Meet Franklin Session, the best basketball player you've never heard of

Back-to-back Drew League MVP Franklin Session (right) celebrates after winning the championship. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Poole/Drew League)

LOS ANGELES — Franklin Session shuffles down the stairs toward King/Drew Magnet High School’s gym. He’s wearing a camouflage jacket, but here, during these months, he cannot hide.

It’s summertime in Southern California, which means it’s Session’s time. As he reaches the bottom of the staircase connecting the player’s parking lot to the school’s gym, fans flock toward him. They shout his name and pose for pictures with him, the back-to-back MVP, the dude with 40,000 Instagram followers, the basketball player who for years has wowed NBA talent.

As Session steps into the gym, his wife, Nicole, and 5-year-old daughter, Milah, flank behind. Session’s family (including his 10-year-old son Jarell) is the reason the former Verizon Wireless store manager is living the dream he once gave up here at the Drew League, Los Angeles’ premier pro-am league that showcases street ball legends, college talent and NBA stars.

On this day, Session will play his sixth game of the season. Dating back to last year, his team is going for its 21st straight win.

“I don’t think of it as that, though,” Session says, smiling and sounding as professional as ever. “I take these games one at a time.”

*****

Session, 29, began playing basketball competitively in the 10th grade. Early on, those around him recognized his natural talent, but over the years Session has found out it takes more than talent to succeed.

At times, Session has gotten in his own way, talking too much (on and off of the court). At times, he has blown off practice time. He has also had to put basketball aside to focus on his wife and two kids.

But Session, who once starred alongside Damian Lillard, likes to think he’s grown up a bit. With many expecting him to become the first player to win the Drew League MVP in three consecutive seasons, the growth has shown. He says support from coaches, friends and family drive him, so he is still playing the game he loves — which brings us to the jam-packed, brick-walled gym on this Sunday afternoon.

Immediately following the tip, Session, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound pogo stick of a guard, is double-teamed. The opposing coach is his trainer, Keion Kindred, who knows how to best defend him. Kindred assigns Boston Celtic and Los Angeles native Jonathan Gibson to guard Session.

Minutes into the game, Session misses a step-back jumper from the right baseline and a 3-pointer from the right wing. Finally, late in the first quarter, Session slashes to the basket, hop-steps into the paint and lays the ball in with his right hand.

At the end of the first quarter, Session’s team leads 15-10, and now he is ready to show some personality. While the opposing team’s bench chirps Session, he hesitates beyond the 3-point line and attacks the rim. Once the referee whistles for a shooting foul, Session walks to the opposing bench and raises his hand to his ear as if to ask: “You said what?”

A bit later, as Session walks to his team’s halftime huddle with his squad ahead, rapper The Game, one of Session’s teammates, grins, squints his eyes toward Session and claps in excitement.

Years ago, The Game, whose real name is Jayceon Taylor, knew he needed a star on his team. He wanted to win the championship at the league he grew up attending. So he added Session to his squad.

“Now, it’s like, that’s my best friend,” the rapper says of Session.

Teammates Jayceon “The Game” Taylor and Franklin Session celebrate during a game. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Poole/Drew League)

The two connected on many levels, especially with their similar backgrounds. They both loved the game of basketball, and they both grew up hooping on Los Angeles’ blacktops. Both grew up in South Los Angeles.

“It was tough, man. I was playing against guys who didn’t play basketball or who kind of play basketball and then guys who gang-banged,” Session says of his first times playing the game. “You’re getting pushed around and banged around, and you can’t say much because you’ll probably end up fighting.”

When Session entered his sophomore year at L.A.’s Jordan High School, he possessed a frame that attracted the school’s basketball coach, Van Meyers. The coach thought Session could provide a defensive presence, so he invited Session to join the team.

In the months that followed, Andy Ground, the coach of Saddleback Junior College in Mission Viejo, California, received calls from a scouting buddy about the kid from Jordan High who was athletic and a scrappy defender. Like most junior college coaches are when they receive calls like these, Ground was skeptical — but he gave in.

“I went up to a tournament in some little rat-hole gym,” Ground says. “And you know how sometimes somebody is not paying attention to you and they kinda just walk right by you and look at the next person? That day, that was Franklin. He big-timed me.”

That wasn’t Session’s intention. He just wasn’t sure he was good enough to play college basketball. He didn’t play AAU, or summer ball, and hadn’t received much notice. Plus, he had a son, Jarell, who he needed to provide for. But Ground was impressed enough with Session’s athleticism to offer him a scholarship anyway.

As Session improved, Ground continued to show up in rat-hole gyms to watch him as other schools did, too. The loyalty paid off. Senior year, Session chose to play college ball for Ground.

In his first junior college season, Session orchestrated the team’s offense and led it to the state championship game. The Gauchos won — coincidentally — 21 games in a row. With game experience, he grew on the court. But in practice?

“He tried to make his bathroom runs during the drills,” Ground says.

Session continued to improve the following year, earning looks from Division I programs, but he struggled to maintain much of an effort outside of games.

This came back to bite him at Weber State, where Session transferred after two seasons at junior college. He was the team’s third-leading scorer at 10.2 points per game while playing a supporting role to a 6-foot-3 guard named Damian Lillard, now the Portland Trail Blazers’ star player.

At the end of his first year in Ogden, Utah, Session was sent home by coach Randy Rahe after repeated nonchalance during practices.

“I was a knucklehead back then,” Session says. “I’m glad that happened. It humbled me. It made me learn you can’t go through the motions in life.”

He returned to California and played his senior season for Cal State L.A., averaging 16.3 points per game. A cup of coffee in the NBA G-League followed, but he was starting to get serious with his then-girlfriend – who is now his wife – and was expecting a daughter. He decided family stability mattered most.

So he accepted a job with Sprint. He left the basketball dream behind.

Over the next three years, Session hooped a handful of times. When a friend wanted him to play in an adult league, he’d lace up his sneakers. When he felt like he ate too much for dinner, he’d do the same.

“I didn’t feel like I could do it at a competitive level, though,” Session says. But others did. When fellow Los Angeles natives James Harden and DeMar DeRozan played alongside him during pick-up games in Los Angeles, they suggested Session play more competitively. The Drew League was an option.

During his years away from the game, Session had stabilized his family’s life. He owned a gray Beemer, and he earned a store manager position with Verizon Wireless. His wife pushed him to play in the Drew League.

Session’s confidence wavered during his first Drew League season. He wasn’t sure what other guys saw in him, but he knew he needed to change his practice habits.

That offseason, he began to work more and more on his game, refining his eating habits and working on his ball-handling. Then, ahead of Year Two, in stepped The Game.

“Once I seen him on the other team and they wasn’t winning, I was like, that’s a piece I need on my team,” the rapper said. “If we get Frank, we gonna win.”

Last year, with Session playing the best basketball of his life, the team did win the league’s championship. Session’s performance earned him a training camp invite to the G-League, but he was cut, he says, due to professionalism. His work ethic might be better than it was when he was younger, but his personality is the same — as much as he knows it sometimes hurts him.

“A lot of people want players who just shut up and play basketball,” Session said. “Where I’m from, like, people are going to talk smack, and that’s part of the game. That helps me play better. So, I should’ve just toned that down and been more of a yes man and more like a pro.”

Session did that while playing for the National Basketball League of Canada’s Island Storm. He averaged 19.6 points per game, good enough for sixth in the league in scoring, and was named the league’s newcomer of the year. He gushes about that experience, finally tasting a professional basketball life. He wants to play professionally again next season, and knows he’s more than capable.

But he’ll focus on that later.

A half remains in the Sunday game at the Drew League, and the opposing team is making a run.

*****

With 5 minutes and 22 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Session knifes to the basket and again lays the ball in. Today is not a day for the highlight, make-the-gym-go-crazy dunk. It’s a day when every point matters.

By the end of the third quarter, the teams are tied at 48.

Teammates Franklin Session and The Game celebrate in the Drew League’s championship game. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Poole/Drew League)

George Preciado, in his 21st year as the Drew League play-by-play announcer, has seen Session’s team play games like this, in which the other team’s defense proves stifling. Usually, Preciado says, that’s when Session steps up.

“His next move is the best move,” Preciado says. “It’s like chess with him.”

Winning this game will factor into the MVP competition, so Session focuses on making winning plays.

Twice in the final four minutes, Session skies for rebounds over the opposing team’s 6-foot-10 center, grabbing the the ball with his outstretched right hand. The extra possessions prove critical for his team, which wins 72-64. Session finishes with 16 points — a subpar total, given his usual standards — but he high-fives every teammate in sight when the clock hits zero.

Once he makes his way outside, Session smiles with fans who once again flock to him for photos. Then he strides toward the staircase and throws on his camouflage jacket, his family following and smiling.

Session will return to the gym at King/Drew Magnet High School next weekend to try to make it 22 straight wins. He’s not leaving this dream behind any time soon.