LOS ANGELES — The Drew League has become an integral part of the NBA offseason as well as a staple in South Los Angeles.
Drew, which is celebrating its 50th season this year, is known for bringing in the NBA’s top talent to grace the park 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 scored 46 points on 18-of-36 shooting, grabbed 16 rebounds, four steals and three assists.
How Drew was born
Alvin Wills founded the Drew League in 1973. Wills, who at the time worked for a community organization, turned the popular “Home Basketball” program at Charles Drew High School into what we know today as the Drew League. The event was held at the school until 2005. He brought the best talent to the game and wore different hats to keep the show going, including step-by-step announcing for games, refereeing, scorekeeping and everything you need to make games run smoothly.
“That’s all we’ve done [in the neighborhood]Wills said, describing the importance of basketball in the area. “There is no bowling alley, no malls, no cinema. So every night we were in the gym.”
The Smileys currently run the league, led by Shaniel Smiley, who took over from his father and former commissioner Dino Smiley in 2017. Dino became commissioner in 1984, although he had been a part of Drew since the age of 13. He is credited with creating the league’s slogan, “No excuses, just produce.” It’s printed all over the gym, on uniforms and on merchandise.
“This motto is very dear to me,” said Chaniel Smiley. “My father came up with this motto almost 40 years ago. I believe that with this model, it means that no matter what is happening, whatever is happening, whatever is happening, find a way to get through it, and for now, you are doing your best. That’s all that matters, don’t give up. Whatever adversity comes your way, just try to persevere and not keep making excuses, because no one cares about all the excuses, right? We want to see results.”
Chaniel also grew up in Drew, where she served as her father’s assistant from a young age. She is also a board member of the Drew League Foundation along with eight other people.
“After I [finished] I was going to do something else in college,” Smiley said. “Then I noticed how important this is for our community. So I started relying on the league itself and became more committed to it.”
It’s easy to get lost in the glare of NBA talent that comes from Drew, but the league has produced players who have excelled both in and out of the sport.
Franklin Session, better known as “Frank Nitti”, is a native of Watts and has become the face of the league. Sessions has been the Drew League MVP three times in a row and could be his fourth this season.
Thanks to his amazing performances with the Drews, he built a career in overseas basketball. Session played collegiate basketball at Weber State and started in the same backcourt as Damian Lillard before moving to California State in Los Angeles for his senior season.
Session went undrafted in the 2011 NBA draft and played some G-League teams before heading to Qatar. In 2021, he won the Qatari League and was named the Qatar Player of the Year.
Since then, Session has dominated the Drew League and has also been selected to compete in the BIG3 League. Session is part of the viral Ballislife team that travels the country dominating streetball.
The session received its own exclusive Jordan Zion 2 silhouette that can only be worn in the Drew League. Session is one of the few non-NBA players to get his own shoes from Jordan Brand.
“We provide this platform for the average Joe,” Shaniel Smiley said. “To come and showcase their skills and have the cameras, the broadcast, the audience, the visibility, we want to upvote these guys if they’re doing well, especially if they’re from our community.”
Drew and community
Although at first glance you see the talent and show of the Drew League, this is for the good. The Drew League is supported by the Drew League Foundation, an organization that strives to provide a safe and positive path for youth in South Los Angeles through programs such as gang prevention, mentoring, and sports.
Drew is also a place where top talent can play for fans who can’t afford an NBA regular season ticket. And some of that elite talent has paid off, especially those who grew up in Los Angeles, like former NBA All-Star Baron Davis.
Davis grew up in South Los Angeles and grew up in the Drew League as a fan and player.
“I started playing Drew when I was like 13 years old,” Davis said. “You know, because I was born and raised in Los Angeles, when I played in the league it wasn’t popular. He didn’t have social media. There were no guys from the NBA. It was just a local league. And once I got into the NBA, my goal was to bring more NBA players to Drew, to make it one of the best summer basketball leagues. So, throughout my journey from my rookie to the very end, Drew has always been just a part of my giving back and what I can give back to the basketball community in Los Angeles.”
Since Davis’ retirement in 2012, he has been coaching the Drew League and has directed a documentary about the league titled Drew: No Excuses, Just Production, which premiered in 2015.
Davis has taken the initiative to bring the Drew League back through a public challenge in partnership with SimpleHuman, in which fans submit stunts via social media. From each shot, SimpleHuman will donate $25 to the Drew League Foundation.
In 50 seasons, Drew has grown into one of the most famous summer basketball leagues in the world. Drew went overseas, playing exhibition games in Japan and China. It expanded with a women’s league as well as a demonstration to take place in January. Drew has also secured a deal with the NBA to stream games through the NBA app, as well as a deal with Nike and Adidas.
Kyrie Irving has said he will be joining the Drew League this summer, which is a sign that Drew is still attracting NBA talent.
The Drew looks forward to continuing its expansion and uplifting the community and its members by putting south Los Angeles on the map to continue its 50 year old legacy.