In honor of the “Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend” documentary finally dropping and his unique story getting out to the basketball world, we thought it would be a good time to update our California Elite 24 Playground Legends list that we first compiled over 10 years ago.
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RELATED: “Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend” Doc Set
A decade has went by fast and even though our California all-time playground legends list, which we produced in conjunction with the Elite 24 event held at Venice Beach each summer between 2010 and 2012, helped Lewis’ notoriety grow, his completed documentary “Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend” is finally going to prove the tall tales of his offensive talent are indeed true. Ray Lew, predictably, remains No. 1 on our updated list and likely always will. His legend looms that large. Plenty has happened over the past 10 years and we were able to dig out more names from the past that had an impact on California’s vast playground scene.
Many of the new players earned their stripes at L.A.’s Drew League, which had gained immense popularity since the advent of social media, but not all. A few of the new names are Venice Beach legends that just had to be honored. Naming the 24 best playground legends from the Golden State is no easy task and it’s impossible to make everyone happy, but it’s a fun exercise and sheds light on a large group of deserving ballers.
Cali’s Elite 24 Playground Legends
(previous ranking from 2010 listed in parenthesis)
1. (1) “Ray Lew” Raymond Lewis, Verbum Dei (Los Angeles) ’71
As L.A. Lakers’ defensive ace Michael Cooper said in one of the trailers for the soon-to-be-released “Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend” documentary, he’ll always be the king of L.A. street ball. The reason he holds the crown is we never got to see his pro career play out. Would he have been a NBA All-Star or Hall of Famer? We’ll never know but there is no denying his talent and his status in the annals of SoCal basketball.
2. (3) Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell, McClymonds (Oakland) ’86
Moves up a spot and “Hook” is easily the most renowned NorCal streetball legend of all-time. He’s already had a documentary (titled “Hooked”) out for about 15 years and is well-known for his amazing feats, such as jumping over people, motorcycles, and cars. Hook was recently on people’s minds as a rumor quickly spread on social media that he had passed away. It turned out to be false, as Mitchell was in jail on a petty criminal charge. Hook’s life has been defined by the streets, but it often seems as if he has nine lives.
3. (2) John Staggers, Crenshaw (Los Angeles) ’88
Even though Hook Mitchell is definitely more popular, “The King of Venice Beach” was the more talented player. Similar to Hook, Staggers’ name was recently in the news, as he was shot five times and survived in October of 2020. He’s on the way to recovery, as life hasn’t always been easy since signing with UTEP out of high school in 1988. The L.A. City Section Player of the Year for the Cougars as a senior (23.8 ppg) was called by legendary coach Willie West as the finest offensive player ever for the legendary program, including any of the eight future NBA players he coached. Staggers had a son who played at L.A. Dorsey.
4. (4) Freeman Williams, Manual Arts (Los Angeles) ’74
Long-time observers always wonder what Williams’ numbers would have looked like for The Arts and at Portland State if there had been a 3-point line. Williams led the NCAA in scoring as a senior at Portland St. in 1978 (35.9 ppg) and was known for his unstoppable pull-up jumper. A legend at Rogers Park and Venice Beach, “Free” appeared in the iconic street ball movie “White Men Can’t Jump” playing fictitious street ball legend Duck Johnson.
5. (5) Dwayne Polee, Sr., Manual Arts (Los Angeles) ’81
Polee had a cup of coffee in the NBA, but was already a L.A. street icon by then. He was a high school all-American as a senior and a three-year standout for The Arts after earning playing time on a nationally-ranked L.A. Verbum Dei club as a ninth-grader. He went for 43 points in the 1981 L.A. City 4A title game win over Crenshaw before 14,123 fans at the now defunct L.A. Sports Arena. How many people claim to have seen that game? Plenty more than 14,123. His son was the 2010 L.A. City Section and Cal-Hi Sports D1 State Player of the Year for L.A. Westchester.
6. (7) Kenny “Bad Santa” Brunner, Dominguez (Compton) ’97
This colorful and respected street ball player had NBA talent, but a series of mishaps after college kept him from taking a conventional path to pro basketball. A former Drew League and L.A. NBA Summer Pro League MVP, Brunner is not bashful about where he belongs on this list. He does deserve to move up a spot, but the legends in front of him are also older and it’s hard to knock their reverence as street ball players. Hook (Mitchell) passed the torch to me right on ESPN2,” Brunner said in 2010. “I consider myself 1A with Ray Lew (Raymond Lewis).”
7. (6) Earnest “Worm” Killum, Jr., Lynwood ’90
This Watts native got bumped a spot for Brunner, whose high school and street ball accolades are stronger. Obviously, Killum didn’t get a chance to build much of a resume after high school (he was the Cal-Hi Sports D1 State Player of the Year as a senior) because he passed at age 20 following an acute stroke. Two reasons why “Worm” is so revered is his classmates had so much respect for him and he’s one of the few streetballers anywhere in the country to have a court named in his honor. In his case, it’s at Watts’ 109th Street Recreation Center.
8. (9) Ernest Lee, Kennedy (Sacramento) ’82
Lee was obsessed with playing in the NBA and when that didn’t work out his life ended in tragedy. He’s the greatest streetballer from the Sacramento Metro by a fairly wide margin and the tales from his days at Kennedy are legendary. When his grades kept him from playing at Washington, he went on to become a D2 all-American at Clark (Atlanta), where he led the nation in scoring three times. When he didn’t get taken in the 1987 NBA Draft, he spiraled downward and took his own life at age 30 by jumping from a bridge.
9. (8) Eldridge “El Hud” Hudson, Carson (Carson) ’82
If it weren’t for injury, Hudson may have went on to a long NBA career. This southpaw was a terrific all-around talent who could do everything on the court, from dominating the paint to leading the fast break. Carson lost the Marine League title to archival Banning his senior year, but he averaged 25.1 ppg in seven post-season games to lead the Colts to the first statewide CIF crown. El Hud also helped UNLV to a NCAA Final Four and was a dominant streetballer well into the 2000s.
10. (12) Marques Johnson, Crenshaw (Los Angeles) ’73
At the Elite 24 event in the early 2010s, one of the teams was named after Ray Lew and the other was named after this Shaw legend, who is now finally getting deserved recognition as one of the NBA’s best forwards in the late 1970s and 1980s. He first earned his stripes as an up-and-coming playground star in the late 1960s at Joe Weakley’s Run, Shoot and Dunk League, where he often held his own with college and pro stars. After starting at L.A. Dorsey, Johnson led The Shaw to a two-year 32-0 on-court record before helping UCLA win the 1975 NCAA title. Amazingly, Johnson can still dunk a basketball at age 65.
11. (10) Jason Works, Dorsey (Los Angeles) ’78
While some players work hard and obsess with making the NBA, Works seemed indifferent to the pro game. He’s the least-known player by a wide margin on Cali’s Elite 24 list, but also one with some of the most raw talent. Works played for six different high schools and colleges in six years and despite being well-traveled, his coaches at UC-Irvine still marvel at his talent. When he wasn’t driving them nuts with his off-court antics, he looked like a West Coast version of Allen Iverson. Now that Ray Lew’s story is going to be shown to the world, Works takes the crown of the most mysterious player of note in SoCal history. It’s likely to remain that way for a long time, as Works passed since our last update.
12. (11) Sam Robinson, Jefferson (Los Angeles) ’66
A two-time high school All-American, Robinson was the first California player to appear in a long-standing national all-star game when he played in the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh, Pa., following his senior campaign. His coach Larry Hanson was also selected to coach in the game by Sonny Vaccaro. He didn’t just have a big rep, either, he was also a terrific player and noted playground star. A two-time L.A. City Player of the Year, he helped The Demos average 110.9 points per game in ’66, still the state record, and was the first-ever professional draft choice out of Long Beach State.
13. (13) Gene Ransom, Berkeley ’75
Ranks with Hook Mitchell and Harold Miner as California’s best showmen, and from the standpoint of ball-handling, Ransom is probably the greatest. He thrilled crowds where ever he played and is one of the greatest performers ever to play in the old NorCal Tournament of Champions, which was a precursor to the CIF state tournament. He and former Yellowjackets teammate Ruppert Jones (a future MLB player) are the only two players to make the all-tourney team three times and he continued to excite crowds at Cal. At 5-foot-8 and with a flair for the dramatic, Ransom would be a social media sensation in today’s game.
14. (19) John Williams, Crenshaw (Los Angeles) ’84
If Ray Lew isn’t the best high school player from SoCal in the last 50 years (the best from NorCal would be Jason Kidd), then the one many SoCal fans call “Allah” is. He’s the closest thing to LeBron James California has ever produced and there was serious talk about him jumping to the NBA after high school before deciding to attend LSU in a recruitment followed across the country. Big John was the last SoCal player to be named Mr. Basketball USA (National Player of the Year) until Chino Hills’ Lonzo Ball came around in 2015-16. Following his NBA career, he won multiple Drew League titles, where a division of the famous Pro-Am league was once named in his honor. Williams helps coach Rock Johnson’s “I-Can All-Stars” travel ball club and his son Daylen Williams recently played at L.A. Fairfax.
15. (NR) Milton Banks, Garey (Pomona) ‘76
As the years have passed by, we’ve uncovered more information about the golden era of Venice Beach when Ken Hicks created and ran the National Outdoor Basketball Championships beginning in 1981. When Hicks held a Venice Beach Hall of Fame ceremony Labor Day Weekend in 2012, the late Banks was a first Ballot Hall of Famer along with the like likes of Ron Baldwin, Nigel Lloyd and Carl Fields (all of whom attended high school outside the state). Banks was the Venice Beach Pro Division MVP in 1989 and also proved his keep at the Drew League, where his old school game was effective well into the 2000s.
16. (14) Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner, Inglewood (Inglewood) ’89
The Inglewood legend has kept a low profile since his four-year NBA career ended in 1996, but his name has been thrown around sports circles more in recent years after his USC No. 23 jersey was retired in 2012 and because his daughter Kami Jordan is a volleyball star at Redondo Union and for USA junior national teams. It was hard for Miner to live up to the “Baby Jordan” moniker, and his failed NBA career kept him away from the sport from some time, but there is no doubting his impact at Inglewood, for the Trojans and on noted playground courts such as Rogers and Bel-Air Park. Miner had all the zero-gravity dunks, could throw down with power and was one of the most naturally gifted offensive players the state has ever produced.
17. (18) Casper Ware, Sr., Fremont (Los Angeles) ’79
One of the greatest players in Drew League history, Ware passed along his incredible work ethic and long-range shooting to his son, who played at Gahr (Cerritos) and was the 2011 MVP at L.A.’s famous Pro-Am. Ware Sr. was a JUCO All-American and played at Loyola Marymount, but it’s his street credibility that helps him move up one spot. At Fremont he was a three-time all-L.A. City performer and teamed with Dane Suttle, Sr. to form one of the city’s best backcourts ever.
18. (15) “Jumpin” Joe Caldwell, Fremont (Los Angeles) ’60
One of Cali’s first great leapers, Caldwell was one of the few players to be named an all-star in both the ABA and NBA. Similar to Ray Lew, he was involved in a nasty dispute with management and was unofficially blackballed from the pros after a decade of playing. One the playgrounds he was well-respected, and was a high school All-American after leading Fremont to back-to-back L.A. City Section crowns. At the ‘Mont he was known as Jumping’ Joe, but in the pros he was called “Pogo Joe.”
19. (NR) Baron “2EZ” Davis, Crossroads (Santa Monica) ’97
This two-time NBA All-Star earned his keep at South Park Elementary School in South Los Angeles and developed the skill to become a Gatorade National Player of the Year his senior year at Crossroads, when he led the team to a D4 state crown. By that time, Davis was already a Drew League regular and received plenty of support for this list from Drew League Commissioner Dino Smiley. Davis also was a regular in the Nike Real Run and goes up a few notches for being an ambassador for L.A. basketball and giving back to the city that helped him hone his craft.
20. (16) “Jumpin” Joey Johnson, Banning (Wilmington) ’85
No. 2 Hook Mitchell, No. 16 Harold Miner, No. 19 No. 23 Darnell Hillman and other noted playground players such as Shaun Pennington (Hayward) were all great leapers, but none of them could leap quite like Jumpin’ Joey. In fact, he’s one of the greatest dunkers of all-time at any level. Joey, the younger brother of the late Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson (Dominguez, Compton), helped College of Southern Idaho win a JUCO national crown and played at Arizona St., but he wasn’t necessarily a big-time standout. Former USC and L.A. Lakers guard Duane Cooper and others felt his leaping ability detracted from the rest of his game, as almost to be a hindrance. Still, anyone that has seem him sky will never forget it.
21. (21) James “Gumby” Gray, Westchester (Los Angeles) ’92
The co-L.A. City Player of the Year and all-state selection selection as a senior is known as much for his style and flair as his game. And Gumby had plenty of game, too, as a slashing point guard who was Santa Monica JC’s all-time leading scorer and a play-maker and distributor in one season at Fresno St. A legend at Rogers Park in Inglewood, Gray also was a Drew League standout and an influential figure who is revered by his playing peers.
22. (NR) Franklin “Frank Nitty” Sessions, Jordan (Los Angeles) ’07
Sessions was a late bloomer growing up in Watts, preferring skateboarding and socializing with friends until Bulldogs’ coach Van Meyers convinced him not to waste his raw talents. One of the best athletes on this list, Sessions continued to develop his skill at two junior colleges and played one season at Weber State with future NBA All-Star Damian Lillard (Oakland). It looked like he was done with basketball after coming back home and playing at D2 Cal-St. LA, but that all changed when he began competing at the Drew League. Nitty used his explosive crossover and confidence to win three consecutive league MVPs from 2016-18, getting the best of some pros in the process.
23. (22) Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, Johnson (Sacramento) ’67
He developed into a solid pro known for his defense, but what ABA and playground basketball fans remember him the most for was his Afro. Dr. Dunk, of course, is one of the greatest leapers on all levels and the stories of him going to the top of the backboard are endless. Twenty years ago, Hillman was No. 22 on Slam Magazine’s list of greatest dunkers and if that list was re-done he’d should still rate pretty high. As a senior at Johnson, Hillman was an all-state performer after pumping in 21.1 ppg.
24. (17) Robin “Syk Wit It” Kennedy, Lynwood Aventist (Lynwood) ’92
We were torn with whom to go with this last spot. It was especially hard to leave off “Mo” Spillers, who had some dominant summers at the Drew League in the early 2000s, and we also liked Russell “The General” Brown and “Bone Collector” is another big street ball name. Brown excelled both at the Drew League and Venice Beach, while Bone Collector is more known for his exploits at the Entertainers Basketball Classic at New York’s famed Rucker Park, so Kennedy is the choice. Syk gets the nod for his longevity and being an advocate for street ball while still competing well into his 40s. After some injuries at University of Nevada, the Pasadena Native got his big break at L.A.’s Bel-Air Park in 2001 when he made the cut for the AND 1 Mix-Tape Tour and he’s been crossing up defenders ever since.
Editor’s Note: L.A. streetball legend James “Arkansas Red” Allen would have been a top five selection in this countdown had he attended a California high school. Allen attended segregated and now defunct Roosevelt (Palm Beach, Fla.). Players must have attended high school in California to make the Elite 24 or the just “missed list” high honorable mention. Others noted by an asterisk (*) would have received strong consideration for the list of 48 had they attended a California high school.
Just Missed (Next 24):
Walter “Chipper” Bentley, Washington (Los Angeles) ‘77
Bobby Brown, Westchester (Los Angeles) ’03
Mike Brown, Westchester (Los Angeles) ’88
Russell “The General” Brown, Inglewood ‘77
Allen “Houdini” Caveness, Pomona ’87
Chris Childs, Foothill (Bakersfield) ‘85
Reggie Cotton, Muir (Pasadena) ‘88
Sam Crawford, Westchester (Los Angeles) ’89
Jerry “The Assassin” Dupree, Valley View (Moreno Valley) ‘99
Zack “Chestnuts” Fray, Fairfax (Los Angeles) ’99
Anthony Fredericks, Gardena ‘82
Lamar “Black Pearl” Gayle, Jordan (Long Beach) ’98
Brandon Jennings, Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) ’08
Raymond “Circus” King, El Cerrito ’95
Erron “E Money” Maxey, Elsinore (Wildomar) ’97
Wolfe Perry, Oakland Tech ‘75
Reggie Phillips, Foothill (Bakersfield) ’89
Cleve Porter, Ganesha (Pomona) ‘74
Norman “Doc” Shavers, Oakland Tech ’76
Maurice “Mo” Spillers, Locke (Los Angeles) ’92
Dane “Onion” Suttle, Sr., Fremont (Los Angeles) ’79
Casper Ware, Jr., Gahr (Cerritos) ’08
Larry “Bone Collector” Williams, Blair (Pasadena) ‘98
Marcus Williams, Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) ’03
More Notable Cali Streetball Players:
“Air Dogg” , Hassan Adams, Will Alexander, Clifford Allen, Dwayne Allen, *James “Arkansas Red” Allen, *Elmer Anderson, Keith Anderson, Gilbert Arenas, Trevor Ariza, *Ron “Tru Warrior” Artest, Kenny Austin, *Ron Baldwin, Shawn Bankhead, Joe Barry, Kevin Beal, *Ron Beals, Mario “Pook” Bennett, Franklin Berry, Travis Bivins, Myree “Reemix” Bowden, Dwain Bradberry, Kevin “Bean” Bradley, Jermoine “J-Boogey” Brantley, Omar Bray, Dameon Brewington, DeShon Brown, Dion Brown, Kobe Bryant, Biff Burrell, Isaac “Ice” Burton, *Michael Cage, Paul Caldwell, Jeff Calhoun, Aron “Hooky” Carmichael, Nate Carter, *Jerry “Money” Chambers, Phil Chenier, Keith Closs, Ronnie Coleman, Lester Conner, Dwayne Cooper, Vernon “Schea” Cotton, Charles Criss, Jason Crowe, Derrell Cunegin, Scott “Big Red” Cutley, Kevin L. Dandridge, Deric Daniels, Stephon Davis, Tommie “Tank” Davis, Carrick DeHart, Demar DeRozen, Stan Dill, “Money” Mike Efevberha, Dominic Ellison, Sidney “Live Wire” Faison, *Carl Fields, Marco Fleming, Chris Ford, Davey Fortson, Tremaine Fowlkes, Chris Francis, Tellis Frank, Jair Fray, Danny Frazier, Larry Friend, Keith Gibbs, J.C. Gipson, Morris Griffin, Gary Hamilton, Rico Hanish, James Harden, James “Trouble” Hardy, Carl Ray Harris, Keith “Ice Cream” Harris, Robert Harris, Joaquin Hawkins, Ricky Hawthorne, Jerome Henderson, J.R. Henderson, Jimmy Henry, Eric “Spinmaster” Holmes, Floyd Hooper, Derick Huey, “Ironman”, Hernell “Jeep” Jackson, Kenny “Action” Jackson, Eugene “Pooh” Jeter, Clyde Jordan, Deke Jordan, Amir Johnson, Charles Johnson, David Johnson, Henry Johnson, Michael “Mountain Man” Johnson, Brian Jones, Greg Kelly, Jeremiah “Carnival” King, Jermaine “Three Ring” King, Robin Kirksey, *Michael Knight, Edgar Lacey, Vince “Chico” Langston, Andre Larry, Michael Law, Tommie Lipsey, Shaun Livingston, Steve “Show Time” Logan , *Nigel Lloyd, Tyronn Lue, Rodney Malloy, Olujimi Mann, Wally Mann, Sean “Ice” Manning, Sam Martin, Billy “The Hill” McGill, Timothy “Prime” McGrath, Charles “Cha Cha” McKinney, Cleveland “Pete” McKinney, Eric McWilliams, Dante Miller, “Stix” Milton, Reggie Mims, Mike Montgomery, Stan Montgomery, Albert Myles, Jerry Naulls, Walter Ned, Louis Nelson, Fabian Nixon, *Charles “Bo” Outlaw, *Jannero Pargo, Calvin “Beaver” Patterson, Winters Patterson, David “Airplane” Payne, Jimmy “Helicopter” Payne, Shaun Pennington, Jason Pickett, Paul Pierce, Carl Pitts, Mel Platt, Wally Rank, “Easy” Ed Reed, J.R. Rider, Angelo Robinson, Jushay Rockett, Darryl Roper, Byron Roberts, Erskin Robinson, Myron Ryan, Nick Sanderson, Woody Sauldsberry, Eric Saulny, Dwight Slaughter, Jose Slaughter, Bill Smith, Craig Smith, John “Smitty” Smith, Keith Smith, Ozzie Smith, “Fillmore” Phil Smith, Robert “Pookie” Smith, Chris Staples, Donald Strong, Lenzy Stuart, Mike Tardy, Michael “The Exterminator” Tate, Ronnie Taylor, Reggie Theus, Doug Thomas, Jude “Hollywood” Thomas, Willie J. Thomas, Derryck Thornton, Sr., John Trapp, Wun “The Shot” Versher, Gerald “Juma” Walker, Ricky “Tex” Walker, Bernard Ward, Theus Warlow, Thurman Watson, Paul Weakley, Will Weir, Lawrence “Camel” West, David Wilburn, Gilbert Wilburn, Barry Wilds, Deon Williams, Flintie Ray Williams, Guy “The Fly” Williams, Lawrence Williams, Tyree Williams, Damion Wilson, Ronnie Winbush, Francois Wise, “Wonderous” Willie Wise, Kevin Wolf, Horace “Gingerbread Man” Wormely, Clarence “Clank” Worship, George Wrighster, Dorell Wright, Eugene Wright, Chris “Ghetto Bird” Young, Nick Young, “Zig Zagg”.