LOS ANGELES — When Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr returned to Southern California from Arizona for summers during college, it wasn’t to take a break from basketball. In fact, it could be argued that Kerr played his most competitive basketball not at the McKale Center in Tucson, but during summers at Pauley Pavilion.
When Kerr came home, he became a part of what became a legendary set of regular pickup games in Westwood, started by Magic Johnson and his Showtime Lakers teammates.
“Magic Johnson called way too many fouls,” Kerr said after practice on Sunday, held in a gym across a campus walkway from what used to be called the Men’s Gym, where those legendary pickup games got their start. “He called a charge one time, and he was on defense, on game point. Magic couldn’t lose. If you were on his team, you were going to play five, six straight, at least until Magic got tired.”
After a brief downswing, those pickup games — which began in the 1980s — have returned to prominence, as Los Angeles has become a summer destination for NBA players, including several Warriors.
UCLA’s practice gyms will be home for Golden State while in Los Angeles — they will hold shootaround here before Monday’s game against the Lakers, since the Los Angeles Kings will be playing at the Staples Center at 1 p.m. — and that shouldn’t feel too unfamiliar for Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney or Jordan Bell. All have been regulars at the Student Activity Center — the new name for the building that houses the Men’s Gym — in Westwood.
Looney — who attended UCLA for one season before being drafted in 2015 — had heard of the open runs during his recruiting trip to Westwood, but didn’t know that Kerr was a part of them.
“I need to hear some more history,” he said. “I know he has some good stories about it … You’ve got some guys coming, old guys, man, I don’t even know if they went here, but they love UCLA, they’re still around the campus, and they talk to me about the history: ‘Man, Wilt Chamberlain played against Magic Johnson, he blocked every shot.’”
The games at the Men’s Gym — the one-time host of UCLA basketball before Pauley Pavilion — saw Johnson, a then-retired Chamberlain (one of the original San Francisco Warriors), Shaquille O’Neal, Pooh Richardson, Reggie Miller and Tracy Murray play. Cheryl Miller even played against then-Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy when the pickup games moved — as they occasionally did — to Pauley.
The runs saw a teenaged Kobe Bryant come and play after joining the Lakers, and in the 2000s the open pickup games would feature players like Baron Davis, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Elton Brand and Ron Artest (who later changed his name to Metta World Peace). Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook would come and play alongside NFL players like Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.
“There were a bunch of pros and college guys, and it still is a great place for summer pickup,” Kerr said. “It always has been, at least as long as I can remember.”
Bell, who grew up in Long Beach, has spent the last two summers taking part in the UCLA open runs he heard about from his step-father.
“He’s a big Lakers-UCLA fan, and he’s just a big sports fan, so he knew about it; he’s from Compton, so he heard about stuff like that,” Bell said. “He never played in it, obviously, but he would talk to me about that when I was younger, the runs up here.”
Looney didn’t see much of those open runs when he was on campus, though he did get to play against Artest and Westbrook. By the time Looney had arrived on campus, they had begun to peter out, with other open runs around Los Angeles — like Chris Paul’s pickup games at the Clippers facility — taking over, and more attention placed on the Drew League, which began to flourish as Los Angeles became the pre-eminent offseason destination for NBA players.
Then, three years ago, Rico Hines, a former Warriors assistant and current assistant for the Reno Bighorns of the G League, took over as the UCLA games’ organizer.
“It went viral,” Bell said. “Chris Paul, James [Harden] was up here at one time, when Chris Paul had just joined the Houston Rockets. You always heard about it, but it was kind of inconsistent for a while. When Rico Hines took it over … if you’re a basketball player in L.A., you know Rico.”
Unlike the tournament-based Drew League, the open runs now at the SAC come together organically, and teams can assemble and dissolve on a daily basis. Unlike the Drew League, there are no referees (just as when Kerr played), and no cameras.
“Family and friends are there. If you’re a player, you want to bring your friends in, and there are no cameras,” Looney said. “What happened in the gym is going to stay in the gym. We’re going to respect each other. I think guys like that, and they like the competition of playing against the best every day.”
The open UCLA runs two summers ago helped Looney drop 30 pounds, and along with helping him develop his defense — guarding Patrick Beverley for instance — also helped to hone him into a strong contributor for Golden State’s title-winning team in 2018.
The runs this past summer helped keep Looney in that kind of fighting shape — literally — as after grueling games at the SAC, he would head to a jiu jitsu gym five minutes from campus after the pickup games and everyday workouts with Bell to go through fighting workouts.
The open runs two years ago helped Bell get ready for the NBA Finals. In his first summer after being drafted out of Oregon, he faced LeBron James.
“He just came up one day, and Draymond was on my team, and he told me to guard him,” Bell said. “I was like, ‘Cool,’ I wanted to anyway. It was dope, though. Obviously, it’s LeBron, and he did his thing, but it was a good little competition.”
When he finally had to guard James for real, the pressure was off.
“I guard him a lot in the Finals — or, I try to — as much as you can,” Bell said. “I ask people to set a screen so I can switch on him. I think having to play in this, where it’s relaxed, where there’s no pressure, I think that made it so much easier for me to guard him later in the NBA. I’d experienced it already. Being able to see him, see how he moves, I know some people might get starstruck, but being able to guard him in that made it a lot easier for me, personally, mentally, to guard him later.”
Most importantly for the players involved in Los Angeles’s summer NBA invasion, outside of the weather and the various other entertainment options the city and region has to offer, the congregation of so many highly-skilled players in one place means they can play like they did when they were children.
“When you were a kid, you could go to 24-hour fitness, you could go to the park and just freely play open run without having to be in a structure,” Bell said. “Once you’re in the NBA, even college, you don’t want to risk it, playing with people who aren’t at that same level as you. One, the competition isn’t as good, and two, risking injury with people who don’t know how to play the right way.
“With this, you still get this kid feeling, just having fun playing basketball with no structure, but against good competition, and against good people who you know are on the same level as you. That’s pretty dope.”
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