The fortunate souls that were allowed to cram into a tiny gymnasium in Northeast Washington on Saturday weren’t just privy to the most anticipated basketball game since the NBA locked out its players in June, they were also witnesses to a game that truly mattered to the participants. The collection of talent on the court didn’t seek payment, only to represent where they were from or the places that they’ve come to adopt as home.
When Kevin Durant deflected James Harden’s final, fallaway game-winning attempt and the buzzer sounded on the Goodman League’s 135-134 victory over the Los Angeles-based Drew League at Trinity University, the District native and two-time all-star proudly stomped down the court as a beyond-capacity crowd erupted in cheers. John Wall lifted his jersey, which read “Goodman League,” and gleefully sprinted toward his bench to celebrate a win that clearly represented more than just a friendly exhibition between two prominent summer pro-am leagues.
“It just shows how many people really love the game of basketball,” said Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, who scored at team-high 38 points in a losing effort for the Drew League. “It was no money involved, no nothing. Just pure showing love to D.C.”
The result of the East-West battle for street-ball supremacy mattered to Durant, the hometown superstar whose mere presence raised the profile of the event — which featured several NBA players — and also the Goodman League for which he has been playing on the asphalt at Barry Farm since he was a scrawny 16-year-old. In addition to his late-second heroics on defense, Durant scored a game-high 44 points, including the decisive free throws with 21.5 seconds remaining, and walked away with MVP honors.
It also mattered to Wall, the Wizards point guard and North Carolina native, who appears to have already endeared himself to the local fan base and didn’t hurt his status by scoring 28 points and leading a spirited fourth-quarter charge that helped the hosts get the win. “Everybody thinks it’s all about the money. It’s not about the money,” Wall said. “I just want to play basketball. I love to play basketball. It’s a lot of people that don’t get a chance to play NBA games, so why not give them a chance to come watch me play? It’s not about being scared or anything. It’s about showing love in the ’hood.”
And it especially mattered to the visiting players, many of whom forked over their own money for plane tickets and hotel rooms to come to Washington. After the game, the dejected players sat in the locker room, eating fruit, complaining over controversial calls — including a foul on Harden (34 points) that sent Durant to the line in the final seconds — contemplating a rematch on the opposite side of the country.
“It was exciting, really just for the community and people who can’t come to NBA games and see their favorite basketball players play head to head,” said Wizards center JaVale McGee, who scored 21 points for the Drew League. “We definitely sacrificed. Everybody put their all into it, to get out here.”
Mayor Vincent C. Gray and NBA players Rudy Gay and Delonte West were among the fans in attendance for a game that generated considerable attention through social media and took advantage of the lockout, since many have to wonder when NBA players will be playing competitive games again.
Moments before tip-off, Goodman League Commissioner Miles Rawls walked onto the court and pointed to McGee, who spends his offseason in Los Angeles and lived in the city when his mother, Pam, played for the WNBA’s Sparks. “You’re going down,” Rawls told him. “You are going down.” Rawls then spotted Wall nearby and gave him a chest bump.
McGee got the game started when he caught a lob from Jennings (38 points) and dunked. McGee also had a few impressive blocks, once catching a shot by San Antonio Spurs guard Gary Neal with two hands and later slapping a Durant effort off the glass.
Wall helped the Goodman League get on board when he tossed a lob to a streaking Durant, who flushed the ball with two hands and forced fans out of their seats. The game was accented by the lighthearted commentary by Rawls, who heckled Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan from time to time, forced Neal to laugh his way into a turnover by making a joke about Neal’s close haircut, and also took time to promote the after party at an area nightclub.
There were some glitches to the evening, as the organizers oversold the event, leading to a line that stretched far outside the 1,500-seat gymnasium. Several upset fans who paid for tickets experienced a lockout of their own, as they were eventually turned away and informed how and where they could receive refunds. Inside, the crowd gave the visitors from Los Angeles a hard time, cheered every move by a player from the Goodman League. One fan appeared to throw a water bottle at an official over a foul call.
But overall, players, organizes and the fans inside felt the night was a success. “That’s something players only dream of. To play with so many great players at one time, it’s a blessing man. To play in my home town, too, you can’t beat that,” Durant said.