LOS ANGELES — The Drew League has become a fixture of the NBA offseason, while also serving as a staple in south Los Angeles.
“The Drew,” celebrating its 50th season this year, is known for bringing in top NBA talent to grace the hardwood at King Drew Magnet High School in Los Angeles. Those players include Kobe Bryant, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul.
Most recently, and possibly most notably, was LeBron James’ monstrous performance last summer when he posted 46 points on 18-for-36 shooting, 16 rebounds, four steals and three assists.
How ‘The Drew’ was born
Alvin Wills founded the Drew League in 1973. Wills, who at the time worked for a community organization, turned the popular “Homeroom Basketball” program at Charles Drew Middle School into what we know today as the Drew League. The school housed the event until 2005. He brought in top talent to play and wore various hats in keeping the show running, which included doing some play-by-play announcing for games, refereeing, scorekeeping and whatever it took to make sure games went smoothly.
“That’s all we did [in the neighborhood],” Wills said, describing the importance of basketball in the neighborhood. “There’s no bowling alleys, no malls, no movie theater. So every night we’d be in the gym.”
The Smileys currently run the league, headed by Chaniel Smiley, who took over for her father and former commissioner Dino Smiley in 2017. Dino became commissioner in 1984, though he has been a part of the Drew since he was 13. He is credited with coining the slogan for the league, “No Excuse, Just Produce.” That is printed throughout the gym, on uniforms and on merchandise.
“The motto is very dear to me,” Chaniel Smiley said. “My father created the motto almost 40 years ago. I believe that, with that model being said, it means regardless of what’s going on, whatever is happening, whatever is taking place, find a way to push through it, and as long as you do your best. That’s all that matters, not giving up. Whatever adversity comes your way, just try to do your best to push through and not continue to give excuses, because no one cares about all the excuses, right? We want to see results.”
Chaniel also grew up in the Drew where she served as her dad’s assistant from a young age. She also serves as a member of the board for the Drew League Foundation, along with eight others.
“After I [finished] college, I was actually going to do something else,” Smiley said. “Then I noticed how important this is for our community. So I started relying on the league itself and being more dedicated to it.”
It’s easy to get lost in the bright lights of the NBA talent that comes through the Drew, but the league has produced players who have excelled within the sport and outside of the NBA.
Franklin Session, more widely known as “Frank Nitty,” is a native of Watts and has become the face of the league. Session has won three straight Drew League MVPs and could add a fourth this season.
Because of his electric performances in the Drew, he has built a career in overseas basketball. Session played collegiate basketball at Weber State and started in the same backcourt as Damian Lillard, before transferring to Cal State Los Angeles for his senior season.
Session went undrafted in the 2011 NBA Draft and had stints with some G League teams before going to Qatar. In 2021, he won the Qatar League and was named the Qatar Player of the Year.
Since then, Session has dominated in the Drew League and was also drafted to be a part of the BIG3 League. Session is part of the viral Ballislife team that goes across the country dominating in streetball.
Session was given his own exclusive silhouette of the Jordan Zion 2 that can be worn only for the Drew League. Session is one of the only non-NBA players to receive their own shoe with Jordan Brand.
“We provide that platform for the average Joe,” Chaniel Smiley said. “To come and showcase their skills and by having the cameras, the stream, the audience, the visibility, we want to uplift those guys if they’re doing well, especially if they’re from our community.”
The Drew and the community
Though on the surface you see the flair and show of the Drew League, it is for a good cause. The Drew League is backed by the Drew League Foundation, an organization that aims to provide a safe and positive pathway for youth in south Los Angeles through programs such as gang prevention, mentoring and sports.
The Drew also is a place where top talent can play for fans who may not be able to afford an NBA regular-season ticket. And some of that elite talent has given back, especially those who grew up in Los Angeles, such as former NBA All-Star Baron Davis.
Davis grew up in south Los Angeles and was brought up in the Drew League as a fan and a player.
“I started playing in the Drew when I was, I think, 13 years old,” Davis said. “Being born and raised in L.A. you know, when I played in the league, it wasn’t popular. It didn’t have social media. It didn’t have the NBA guys coming by. It was just really a local league. And once I got to the NBA, my goal was to bring more NBA players to the Drew, build that up as one of the best summer leagues in basketball. So, throughout my journey from my rookie year all the way through, the Drew has always been just a part of my give-back and what I can give back to the basketball community in L.A.”
Since Davis’ retirement in 2012, he serves as a Drew League coach and directed a documentary about the league called “The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce,” which premiered in 2015.
Davis started an initiative to give back to the Drew League through a public challenge, in partnership with SimpleHuman, in which fans submit trick shots through social media. With every shot made, SimpleHuman will donate $25 to the Drew League Foundation.
Throughout its 50 seasons, the Drew has grown to become one of the most prominent summer basketball leagues in the world. The Drew has gone overseas, playing exhibition games in Japan and China. It expanded with a women’s league, as well as a showcase that takes place in January. The Drew also struck a deal with the NBA to stream games through the NBA app, as well as brand deals with Nike and Adidas.
Kyrie Irving said he’ll join the Drew League this summer, a sign the Drew still has the pull with NBA talent.
The Drew looks to continue its expansion and to uplift the community and its members, putting south L.A. on the map to build on its legacy that’s 50 years running.
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