Saturday, August 27, 2011
NBA stars meet the future in Venice Beach
By Chris Palmer
It’s not easy to stand out on Venice Beach.
With sidewalk performers, buff bodies and curious oddities of all sorts there’s a lot to compete with. Equal parts bazaar, freak show and art exhibit, Venice Beach is one of the most colorful stretches in all of Southern California.
Enter one of the NBA’s brightest stars.
Kevin Durant strode down Ocean Front Walk, the vibrant band of asphalt that divides Venice from its beach, as casually as he would make his way to an ice machine at the end of a hotel hallway.
Dressed in basketball shorts, black socks and flip-flops, Durant stood head and shoulders above earthy longboarders, jaded locals and eager tourists from places like Japan and Holland.
“He’s so tall,” gushed a woman at a bike rental stand straddling a blue beach cruiser. Throngs of people trailed behind him. Durant’s destination was the basketball courts that are no more than a chest pass from where 17th Avenue meets Ocean Front Walk.
But after dominating on his much publicized whirlwind summer league tour, highlighted by his 44-point effort to lead the D.C.-based Goodman League in a thrilling 135-134 victory over L.A.’s Drew League, on this day the NBA’s leading scorer would take a backseat to the next generation.
Durant and a half-dozen of his locked-out brethren showed up for the sixth annual Boost Mobile Elite 24 All-Star game, which features two dozen of the best high school basketball players in the country.
For one afternoon Venice was the center of the basketball universe as NBA royalty and A-list actors rubbed elbows with AAU coaches and streetball legends as long-limbed, teen-aged stars dunked until their hearts were content.
Swingman Justin Anderson of Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.) was named co-MVP with forward Kyle Anderson of St. Anthony’s (Jersey City, N.J.) of the fast-paced affair short on D and long on breakaway throwdowns. But Baltimore’s Aquille Carr (21 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds) was the real winner for generating so much buzz about his video game-like playing style and winning over the pros in attendance.
The “Marques Johnson” team beat the “Raymond Lewis” team 142-132 but the real show was not always on the court but around it. Along with Durant, fellow locked-out stars in attendance included John Wall, Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, Kevin Love, Derrick Williams, DeMar DeRozan and Matt Barnes.
Jennings, who was an assistant coach for the Lewis squad, sat on the bench decked out in a designer red backpack and bedazzled sneakers bouncing a small infant on his knee for most of the game. Next to him was the NBA’s leading rebounder and budding volleyball pro, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Love.
The action was on the court, not on the boardwalk as the Elite 24 All-Star game took over Venice Beach.
During the game Derrick Williams tweeted, “Aquille Carr [is] the best player in high school basketball.”
Brandon Jennings then retweeted it. Later a smitten Williams took a picture with Carr and tweeted that, too.
“I really thank him for that,” Carr said. “That will probably give me a lot of publicity and everyone will want to come see me play.”
That hasn’t exactly been a problem for the 5-foot-6 sophomore from Baltimore, who can already dunk and is nicknamed The Crime Stopper. “When I play crime goes down because everybody stops what they’re doing to come see me play,” Carr explained.
He didn’t seem to mind that he would be marooned in Los Angeles for another day or two thanks to Hurricane Irene. “I’m gonna enjoy this,” he said. “I met a lot of pros and made new friends. This weekend was nothing but fun to me.”
At halftime, Love walked across the court to greet Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx, who enthusiastically hugged it out with the former UCLA Bruin. The two exchanged numbers, made small talk and promised to keep in touch.
As the second half started and the prep stars raced up and down the court lobbing and dunking in the warm California sun, Foxx was given a microphone to entertain the crowd. When the DJ played an old soul tune over the PA system famed Rucker Park announcer Duke Tango improvised a lively jig you’d imagine an intoxicated uncle pulling off at a family barbecue.
“That’s not the Dougie,” said Foxx, “that’s the Frederick Douglass.”
The game was the culminating event of a week in Southern California, but for many of the players the highlight came on Wednesday in an open run at HAX Athletic Club in Harbor City that pitted the prep stars against a team of pros that included Jennings, Walker, Evans, Williams and Jordan Hamilton.
Shabazz Muhammad, a 6-6 small forward from Nevada who is widely considered the No. 1 player in the country, relished the opportunity. Particularly his matchup with Kemba Walker. “He’s small but so fast,” Muhammad said. “With that type of quickness if he plays the 2 he’s going to do some damage in the league.”
Walker was impressed with what he saw, as well. “There was a ton of talent out there so we knew we had to go at them hard,” said the former Connecticut point guard. “They’re so young but they competed with us the entire time. These kids are definitely the future.”
Several players had to shake off nerves that came with being matched up with some of the NBA’s best young talent. And the embarrassment that came with getting crossed up or dunked on.
But for MVP Anderson the entire weekend had a businesslike feel. Anderson, who has committed to Virginia, possesses an NBA-ready, chiseled physique and media savvy well beyond his years.
“Some of us are at an age that when we see pros they’re just another player,” Anderson said. “I say that with total humility and I appreciate them tremendously but they’re where we want to be so we have to go at them.”
Anderson, who attends Durant’s alma mater, says he keeps in regular contact with his fellow Maryland native. “Oh yeah, that’s my guy,” he said.
The open run began a dubious week for 6-10 center Mitch McGary of Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, when he was violently dunked on by No. 2 overall draft pick Williams. The resulting footage quickly made the rounds on the hoop mixtape circuit. During warm-ups of Saturday’s game McGary shattered a backboard while dunking in the layup line, sending ice cube–sized pieces of glass showering to the asphalt. McGary suffered several nasty cuts on the back of his neck, which prevented him from playing in the game.
“I’ve never seen that in person,” Anderson said. “I was actually close enough that some glass went down the back of my jersey.”
By late afternoon the sun began to drift closer to the horizon and the defense on the court was nonexistent. At the final buzzer some players scrambled to get autographs from the pros who stayed 'til the end. But the freshly minted friendships these high schoolers left with are far more valuable than a scribbled signature on a miniature basketball.
The players hugged and laughed and promised to follow one another on Twitter. They donned backpacks, flip-flops and ball caps and made their way to the team bus, which could only be reached after a 30-yard gauntlet through Ocean Front Walk.
Carr took the scene in and gave Venice one final look then sighed contentedly. As he bounded off a huge grin came to his lips. “Just a great week,” he said. “A great, great week.”