The sequence played out in what’s encapsulated Kobe Bryant’s career. The clock ticked down as his team trailed by one. The ball remained in his hands. And, of course, Bryant buried the game-winning jumper.
This game didn’t take place at Staples Center and Bryant wasn’t even wearing a Lakers uniform. Instead, this play that he’s performed countless of other times happened at Colonel Leon H. Washington Park where Bryant played in a Drew League pick-up game during the 2011 NBA lockout.
With the Drew League celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer, officials still have vivid memories of Bryant’s appearance and ultimate game winner.
“It was the top moment,” Drew League commissioner Oris “Dino” Smiley said. “You couldn’t script it. You got a guy to come in on a Tuesday when it was supposed to be hush hush. Word got out. He packs the place. He comes, doesn’t disappoint and gives you every signature move he had. How can you set up with 16 seconds on the game clock, he gets the ball in a tie game and he hits the game winner? He got him down there to the elbow. Did the fadeway and hit it with his arms up, the crowd hits him around the waist. It’s pandemonium.”
Below are some of the reflections Drew League officials and players have on that moment:
Jacie Prieto, Nike spokesman and one of Bryant’s publicists: “Jerry Sawyer, his president of his company, has a relationship with some of these guys. Jerry has had a long basketball career here. They called Jerry if he wanted to come. Kobe wanted to check it out, obviously. He knows what it’s done for the community.”
Smiley: “The thing with Kobe is we came off the game with LeBron two weeks earlier when he made an appearance. A lot of people were putting it out there in social media, “Hey Kobe, you let the King come to your community and play. We haven’t seen you in the Drew League. When are you going to make an appearance?’ About a week or two later, we got a call from his representatives that he wanted to play and he wanted to only play in the same gym that LeBron and Durant played in. We thought about putting it in a bigger venue, but he wanted to play on the same court. He wanted to play that Saturday. We couldn’t do that because it was the championship game. We ended up putting him on a Tuesday.”
Michael McCaa, Drew League’s chief financial officer:“We got word from one of Kobe’s representatives over at Nike. The representative comes to us and asks Dino if Kobe could play. At that point, Kobe was playing the championship game. The championship game was being played at the Drew League. The Nike rep says, ‘Can Kobe play in the Drew League?’ Dino says, ‘No, Kobe can’t play in the Drew League. It’s our championship game. It would skew the competition.’
Of course, Kobe’s representative was taken aback because of that. ‘Are you kidding me. You’re turning down the greatest player in the world?’ But Dino said, ‘What we could do is we have a team that’s going to play in Washington D.C. and we have a practice with all the other NBA players. We’ll be having a scrimmage taking place the week after the championship game.’ Kobe’s representative said, ‘That would be great.'”
Prieto: “We had something to do with Nike that day. We had a lot of time. Jerry said there’s a lot of action going on in the Drew League. Do you want to check it out. It’s close by. He said, ‘Absolutely, let’s check it out.’ He walked through. The consumers went nuts. Obviously. It’s Kobe Bryant. They’re going to get excited over any NBA player. But to see someone who’s such a legend, especially local, security had to manage the stands. People were running in their seats.”
Casper Ware Jr, former Long Beach State standout: “I was playing on the opposite team with Kobe. That was great. Any other NBA players, I didn’t take any pictures. When Kobe came, I did all that.”
McCaa: Dino and I had kept it close to our vest. We didn’t want to leak anything out and have a crazy outpouring of confusion and chaos at Washington Park. He held it close to our vest the day of Kobe arriving. Of course rumor on top of rumor got out. Word got out that Kobe would be there. On the day Kobe came to Washington Park, there were thousands of people out front. The media was out front. Kobe comes in. We have a lot of security that day. Kobe comes in. It’s total chaos in front of the gym. Everyone’s buzzing around. He comes in and is situated. Me and Dino talk to him a little bit. He gets dressed. When he comes into the gym, it’s a high level of excitement.”
Smiley: “Kobe came late and we were all in the locker room. It was Paul George, Craig Smith, Nick Young and Trevor Ariza, Dorell Wright. I said, ‘Kobe wants to play, but he wants everyone’s best game. He wants someone to go at him. Is anybody going to take that challenge? James [Harden] raised his hand and said I got his [butt]. From that point on, that’s when the rivalry took place.”
Harden helped the Oklahoma City Thunder unseat the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals the following season. He also outscored Bryant in the Drew League game, 47-44. But Bryant still owned the moment by hitting a fade-away jumper from the free-throw line over Harden to secure the victory.
Casper Ware, Sr, a Drew League pioneer “It was Kobe and Harden going at it. It was amazing because it came down to the last moment. It was tied up and Kobe had the ball. James Harden was guarding Kobe. You know what Kobe did. He was the Black Mamba. James Harden held his own and played great defense. But he made a big shot. He made a 15-20 jumper. It was a Dirk fadeaway. He threw both hands up in the air. Everybody rushed the floor and surrounded him, screaming and yelling.
McCaa: “It was scripted for television. Kobe comes into the Drew League. He comes in and shoots for 40 something. He hits the final second shot against James Harden. Just a phenomenal moment. The energy level and level of excitement. Just the pandemonium in the community around that was a phenomenal day for the Drew League. It was a phenomenal performance.”
Prieto: “Kobe came out he was for the first couple of minutes, he was feeling out the competition. Then he let loose the way he knows how. That buzzer beater was amazing. People went crazy, ran out of their seats and he was quickly escorted away.”
Nick Young, Lakers forward, former USC standout and frequent player in the Drew League: “That’s when the Drew League arrived. It was like when [Michael] Jordan arrived at the Rucker. It was incredible. Everybody was there. It was a good time. Kobe really came out and conquered. That was pretty big.”
McCaa: “Now you’re talking about absolute chaos in the gym. Kobe takes off his shoes and throws them in the crowd. It is crazy. Then we move him to our makeshift locker room. People are banging on the door to get inside and we squeeze people in. More people are in than were supposed to be in. Kobe is signing autographs.”
Ware Jr: “After the game, everyone went in the locker room to see Kobe. I got to get a picture with him.”
Prieto: “Kobe went in the back and had an opportunity to meet Dino and the Drew League staff. That was great. They took some photos. All of the LAPD and Sherrif’s office that shared the beat showed up. That was interesting as well. Kobe’s a wonderful partner of LAPD so he spent a lot of time talking to them.”
McCaa: “That moment ranks the highest because Kobe is a Los Angeles Laker. That’s what did it. To be more pertinent to that, I think that’s one of the reasons Kobe came because LeBron [James] and Kevin Durant came [earlier]. Kobe coming to the gym trumped Kevin Durant and LeBron James, in my opinion, in fan interest, community interest. It shot everything to the moon.”
Prieto: “What makes the Kobe moment stand out is there was no mention that was he going to come. He just showed up. That element of surprise was so authentic and unplanned. It impacted the consumers and gave the guys on the court he was playing against an opportunity to elevate their level of play.”
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