The Drew League celebrates 50 seasons

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – JULY 16: LeBron James handles the ball at the Drew League Pro-Am on July 16, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images)

LeBron James made a hugely popular Drew League appearance in the summer of 2022. (Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — The Drew League has become an NBA offseason staple, while also serving as a base in South Los Angeles.

‘The Drew’, which celebrates its 50th season this year, is known for bringing in the NBA’s top talent to grace the hardwood at King Drew Magnet High School in Los Angeles. These players include Kobe Bryant, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul.

Most recently, and perhaps most notably, was LeBron James’ monstrous performance last summer when he had 46 points on 18 shooting on 36, 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 was working for a community organization, transformed Charles Drew Middle School’s popular “Homeroom Basketball” program into what we know today as the Drew League. The school hosted the event until 2005. He brought in top talent to perform and wore various hats to keep the show running, including making play-by-play announcements for games, officiating, scoring and everything needed to make sure the games went smoothly.

“That’s all we’ve done [in the neighborhood]”, Wills said, describing the importance of basketball in the neighborhood. “There are no bowling alleys, no malls, no cinemas. So every night we would be in the gym.

The Smileys currently lead the league, headed by Chaniel Smiley, who succeeded his father and former commissioner Dino Smiley in 2017. Dino became commissioner in 1984, although he has been with the Drew since he was 13 years old. He is credited with coining the league’s slogan, “No Excuse, Just Produce”. This is printed throughout the gym, on uniforms and on merchandise.

“The motto is very dear to me,” said Chaniel Smiley. “My father created the motto almost 40 years ago. I believe, with this model said, it means no matter what, whatever, whatever, find a way to make it through, and as long as you do your best. That’s all that matters, don’t give up. Whatever adversity comes your way, just try to do your best to get through it and don’t keep giving excuses because no one cares about all the excuses, do they? We want to see results.

Chaniel also grew up in Drew where she was her father’s assistant from a young age. She is also a board member of 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 it was for our community. So I started relying on the league itself and dedicating myself more to it.

local hero

It’s easy to get lost in the bright lights of NBA talent passing through the Drew, but the league has produced players who have excelled in the sport and outside of the NBA.

Franklin Session, better known as “Frank Nitty”, hailed from Watts and became the face of the league. Session has won three consecutive Drew League MVP titles and could add a fourth this season.

Due to his electric performances in the Drew, he built a basketball career overseas. Session played college 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 heading to Qatar. In 2021, he won the Qatar League and was named Qatari Player of the Year.

Since then, Session has dominated the Drew League and was also drafted into the BIG3 League. Session is part of the viral Ballislife team that crosses the country dominating streetball.

Session received their own exclusive silhouette of the Jordan Zion 2 which can only be worn for Drew League. Session is one of the only non-NBA players to receive his own shoe with Jordan Brand.

“We provide this platform for the average Joe,” Chaniel Smiley said. “To come and showcase their skills and having the cameras, the stream, the audience, the exposure, we want to uplift these guys if they’re doing well, especially if they’re from our community.”

The Drew and the community

Although on the surface you see the flair and spectacle of the Drew League, it’s for a good cause. The Drew League is supported by the Drew League Foundation, an organization that aims to provide a safe and positive path for young people in South Los Angeles through programs such as gang prevention, mentoring and sports.

The Drew is also a place where top talent can play for fans who may not be able to afford an NBA regular season ticket. And some of those elite talents have given back, especially those who grew up in Los Angeles, like former NBA All-Star Baron Davis.

Davis grew up in South Los Angeles and was raised in the Drew League as a fan and player.

“I started playing in the Drew when I was, I think, 13,” Davis said. “Being born and raised in Los Angeles, you know, when I was playing in the league, it wasn’t popular. There was no social media. The NBA guys didn’t come. It was really a local league. And once I got to the NBA, my goal was to bring more NBA players to Drew, to make it one of the best summer leagues in basketball. So throughout my journey from my rookie year until in the end, the Drew has always been just part of my gift and what I can give back to the basketball community in Los Angeles.

Since Davis’ retirement in 2012, he has coached the Drew League and directed a documentary about the league called “The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce,” which premiered in 2015.

Davis launched an initiative to give back to the Drew League through a public challenge, in partnership with SimpleHuman, in which fans submit crafty photos via social media. With each shot, SimpleHuman will donate $25 to the Drew League Foundation.

The future

Throughout its 50 seasons, the Drew has become one of the premier summer basketball leagues in the world. The Drew went overseas, playing exhibition matches in Japan and China. It has expanded with a women’s league, as well as a showcase that takes place in January. The Drew also has a deal with the NBA to stream games through the NBA app, as well as branding deals with Nike and Adidas.

Kyrie Irving has said he will join the Drew League this summer, a sign that Drew still has the talent with NBA talent.

The Drew seeks to continue expanding and elevating the community and its members, putting South Los Angeles on the map to build on its 50-year legacy.

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