A few hours before premiering his directorial debut, an intimate profile of South Central’s most storied pro-am hoops institution, Baron Davis phones me from his car. “It’s the most peaceful place,” the two-time NBA all-star laughs. “I learned that from LeBron in the Kia commercial.”
Davis, 36, has been absent from pro basketball since suffering a debilitating knee injury during the 2012 playoffs, but don’t call him retired just yet: Davis says he’s had discussions about returning to the NBA and could be back as early as next season.
“I am in a position now where I feel healthy, so I just want to go as far as I can at this point, as far as playing basketball. [Next season] is the goal,” he said, adding, “this is the coup d’grace.”
Meanwhile, Davis has used his time away from the NBA to focus on a second career as a director, producer, and occasional actor, most recently filming cameos in the Entourage movie and David Spade’s upcoming Joe Dirt 2. Movies first caught Davis’s fancy as a student at Santa Monica’s Crossroads School, where the South Central native played high school ball.
It was there that he met pal Chad Gordon, his eventual co-director on The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce. After producing and exec producing a handful of films including Dogtown and Z-Boys’ director Stacy Peralta’s 2008 documentary Crips and Bloods: Made In America, Davis was inspired to pay tribute to the Drew League, the summer pro-am league that’s served as an urban hoops oasis in the hood for players and fans since 1973.
Davis, who credits basketball and the Drew League for helping him jump from the gang-ridden streets of L.A. to a UCLA scholarship and NBA career, gives back in his feature-length love letter to the league and the selflessness of the men and women who’ve kept it going for decades.
“As I started to get toward the tail end of my career and I saw the new generation of basketball players playing at the Drew, I saw a brotherhood and camaraderie,” he said. “That’s what made me want to do the documentary and capture the positivity that was taking place, in a place that has so much social anxiety.”
Davis’s film traces the history of the league from it roots in 1970s South Central Los Angeles through the decades as the economically depressed area saw gang violence and poverty rise, with far too few positive hubs for the community and its youngsters.
Fellow NBAers like Kobe Bryant, James Harden, and Stephen Jackson are interviewed by Davis about playing in the Drew, which has played host to a staggering number of L.A.-born pros paying their dues over the years, balling in the offseason in packed school gymnasiums where the smack talk, and the competitiveness, hits harder than in the pros.
His camera captures the day in 2011 when the struggling homegrown league got a much-needed bump in exposure by a surprise visit from King James, spurring a wave of publicity and rabid interest from players and fans hungry for basketball during the NBA lockout.
“The LeBron footage was just random,” remembered Davis, who’d been lunching with James that day when James expressed interest in the Drew. “It was like, ‘Hey, LeBron wants to play today.’ I was like, ‘We have a game at 4!’ I said, ‘Grab the camera; this is something.’”
James donned a jersey and dominated the court, and footage went viral. Shortly thereafter Kobe Bryant called, asking to play. As the film reveals, Harden eagerly volunteered for Kobe duty and that game turned into a showdown between the two so epic, one witness describes it as a James Harden vs. Kobe Bryant match “with 8 bystanders—and the bystanders are all pros.”
But the people front and center in The Drew, which made its debut Saturday night at the L.A. Film Festival, are the passionate fixtures like longtime commissioner Oris “Dino” Smiley, who says he almost threw in the towel before LeBron’s visit put the Drew on the map and led to a surge in attendance. Davis makes it clear it’s folks like Smiley, founder Alvin Wills, and the dedicated announcers, referees, and concessions ladies who keep the league’s heart beating.
Davis also highlights local players like Tyrone “Big 50” Riley, a Drew standout and Crip who takes the film crew back to the projects where, as a child, he watched his mother gunned down. “I play with a passion for the people that’s not here that I lost,” he says. “So I play with eight passions.”
“I wanted to unlock a treasure chest of incredible basketball stories that come from L.A.,” Davis told me. “L.A. has a rich history of basketball and basketball stories, and I think New York and other places get a lot more credit, and that’s because no one has been able to tell the L.A. basketball stories.”
Stories like Riley’s—or that of Compton-born Kenny “Bad Santa” Brunner, Davis’s onetime high school rival whose near-parallel path through the basketball ranks diverged sharply into crime, jail time, and eventual redemption through the Drew League—give The Drew an authenticity Davis says is missing in most mainstream media depictions of L.A.’s basketball scene.
“There’s always a corporate point of view, and then there’s a deeper, more realistic view where you actually get a glimpse of what it actually feels like to be somewhere, as opposed to wish fulfillment,” he said. “South Central is depicted as the most violent, pretty much gangs, drugs, and poverty, unemployment. And it’s true. But at the same time, not every person is a bad person. Not every person is unemployed. We have to open up our minds and open up our ways of thinking to be able to show that… Sometimes when you shine a light on them, people want to change. Some people just want their voice to be heard.”
Davis is developing a slate of similar sports-themed projects through his company, which he says will launch next year as a multi-format content shingle akin to Vice Media, “but for sports.” That lineup may include reality television and narrative features, including more films that will see Davis behind the camera as director.
Maybe the most exciting potential project for fans of basketball and movies that Davis says he’s developing is a “big, broad live-action movie that will star a bunch of NBA players—kind of like an Avengers for basketball players… an A-Team of guys that have to do something to save the world.”
“This is basically for all the current guys like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, the Westbrooks, the Hardens, guys like that,” he enthused. “I mean, I wanted it to be Space Jam 2! I love Space Jam. And there have been so many great basketball movies. [But] there’s been a big void in basketball movies and good stories that come from sports. Now that the sports audience is there, I want to build a brand and a company that speaks to that audience and gives them an opportunity to talk back.”
First, Davis will be glued to this week’s NBA Finals. Diplomatically enough, he declined to pick a favorite going into Sunday night’s showdown in Oakland: “I’m rooting for a Game 7.”