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The Rowley Park hoopers file into the gym for the Friday night run, kids from the playground outside and students from the junior college nearby, men who either just finished their shifts or haven't started them yet. They shuffle through the lobby, hightops in hand, past pictures of children playing tennis, fliers for a coed softball league, metal signs that read NO DUNKING ALLOWED. One guy pedals in on a red low-rider; his buddy cruises in on a matching green one. The gym is surrounded by the stucco bungalows and swaying palm trees of south Los Angeles, but it could be anywhere in urban America. Painted silhouettes of basketball players, once bright blue, are peeling from the windowless walls. Nine overhead lightbulbs have burned out. Trash talk is too muffled to hear. There are no uniforms, no referees, no stat keepers, and the electronic scoreboard is not working. Sand blows through the open door on windy days and slicks the court.
Pickup games have already begun when the guy on the red bike parks along the baseline. He is 6'1" and 169 pounds, slender but well-built, especially compared with his doughy counterparts. He is wearing a white T-shirt with the name BRANDON JENNINGS on the back, in honor of the Bucks' 22-year-old point guard, who grew up a few blocks away in Gardena. At the end of the first game, the guy on the bike dismounts and takes the floor with four friends. He is matched up against a 15-year-old boy in a sweater. He spins the ball in his hands at the top of the key, shuttles it behind his back, dribbles it three times between his legs and drives hard to his left. He gives one defender a head fake, two more a shoulder shimmy, rises over another and throws down a furious tomahawk jam in front of one of the no dunking signs. A few spectators, spread across five rows of wooden bleachers, look simultaneously delighted and puzzled. Welcome to the 2011--12 NBA season—or lack thereof—where the guy with the BRANDON JENNINGS shirt at your neighborhood gym actually is Brandon Jennings.
Training camps were scheduled to open this week, NBA players ushered back to their suburban training facilities and lacquered practice courts. Instead, they are entering Month 4 of a lockout with commissioner David Stern warning of "enormous consequences" if a deal isn't reached soon. So the pros are playing in parks and field houses like rock stars at karaoke bars. This summer, Kevin Durant scored 66 points in a game at Rucker Park in New York City. Kobe Bryant scored 43 in the Drew League at Col. Leon H. Washington Park in L.A. John Wall scored 41 in the Goodman League at Spingarn High in Washington, D.C. Charity exhibitions are drawing standing-room crowds, and fans are rushing the court after deep threes. In a twist that owners could never have foreseen, the lockout has produced mix-tape basketball that is arguably more entertaining than Nets-Cavs and brought stars closer to a public that cannot afford courtside seats. "People want to touch you," Jennings says. "They want to feel you and see how you really are. This is their chance to see us up close."
Jennings has become the union's underground ambassador, appearing in more pickup games than Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. "Where they hooping?" he tweets in the morning, with a hashtag for his location. He considers all offers, and if he chooses one, he tweets the address in case anybody wants to stop by. He is like a taco truck, serving broken ankles. The day that Jennings went to Rowley, a group from El Camino College in Compton saw his tweet and came to challenge him. They might as well have walked into a sparring session with Floyd Mayweather. "He gave us a chance," says Mathew Rodriguez, an El Camino student and tutor. "But not much of a chance."
Jennings did not come to the park with pros. He rolled in with childhood friends he calls AIS, which stands for Alwayz Into Something. Dunking aside, they adhered to the Rowley rules: three-pointers count for two, two-pointers for one, first team to 15 wins, winner plays again. The score was kept on a hand-operated flip board. Kids shot at the open basket when action shifted to the opposite end. Players kicked the ball when they got mad and peeled off their shirts when they got hot. AIS won the first two games easily, with Jennings at three-quarters speed, but was tied at 10 in game three. "F---!" Jennings yelled, before heaving a full-court pass for a layup, drilling a 35-foot step-back jumper, then pulling up for a 40-foot clincher. "Next," he said. After one more game, not as close, he hopped back on his low rider and pedaled into the darkness, past the softball players warming up for their beer league, all the way to his aunt Marsha's house for dinner. "A lot of guys play for the money," says Rodriguez. "Out here, you can see who would play without it."
In his 1970 book The City Game, Pete Axthelm wrote, "Basketball is the game for young athletes without cars or allowances—the game whose drama and action are intensified by its confined spaces and chaotic surroundings." Many NBA players grew up in the chain-link crannies Axthelm describes. They shared asphalt courts, and if they wanted to play, they had to win. When Jennings was three, crying because his cousins blocked his shot in the driveway, Aunt Marsha told him, "Go around them." She made it sound so simple, and for Jennings, it was. He started playing at Rowley Park when he was five, even though no one else was allowed until they were eight. He developed a street-ball style based on blinding drives and no-look passes. He called basketball hoop, basketball players hoopers and the basketball gym hoopington. When Jennings was at Dominguez High in Compton, he asked his mother to drop him off at L.A. Fitness every day at 5 a.m., because he assumed that was when Kobe started hooping.
Jennings adapted to more structured environs, moving across the country to play at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.; across the Atlantic to play for Lottomatica Roma in Italy; and then, after being taken 10th in the 2009 draft, to Milwaukee, where he learned the NBA game under commanding coach Scott Skiles. Jennings became well-known just two weeks into his career, when he scored 55 points against Golden State and took his place alongside Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook in the point guard revolution. Jennings broke his left foot last season, and while he still averaged 16.2 points and 4.8 assists, he did not progress as dramatically as Rose or Westbrook. Jennings studied his statistical splits and noticed that he shot nearly three percentage points better at home. He decided to turn the lockout into the most hectic road trip of his life.
Jennings played against Marquette players at Homestead High in Milwaukee, Duke players at Central High in Durham, and high school players in a midnight run at HAX Athletic Club in L.A. He played against Durant in a pro-am at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore and with him in a charity game at Morehouse College in Atlanta. In New York City he played outside at Dyckman Park and inside at Gauchos Gym; in D.C. he played inside at Springarn High and outside at Barry Farms. They say no one wins in a work stoppage, but Jennings could be Lockout MVP. He scored 81 points in a charity game at Long Beach (Calif.) City College, 51 in the Goodman League and 38 for the Drew League. In one game he made three straight shots from just inside half court; in another he threw a pass to himself off a defender's head and scored. In a third, he threw an alley-oop to himself off the backboard and dunked. Jennings has been spending a lot of time in Baltimore, where he is interning at Under Armour (job title: Curator of Cool), and he works out at the company gym. "I told all the employees they can play me in one-on-one whenever they want," Jennings says. Obviously, he is undefeated.
Jennings was in New York City for a weekend with Under Armour's director of pro basketball marketing, Kris Stone. One morning Jennings left early. At first, Stone assumed he went shopping. But Stone was with Jennings last summer, when they drove by the fabled West Fourth Street courts in Greenwich Village. Jennings shouted, "Stop the car!" and proceeded to win six straight games. Stone should have known Jennings was not shopping. "I was just hanging out in the city and a guy called and asked if I could play in Long Island," Jennings says. "I was like, O.K."
The crowd on Long Island jeered when he loafed through the first five minutes—a reminder that not all of Jennings's appearances are layups. Teammates at the Melo Center in Baltimore froze him out for showing up a local star. Even in L.A., Jennings was banned from a Drew League event because the playoffs were starting, and he had spent so much time out of town. Jennings promptly announced on Twitter that he was headed to Rowley with the AIS crew and would buy dinner at Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles for any five who could beat them. (Jennings has the logo of the L.A.-area chain tattooed on his left arm and has it embroidered on his signature shoe.) "In the hood or out the hood, ref or no ref, he will go to your town and shut it down," says Barry Barnes, part of AIS.