Baron Davis will never forget the night his NBA career came to an end.
May 6, 2012, Madison Square Garden. Down 3-0 in a playoff series against the Miami Heat, Davis, the Knicks guard, grabbed a tipped ball and blazed down the court as he’d often done over his 13 NBA seasons. But as he approached the foul line, his right leg buckled and the then-33 year-old crumpled to the ground. So gruesome was his knee that many players couldn’t even look. He was carted off on a stretcher, and an MRI would soon reveal a completely torn ACL and MCL and a partially torn patella tendon. The one-time third pick of the 1999 draft would leave the NBA with impressive stats: 16.1PPG, 7.2 APG, named to two all-star games.
Former NBA players have been known to go into broadcasting, real estate and small business, but Davis’s career path has taken an unusual turn. On April 29, Showtime premiered The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce, the fourth film project on Davis’s resume and the first he’s directed. The documentary chronicles the Drew League, a South Central Los Angeles outfit that has become one of the premiere destinations for pro-am basketball. Founded in 1973 with six teams, today the league features 28 “invitation only” teams who battle for the winner’s trophy and, more important, bragging rights. While the gym at Charles Drew Middle High School began as a place where inner-city kids could play ball and get off the streets, it gradually became a Mecca of West Coast hoop talent. Helmed by Dino Smiley, the Drew was a second home to street ball legends, college athletes and NBA stars like James Harden, Paul Pierce, Byron Scott and Davis, as well as a destination sought by Kobe, LeBron and Kevin Durant.
But as the 37-year-old Davis explains, the film transcends basketball. “It’s about showing love,” says Davis, who co-directed the film with Chad Gordon. “I wanted people to see the relationship sports has with communities, how sports can break down color and class and gender barriers, and how it can be a peace mechanism to counter inner-city violence.”
Here, Davis tells us more about his time in the Drew, on both sides of the camera.
What did basketball mean to you growing up in South Central Los Angeles?
Basketball was everything. It was my place to get away from the fear and violence. The court was its own world. I started taking the game seriously at six years old and was always smallest guy. It didn’t matter though because I played “older.” By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to play in the NBA.
Talk about your first day at the Drew. Was it scarier than your first day in the NBA?
From my first game in the NBA , all I remember were the bright lights. I can’t recall seeing anything else. My first day at the Drew was scary. I was 13 and there wasn’t a single other kid out there. I was playing against grown men, guys who’d played overseas, serious weekend warriors. They had muscles. They drank beer.
Did they cut you some slack because of your age?
No. I had to gain everyone’s respect. I remember turning the ball over and my teammate—I was on the Posse—yelling “What the fuck are you doing?” Another teammate said, “He’s just a kid.” And the first guy yelled back, "Man he ain’t no kid! He’s 13!” But once I proved I could handle it, I felt at home. I’d earned respect.
You went to UCLA for two years. Did you study film?
Never formally. I’ve always been attracted to storytelling though. I loved hanging around commercial sets when they were shooting and realized I had a passion. Over time I paid attention to the craft, picking up little tricks, asking questions, and learning how to work people. I always realized you need a great team around you, working side by side.
What was the process like?
It took about three and a half years. And it changed multiple times. The storyline, structure, placements of visuals, b-roll, stock footage, highlight footage, interviews. The thing about a documentary is that if you remove something, it could throw off the balance a lot. Thank God for Chad.
It’s not a typical basketball movie is it?
No. It’s kind of a love story. It’s a community working together, like a family that keeps something going that means as much to other people as much to them. The Drew is a story of a family, a league, a community all coming together, working together. Like the old saying, it takes a village to raise a child.
Did you set out with the intention of making a positive film?
Yeah. And I knew we had to because while we were shooting The Drew, the Ferguson thing happened, Eric Garner happened, Chicago was continuing to to happen. I felt like as a black man we needed show something different so we can all say, “Hey, here’s a place you can go if you want to feel a part of something and then take it with you wherever you go.”
The 2011-2012 lockout was a blessing for the Drew, wasn’t it? And the film?
Yeah. During the lockout there was a great migration to the Drew. We’d had lots of NBA players playing there but now there were bona fide NBA stars coming from OT looking for great games. We had LeBron, Kevin Durant. I was like, Wow man! It’s here! We also had college guys looking to get drafted, so the competition was crazy.
It’s not just about ballers. You make a point to highlight the kitchen ladies of the Drew. Was that important?
For sure. Basketball, community, resisting gang violence, none of it means anything without a woman’s touch, a motherly love. The women who work in that kitchen are the ones who will tell you like it is, give you advice, give you a hug. Lots of guys hang out in the kitchen after losses. They need that motherly influence, that nurturing—big sister, mom, that family feeling. In that kitchen everything made there is made with love. That’s why you see them lines so long.
What’s in your filmmaking future?
I definitely want to do a feature. I’ve been working on one. It’s another local story, one in the vein of my favorite inspirations, Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society and He Got Game. It’s about basketball and the streets and involves trying to make it, making tough decisions, things young basketball players and young men of all races go through. I want ball players to walk up to me and say, “Man, you just told my story,” no matter who it is.
So what’s harder, the NBA or making movies?
The NBA is harder because it’s the elite of the elite. But film is difficult too, because as I continue to grow I know there’s more and more hard work I have to put in to make ‘em good. I’m willing to do it. It’s like being a rookie all over again.