The king of the scene: Why Los Angeles is the new mecca of basketball

Yahoo Sports

When it comes to the “mecca of basketball,” the reflex response has usually been New York. The game gained much of its popularity on those famous, paved concrete courts and legendary arenas, which for decades pumped out so many of the NBA’s legendary players. But New York’s hold on that title has been flimsy, at best, in recent years. And, a close canvassing of the game’s current best would reveal that the place that gave us Bob Cousy, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, amongst dozens of others, has surrendered that claim to the same place that snatched away the Dodgers from the borough of Brooklyn.

What city produced the top three finishers in MVP voting last season? What city produced more All-Stars than anywhere else this season? What city has a strong chance of producing the league’s MVP in consecutive years for the first time? The answer to all three questions is Los Angeles.

“It was the mecca,” James Harden told Yahoo Sports about New York. “They still got a lot of elite talent coming out of New York, obviously. But L.A. is pretty strong.”

Russell Westbrook and James Harden could be back-to-back league MVPs. (Getty)
Russell Westbrook and James Harden could be back-to-back league MVPs. (Getty)

In the past decade, the MVP has grown up in the Philadelphia metro area (Kobe Bryant); Akron, Ohio (LeBron James); Chicago (Derrick Rose); the Washington metro area (Kevin Durant); Charlotte, North Carolina (Stephen Curry); and Los Angeles (Russell Westbrook). James and Curry have each won back-to-back trophies — James did it twice — but Los Angeles has a chance to go back-to-back with different players, something no other city can claim. Westbrook became the first Los Angeles native to win MVP last season, and Harden, who played with Westbrook at the same Challengers Boys & Girls Club in South Central, is the frontrunner to be the second after finishing as the runner-up in two of the previous three seasons.

And, the host city for this season’s All-Star Game boasts a league-best five players in Westbrook, Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George and Klay Thompson (who spent part of his childhood in Portland but played high school basketball in Orange County, California). Kawhi Leonard, who has missed most of this season with a mysterious leg ailment, wasn’t selected but gave the area six All-Stars in each of the previous two seasons.

“I was always rated as one of the top five to come out of L.A.,” Marques Johnson, a retired five-time all-star who played high school basketball at Crenshaw and collegiately at UCLA, told Yahoo Sports. “I’m talking myself, Sidney Wicks, Gail Goodrich, Raymond Lewis and Jumpin’ Joe Caldwell. Those were the guys in the ’60s and ’70s. We held it down for a long time. But now, I’ve been bumped out. Nothing wrong with being top 10. Guys like Russell Westbrook and Harden and DeRozan, Paul George. It’s been some tremendous talent. Most of them, I’ve watched play since they were 14, 15 years old, 16 years old. To see them develop into the creme de la creme of NBA basketball has been a real special treat for me, and I’m really proud of the legacy they have established for players from Los Angeles.”

New York does have two All-Stars in Kemba Walker and Andre Drummond, but it hasn’t had a player win MVP since Erving in 1981 (Michael Jordan was born in Brooklyn but raised in North Carolina and won his last MVP in 1998), or finish in the top three since Bernard King in 1984 (Carmelo Anthony, who split his childhood between New York and Baltimore, came in third in 2014). Though New York continues to funnel talent to the league, the Los Angeles metropolitan area — which Johnson said has expanded considerably in recent years, “It used to be a joke that we’d maybe include Inglewood” — also claims the most total NBA players at 31. Westbrook didn’t know why his hometown appears to be experiencing a renaissance in basketball talent but he offered a short explanation that made some sense. “Uh, L.A. is big as hell,” Westbrook told Yahoo Sports.

Fellow UCLA alum and Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza concurred. “I think everywhere has a good brand of basketball,” Ariza told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t think you can go wrong. It’s going to be great players anywhere, but Los Angeles County is so big, it’s so many people, you’re just going to find more layers, more talent. The odds say that. It’s going to be real tough for players not to get better somewhere where there are so many good players, and they’re all playing against each other. You have no choice but to compete or else you’re going to get pushed to the back. Somebody else is going to come.”

Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle and the Washington-Baltimore area can also take pride in the elite talent they have also developed as basketball hotbeds, but Los Angeles is experiencing a run that even Bryant had to reluctantly acknowledge. But Bryant would rather not have it be overlooked that he and Wilt Chamberlain, two of the five greatest scorers of all time, aren’t from Los Angeles or New York.

“I can actually argue that New York, although it seems to have a lot of great players coming out of New York City, more players came out of Philadelphia, to be honest with you. So we can talk about the roots to the game being there. Let’s start with that,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports. “Then, you can also look down South. I think Chris Paul and Michael will have a lot to say about Carolina and some of the players that come out of there. And of course, a lot of players in Alabama have a lot of say so, too. So you can’t just sit there and say New York is the mecca. I’m putting my hat in for Philadelphia. But right now, in Los Angeles, there is this emergence of amazing young talent that is coming out of here, with James and Russell and some of the young players that are coming up through the circuit now.”

Bryant might represent his hometown in the debate, but his success with the Lakers helped inspire a generation of players in his adopted hometown. DeRozan grew up in Compton and attended Bryant’s camps, and studied his footwork and post moves while watching the local telecasts and always played in Kobe’s signature sneakers. He recently told Yahoo Sports, “Kobe was everything.”

George grew up a Clippers fan, but the desire to play for the Lakers that pushed him to demand a trade from Indiana was partly because of his affinity for Bryant. “When a guy has played and logged as many minutes as him, and has done it for 20 years, he’s obviously doing something right,” George, who grew up in Palmdale, told Yahoo Sports. “That’s what it’s about. Longevity and production.”

Aside from his own contributions, Bryant isn’t surprised by what has transpired in recent years. “I always felt like L.A. would be the spot,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports. “I mean, it’s warm all year round. How could you not get better? On the East Coast, it’s snowing. We had to figure something else out. Out here, you can play year-round.”

The weather might be wonderful throughout the year, but Los Angeles actually benefits from having several indoor courts to play pickup games. As former NBA All-Star point guard and Los Angeles fixture Baron Davis told Yahoo Sports, “There is no street ball in L.A.” Outdoor pickup games at Venice Beach were once where the best tested their skills. But for the best runs, indoor games at UCLA men’s gym, Santa Monica College or the Clippers practice facility and organized summer league games at Drew League were bound to have NBA players who would rather avoid the strain that the asphalt can put on the body. And, while the weather is generally enjoyable anywhere during the summer, a large number of NBA players have chosen to make Los Angeles their offseason residence.

The appeal of Los Angeles is plentiful. Players seeking post-playing careers in acting or film production can get a head start on their Hollywood fix. LeBron James has two homes in Brentwood and is heavily involved in his production company. Several of the top trainers — including Rob McClanaghan and Drew Hanlen — stay there to help players elevate their skills. And, when players start craving competition to work on their new moves, they’d rather be in a place where they can find a good run. “L.A. is just a great city. They got beaches, great food, and eventually everybody makes their way there. Players come in, they find where hoopers are,” Philadelphia 76ers big man Amir Johnson, who grew up in South Central, told Yahoo Sports. “People just want to hoop. Only so many times you can do the same routines and work out. When it comes to competitions and playing, that’s what guys want to do.”

The residual of so many players in one place is that younger players grow up studying and, at times, playing against the best. Ariza recalls watching Davis, Bryant, Paul Pierce, Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson when he was in high school. “I was lucky,” Ariza told Yahoo Sports. “I used to go in there to just watch and study things that they would do and go out and practice it, and do it in my high school games.”

Johnson, now a Fox Sports Net analyst who played the role of “Raymond” in the classic movie “White Men Can’t Jump,” believes the new wave of talent is “unique to these guys” but added that the coaching and training at the high school and AAU level have helped improve the skill of younger players. “I think they’re exposed at such a high level to professional players, especially in the offseason, when players are trying to improve their games,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “When you get that kind of exposure and you get to play against that level of competition on a daily basis, at UCLA’s men’s gym and other areas throughout the city … even if you don’t want to, you’re going to get better. That’s been going on in the ’70s, Magic [Johnson] continued it in the ’80s and LeBron is doing it now.”

Harden and DeRozan also benefited from playing against pros while they were in high school as participants in the Drew League, a structured summer pro-am that attracts the best players at every level, with games called by the NBA officials who also live in the area. “We brand ourselves on putting that 15-year-old phenom out there against that NBA All-Star, that college All-American. We have a melting pot. That’s why it’s so special,” Dino Smiley, the longtime Drew League commissioner, told Yahoo Sports. “We always believed in having the youngsters play with the veterans and now those youngsters are jumping in, like [expected 2018 lottery pick] Marvin Bagley at Duke. This was perfect for him. He took his lumps and now he knows what to do. He’s playing against Hassan Whiteside. He’s at Duke, he’s not going against Hassan Whiteside anymore. He’s going against 18-, 19-year-olds. Our guys have always played with veterans and now their skills are starting to show.”

Coming up with Pierce and Andre Miller, Davis is one of the most revered and respected players from the current crop of Los Angeles ballers, given how he was always willing to come back home even as he became a two-time All-Star. Smiley refers to the UCLA alum as the “Pied Piper.” Davis believes rules changes that opened up the floor for players with the ball in their hands has created a perfect storm for Westbrook, Harden and DeRozan to thrive. “It’s a guard’s game now and we’ve got big guards. I always wish I played in this era, because this is like the style, the lifestyle, the way that we play,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “We got a style. We kind of developed our own swag, we call it the bop out here in L.A. Always good one-on-one players. And being able to come to the league as big guards and be able to do a lot.”

The game is always evolving. Different regions and nations having their seasons in which a talent crop matures. Los Angeles is having its moment now but has no plans of conceding any time soon, with Lonzo Ball possibly leading the next wave and Bagley soon to follow. “We’ve been having stars come out of LA,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “We just trying to keep that tradition alive, keep that L.A. swag going and carry it on to the next era.”

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