LOS ANGELES – With the NBA lockout shutting down the league's annual free-agent market, general managers and other team executives must wait to begin tweaking and rebuilding their rosters. So far this summer, that's meant no recruiting pitches from Pat Riley and the Miami Heat – or anyone else affiliated with an NBA team.
But that hasn't stopped everyone from working the phones. With Riley, the Golden State Warriors' Jerry West and the Dallas Mavericks' Mark Cuban forced to focus on other business, this summer's biggest powerbroker might be none other than 31-year-old Jayceon Taylor.
Taylor, who is more commonly known as the rapper Game, has taken his talents from the recording studio to the court. In recent weeks, he has worked as the player-coach-GM for Go Ham, a team in South Central L.A.'s famous Drew League, a pro-am circuit that quickly has become a must-stop for any NBA fan depressed by the ongoing lockout.
These days, the best way to see NBA talent is to watch Game's team. He has recruited an impressive rotating roster that has had Kevin Durant(notes), Ron Artest(notes) and recent No. 2 pick Derrick Williams(notes) – among many others – make appearances. The league's reigning MVP, Derrick Rose(notes), is currently mulling a pitch from Game to play.
"In the beginning I had to sell something like, 'If you play on the team, I'll go wherever you're from and we can do a show or something,' as a favor to him," Game recently told Yahoo! Sports. "But now the word on the Drew League is everywhere, and guys are hitting me up to play.
"Durant hit me on Twitter saying, 'I want to play in the Drew League.' I never met him until he came down, and now we're cool."
Game rose to stardom six years ago when his debut album "The Documentary" earned two Grammy Award nominations. The former member of G-Unit also has had two hit songs with rapper 50 Cent, and is coming out with his fourth album on Aug. 23 entitled "The R.E.D. Album." Considered one of the driving forces in reviving West Coast rap, he also has acted in a handful of movies.
A Compton, Calif., native, Game grew up in an area where the daily business often involved drugs, gangs and street hustling. He showed some promise on the court while playing at Compton High School and Cerritos and Harbor colleges, but he never fulfilled it because he was too attracted to street life.
"I was a gangbanger. That's what I got into," said Game, a former member of the Cedar Block Piru Blood gang. "My brother got murdered when I was 13, and my other one right after high school. I got into that life, and I found it to be something suitable to me. When I did basketball, I tried to balance them both."
That didn't always work: Game claims he was shot in his ankle, chest, arm and stomach during his time in college. By the time he got to Harbor, it was clear he wasn't going to make a living playing basketball.
"So I tried rapping," he said, "and, obviously, that was the thing for me."
He now spends his weekends at the Drew League. Since it was established in 1973, the Drew League has showcased numerous NBA players, college stars and street legends. The games are free to spectators, who pack the hot, small gym in Leon H. Washington Park, just north of Watts in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods. Alvin Willis developed the league 38 years ago as a place where the local children could learn "life lessons," and current league director Dino Smiley has carried on that tradition since 1985.
Smiley doesn't tolerate bad behavior – by the fans or players. The rap music played during timeouts doesn't include cussing, and it's not surprising to see rival gang members cheering near each other. The P.A. announcer provides a running commentary and doesn't shy from heckling the players.
"Even though it's in this neighborhood, it's good, it's safe," Game said. "There are never no problems here. It's always a family environment. It's cool."
When Game first tried to enter a team in the league a year ago, Smiley resisted because of Game's background. A few years ago, Game served eight days in jail on a weapons charge after witnesses said he threatened an opponent with a gun during a pickup basketball game at another L.A. park.
"A lot of these courts I was banned from," Game said. "But once I got a little older and settled into my family life, my kids, I had to come here and holler at Dino Smiley. He said, 'Yo Game, you're a menace.' I was like, 'Man, I'm 30 now. Chill.' He said, 'We are going to let you put a team in, but we don't want no bull, no nothing.' "
Smiley kept a watchful eye when Go Ham lost for the first time but said all Game did was show respect to his opponent.
"He's a fun guy and he really loves the league," Smiley said. "He tells me that on Friday nights he can't sleep and he gets excited to play."
"He's really not like what he raps about," said "Steel" Bill Crawford, who coaches Problems, another team in the league. "He's a good dude."
NBA players long have made appearances at the Drew League, dating to the days when David Greenwood, Byron Scott and Lester Conner played. But Game has increased the league's ties to the NBA. In addition to recruiting NBA players to join his team, he also mentions his scheduled games on his website and Twitter account (@thegame), which has more than 500,000 followers. Smiley has been considering moving the league to a bigger venue because of the growing interest.
For Go Ham's most recent game, their roster included DeRozan, Williams, Raptors forward Ed Davis(notes), Houston Rockets guard Terrence Williams(notes) and former D-League player Mike Efevberha. Durant has played in two games to become eligible for the playoffs, and had one memorable off-the-backboard dunk. Sacramento Kings guard Tyreke Evans(notes) turned down Game to play on Pooh Jeter's(notes) team, but Rose said Monday he is considering playing with Game. Other NBA players who have suited up for Go Ham include J.R. Smith(notes), Michael Beasley(notes), Wes Johnson(notes), Shannon Brown(notes), Austin Daye(notes), Joe Smith(notes), Steve Blake(notes) and Joey Dorsey(notes).
"We had a few NBA stars sprinkled in before, but now we get to see Durant, Artest," Crawford said. "Against us, [Game] had a whole NBA starting five."
Rose said it's not hard to see the appeal of playing with a leading hip-hop artist.
"You listen to their music. They come out and see you play," Rose said. "Rappers want to be hoopers, and hoopers want to become rappers. I don't know why both of them are just like that, but we have a connection somehow.
"I would consider playing because I like his music. He's a cool guy, a real guy, and he can play a little bit."
Recruiting NBA talent, however, hasn't led to easy wins for Go Ham. With Baron Davis(notes) and Matt Barnes(notes) among the spectators watching, Go Ham dropped to 5-3 after losing to a team without any NBA players in Nova Stars. Game, who compares his game to that of former Los Angeles Lakers guard Eddie Jones, had two points on a fast-break layup. Go Ham's roster changes from week to week while most of the opposing teams include guys who have played together for years. Tied with two other teams for fourth place in the Ray Lew Division, Game's team is fighting to make the postseason.
"The NBA guys come out here and get a little relaxed and don't go as hard on 'D' as they do on offense," Game said. "We are all having fun, and I don't mind that. But we have to play a little bit more 'D.' "
While Game has enjoyed playing, he still prefers his chosen calling.
"Being a rapper is definitely cooler," he said. "People don't even know some NBA players. If you ain't Kobe [Bryant] or Carmelo [Anthony] they might just walk past them and say, 'Oh, you're tall. What do you do, play basketball?' As a rapper, you get all the perks."