Through Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
LOS ANGELES — When Lebron James entered the King Drew Magnet High gym in South Central, Los Angeles, a sea of fans collapsed around him, screaming and holding their phones in the air.
Excited fans rushed onto the pitch as organizers told everyone to resign. At one point, James even stepped in and politely asked a few latecomers to leave.
After news broke Friday night that James would be playing in his first game in the Drew League since 2011 on Saturday, fans began lining up between 7 and 8 a.m. to watch the 1:45 p.m. face of the NBA see
It was an extremely rare opportunity for locals to see James play for free in a very intimate setting.
The gym was full an hour before the game. About 1,450 people took part in the game.
James didn’t disappoint when we saw him play basketball for the first time since April 1st. There were jams. There were Fadeaway 3s. There were his signature dribbles, blowing past defenders with unparalleled power and agility.
At one point during the first half, James sailed down the lane for a one-handed dunk with such force that the hoop visibly rocked back and forth for a few seconds. James stood under the basket with his head tilted up and watched the scene in amusement.
James finished the tournament with 42 points, 16 rebounds and four steals as his team won 104-102. It showed once again that despite being 37 years old, he is still one of the best players on the planet.
Apparently, the plan for James to play in the Drew League on Saturday was hatched about five days ago when Chicago Bulls star DeMar DeRozan – who hails from nearby Compton and has played in the Drew League since he was 17 – hit him invited to play with his team, the MMV Cheaters.
James didn’t hesitate what meant the world to the local community.
“This is a memory of a lifetime for them,” Drew League CFO Michael McCaa told FOX Sports.
According to CensusReporter.org, 29 percent of people in south Los Angeles live below the poverty line. This was an opportunity for people who may not be able to afford a Lakers game to see a four-time champion and four-time MVP.
The Drew League could have charged exorbitant gate fees for James’ first game in three months, as could have happened years ago when Kobe Bryant came through, but that’s not what this league is about.
“It started at the bottom, and it’s going to stay bottom-up and central to the community,” McCaa said. “…It’s not about the money.”
The baselines were crowded with people just yards from James. The referees kept having to tell people to get their feet off the field as the crowd inevitably pushed forward. James had fun with everything. He even smiled and gave a high-five to two young children who ran onto the pitch during a break in play.
The last time we saw James, he wasn’t so happy.
The Lakers were on the verge of missing the playoffs, an epic collapse for a team that entered the season with championship expectations. And James missed the final five games of the season with a sprained ankle.
It was a major disappointment for James, who was playing MVP basketball at the age of 37 and averaging 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists.
Things are still turbulent in LakerLand. As Yahoo Sports broke the news of James’ upcoming Drew League appearance on Friday, ESPN also reported that evening that Russell Westbrook and his longtime agent Thad Foucher had split over “irreconcilable differences,” stemming from Foucher Westbrook’s best believed option is to stay with the Lakers — and Westbrook apparently believes otherwise.
It’s clear that James’ window of winning another title is closing as he nears age 40, and it’s now or never for the marriage between one of the greatest players of all time and the Lakers.
But at least for a day none of that mattered.
On Saturday, James dominated a Pro-Am summer league alongside his friend DeRozan. He laughed and chatted with Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, who was seated on the sidelines. And most importantly, he delivered a show for South Los Angeles.
James smiled throughout the game. He danced while music blared during the breaks. And he put on a scintillating performance at both ends of the court, dominating offense while at one point in the fourth quarter playing lockdown defense so intense it had fans screaming ‘ohhhhhhhh’.
A small child summed up the afternoon perfectly.
“This is the best day ever,” he said as he hopped out of the gym while holding hands with his mom.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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