hotspot. Davis himself brought James there, which was a turning point not only for the documentary, but for the Drew League.

“It was like dude, you got the best player in the world, the most famous basketball player in the world, and here he is in our neighborhood,” says Davis. “You know what I mean? In our neighborhood, man. It was like, we own that. We have that. He’s the most established brand, this superstar athlete, in that moment at that time, and it was like ‘he came to fuck with us.’”

LeBron isn’t the hero of the film, though. Neither is Kobe or Durant, or even Davis himself. No, the hero is Dino Smiley, the league’s second commissioner and the man who presided over its growth. He single-handedly provided hope in an area that didn’t have much, beset as it was by poverty and gang violence. Going in, Davis and his crew knew this was an important aspect to highlight.

“I think for us we wanted to do this [film] to, one, to show that there’s good positive stories too that come out the inner city and African-American communities,” says Davis. “And there’s a Dino in everybody’s hood. Even though it’s an L.A. story, we wanted it to connect to people in Texas and Atlanta and Chicago, and be like ‘man, OK that’s different basketball but that’s Mr. So-and-So!“

Meanwhile, Davis isn’t ready to give up on the NBA quite yet. The 37-year-old point guard played in the D-League last year with the Delaware 87ers, and has every expectation that he’ll be on an NBA roster next season. “That’s the goal,” he says. “I won’t stop til the mission is complete.”

At the same time he’s already thinking about his next project, a coming-of-age basketball movie combining elements of He Got Game and Menace II Society. “This generation needs a film that they can connect with from a basketball standpoint and also a street standpoint that has some heart and soul in it.”

If that sounds like a lot, it is. But Davis doesn’t sound terribly worried about balancing two full-time gigs. “I just like to write,” he says. “You can’t play basketball 16 hours a day, so it’s just working out, working on your body, take a nap, watch some TV, watch some games, and write.”

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