By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
LOS ANGELES — When LeBron James walked into the gym at King Drew Magnet High in South Central, Los Angeles, a sea of fans collapsed around him, screaming and holding their phones in the air.
Fans rushed onto the court in excitement, as organizers told everyone to back up. At one point, James even stepped in, politely asking a few stragglers to get off the court.
After news broke Friday evening that James would play in his first Drew League game since 2011 on Saturday, fans started lining up between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. for a chance to see the face of the NBA play at 1:45 p.m.
It was an extremely rare opportunity for locals to watch James play for free in a very intimate setting.
An hour before the game, the gym had reached capacity. About 1,450 people attended the game.
James didn’t disappoint in the first time we got to see him play basketball since April 1. There were jams. There were fadeaway 3s. There were his signature dribble-drives where he blew past defenders with incomparable strength and agility.
At one point during the first half, James sailed through the lane for a one-handed dunk with such power that the hoop visibly rocked back and forth for a few seconds. James stood underneath the basket with his head cocked upwards, watching the scene with amusement.
James finished with 42 points, 16 rebounds and four steals as his team won, 104-102. It highlighted once again that even though he’s 37 years old, he’s still one of the top players on this planet.
Apparently, the plan for James to play in the Drew League on Saturday was hatched about five days ago when Chicago Bulls star DeMar DeRozan — who is from nearby Compton and had played in the Drew League since he was 17 years old — invited him to play with his team, the MMV Cheaters.
James didn’t hesitate, which meant the world to the local community.
“This, for them, is a memory of a lifetime,” Drew League CFO Michael McCaa told FOX Sports.
In South Los Angeles, 29 percent of people live below the poverty line, according to CensusReporter.org. This was an opportunity for people who might not be able to afford a Lakers game to see a four-time champion and four-time MVP.
The Drew League could’ve charged exorbitant admission fees for James’ first game in three months, as it could’ve years ago when Kobe Bryant came through, but that’s not what this league is about.
“It started grassroots, and it’s going to remain grassroots and centrally committed to the community,” said McCaa. ” … It’s not about the money.”
The baselines were sardined with people who were mere feet away from James. Referees kept having to tell folks to get their feet off the court, as the crowds kept inevitably pushing forward. James had fun with it all. He even smiled and high-fived two small children who ran onto the court during a pause in play.
The last time we saw James, he wasn’t as joyful.
The Lakers were on the verge of missing the playoffs, an epic collapse for a team that entered the season with championship expectations. And James went on to miss the last five games of the season because of an ankle sprain.
It was a profound disappointment for James, who played MVP-caliber basketball at age 37, averaging 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists.
Things are still tumultuous in LakerLand. As Yahoo Sports broke the news of James’ impending participation in the Drew League on Friday, ESPN also reported that evening that Russell Westbrook and his longtime agent, Thad Foucher, had parted ways because of “irreconcilable differences,” stemming from Foucher believing Westbrook’s best option is to remain with the Lakers — and Westbrook apparently believing otherwise.
It’s clear that James’ window to win another title is closing as he nears age 40, and it’s now-or-never for the marriage between one of the best players of all time and the Lakers.
But, at least for one day, none of that mattered.
On Saturday, James dominated in a pro-am summer league alongside his friend, DeRozan. He laughed and chatted with Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, who sat courtside. And above all else, he put on a show for South Los Angeles.
James smiled throughout the game. He danced as music blared during breaks. And he put on a dazzling display on both ends of the court, dominating on offense while playing such intense lockdown defense at one point in the fourth quarter that fans yelled, “Ohhhhhhhh.”
One young child summed up the afternoon perfectly.
“This is the best day ever,” he said as he skipped out of the gym while holding hands with his mother.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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