LOS ANGELES — LeBron James scored 42 points in a successful return to the Drew League while teaming up with DeMar DeRozan for a 104-102 win in L.A.’s famed pro-am basketball league Saturday.
Longtime Drew League commissioner Dino Smiley told ESPN he expected Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving to play in the game preceding James and DeRozan’s, but that did not occur.
“We still have a couple games left today and then six tomorrow, so we’ll see,” Smiley said late Saturday afternoon.
Smiley said Irving playing Saturday “sounded like it was going to be a sure bet, but I don’t know what happened.”
While the Drew League’s Saturday slate was being played near Compton, California, some 55 miles away in Thousand Oaks, a participant at Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy’s girls’ basketball skills camp posted a video of Irving working with the campers to her Instagram account.
Handy coached Irving for five seasons when they were both a part of the Cleveland Cavaliers organization.
The Drew League game Saturday marked the first public glimpse of the 37-year-old James playing basketball in more than three months. He missed seven of the Lakers’ final eight regular-season games in the spring because of a left ankle sprain and missed 26 games in all of 2021-22, which ended up being one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.
“I’m 100 percent healthy,” James told ESPN during the first half of action.
He finished with 42 points on 18-for-36 shooting (2-for-13 from 3), 16 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 assists. DeRozan, a Drew League staple who invited James to play on his and fellow Southern California native Casper Ware’s team, scored 30 points on 9-for-23 shooting with 14 rebounds.
James and DeRozan’s team, called the MMV Cheaters, trailed team Black Pearl Elite by as many as seven points in the fourth quarter before storming back.
DeRozan’s feed to James for a two-handed, rim-bending dunk with 1:22 remaining put MMV up by six and seemingly in control. But BPE followed with a 3-pointer and a layup created by stealing an inbounds pass, and James was suddenly in jeopardy of losing his first game back at the Drew League in more than a decade.
Following a timeout, MMV inbounded the ball to James, who was fouled with 4.5 seconds left, sending him to the free throw line with his team up 103-102.
He made the first. And then things got interesting.
“I walked up to LeBron up the end, and I told him, ‘Hey, I need one [miss],’” Mike Nwabuzor of BPE, who plays professionally overseas, said afterward. “And he actually smoked the free throw. So that was probably the best moment. But the whole game was fun. Great competition. It’s just great to share the court with him.”
James missed the second free throw, but Ethan Alvano of BPE put up a potential game-winning 3 at the buzzer that fell short, and James raised his fist in victory.
“I thought we really could have pulled it off,” said Alvano, who recently signed a two-year contract to play in South Korea. “We had some mistakes down the stretch. But, man, that’s a lifelong dream to play against, with, whatever with LeBron James. Someone that I grew up watching, someone I grew up idolizing. So it was an honor, it was a blessing to share the court with him.”
It was James’ first appearance at the Drew League — which was founded in 1973 and has seen a pilgrimage of NBA players descend on the Charles Drew Junior High School gymnasium during the summers for decades — since the NBA lockout in 2011.
“When that first happened it was a surprise because Baron [Davis] brought him in to play, and I think he was coming just to watch, and then he got excited seeing the crowd and the game and then he wanted a jersey,” Smiley said. “So, that’s how that one took place.”
Davis was one of about a dozen former or current NBA players on hand to watch Saturday, a group that also included Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors; Montrezl Harrell of the Charlotte Hornets; and Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker of the Lakers.
Irving’s absence erased much of the intrigue for the day surrounding James and his former teammate.
Irving recently picked up his $36.5 million player option for the 2022-23 season with the Brooklyn Nets, and James is in the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, although he will be eligible to sign an extension with L.A. starting next month.
Los Angeles has engaged Brooklyn in trade talks in recent weeks to attempt to acquire Irving in a deal that would send Russell Westbrook to the Nets, sources told ESPN. Thus far, those talks have not progressed toward an agreement.
Instead, the focus was on the court, with James — four years into his Lakers tenure — ingratiating himself with the L.A. basketball scene.
“For him to be here and come to the middle of the ‘hood where regular people are every day that look up to him, he’s a superstar so for him to come here and grace these people with his presence, I think it’s super dope,” Alvano said. “I’m glad he did it and it’s great for the community.”
Added Smiley: “It was just an epic, epic afternoon of basketball.”