Outside Shots with Mike Ojo: Down in the Drew League
Last time on “Outside Shots,” Mike Ojo survived a season playing professional basketball in Cyprus. This week, he recounts a harrowing experience from his time in the Drew League.
Summer is serious. As a basketball player, it’s when you work out two (and sometimes three) times a day to make major strides in your game.
But skill and drill work alone aren't enough. You also have to apply those skills in game situations. The best solution? Summer leagues and pickup games.
Los Angeles becomes the Mecca of basketball in the summer. Pros from all over the world flock to the City of Angels to work on their game. UCLA has long been noted for its legendary runs, with superstars from Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James setting foot on the hallowed hardwood floor inside the men's gym.
Further south, the Drew League has risen to fame since the 2011 lockout. The invite-only summer league showcases elite talent from high school, college, overseas and the NBA. Baron Davis, Gilbert Arenas, Kevin Durant, Kobe, James Harden and Paul George have all graced that floor. So have I.
The atmosphere there is completely different from anything a player would face in an actual professional game. You’re there to put on a show, represent yourself and showcase your skills—be it against a guy that's in the league, a high school phenom, a rapper or a local legend. If you don’t perform, you’ll hear about it, no matter your status in basketball.
Many an NBA player has laid an egg at the Drew and been humbled by the experience. Some return to redeem themselves. Others disappear into pro-am obscurity and never return.
Upon returning to LA from Cyprus, Mike Ojo took his talents to the Drew League. (Mike Ojo)
Fresh off my year in Cyprus, I was steaming into the summer. I gave myself a few days off while I was still living in a tropical paradise, but once I touched down in LA, it was on. I mean, who wouldn’t be excited to compete against the best of the best?
My confidence was high because I was putting in the work and everything was going according to plan. I committed to investing in myself and my craft, and the game more than returned the favor with strong, lasting friendships. The biggest connection of all was with Rasheed Hazzard, my current mentor, coach and player development guru. He had rubbed shoulders with basketball royalty, from Kobe and Reggie Miller to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Phil Jackson. It seemed as though everything was coming together.
Over Father’s Day weekend, I got an invitation to head to Las Vegas with one of my best friends. Thankfully, it wasn’t to party. He was going to visit family and didn’t want to make the drive solo. I was initially hesitant because I had a Drew League game that Sunday, but I decided to go. It was going to be a same-day venture anyway.
Once we get out there, we found that some mutual friends were in town. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Spend a night partying in Vegas or head back home to play in a summer league game? Which would you choose?
I decided to play. That Sunday would be rough, to say the least. That day, my uncle passed away after a long battle with cancer.
As for the game, I felt great physically—enough so to throw down a windmill dunk off the glass during halftime warmups—and I played alright, but my mind wasn’t in it at all. By the start of the fourth quarter, the game was already a blowout. It got so out of hand that they let the clock run.
With about three minutes left, I caught the ball at the top of the key. I hit the man guarding me with the UTEP Two-Step and I planted my feet to elevate towards the rim.
I crashed to the ground. I didn’t feel any pain at first, but I knew this game was over for me. In my head, I ran through a physical checklist. My knees were fine and my ankles were good. I took off my shoe, thinking I had burst one of the air bubbles in it, but the shoe was fine.
My left foot was a completely different story. I couldn’t walk, and could barely put any weight on it. After the game, as I changed and hopped to my car, worry set in.
On June 25, 2011, I found out that I had ruptured my plantar plate. The first metatarsophalangeal joint to be specific. Goodbye, basketball…