The Drew League
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Basketball

The Drew League: Bringing the game forward

Almost half a century in the making, the Iconic Los Angeles Summer League has only gotten better with age.
By Taylor Geas
8 min readPublished on
The Drew League is a perfect example of the profound impact sport has on society.
For 49 seasons, the Drew League has given the South Central community a chance to see basketball talent from all walks including streetball, college ball, and the NBA. And in return, it has given players from these worlds a community.
LeBron James
LeBron James
It’s rare for something so real to withstand the test of time. Usually, with things in life this real, as time goes on they grow and things change and compromises have to be made — but not with the Drew League. They’ve always stayed true to their word.
“The thing about the Drew League, it’s all for free,” said Dino Smiley, former Drew League Commissioner for over three decades, “We don’t charge a penny.”
The Drew is the essence of basketball, you know? The league’s home court is a gymnasium in the King Drew Magnet High School located on the corner of Compton Avenue and 120th Street in South Central Los Angeles. For years, the hardwood has been graced by household names from the league including LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Paul Pierce, Nick Young, Baron Davis, and others… even Kobe Bryant.
“Basketball was born in the inner city. That's what they play on the playgrounds, the hot gyms, and everything,” said Dino. “So, what people would always say is ‘if you want your street cred in basketball, you’ve got to go to the neighborhood and play.'”
On that floor, it’s just you, no ego or persona, there’s no need for it. The game is pure, in-your-face basketball, no-nonsense, with no niceties. The Drew League brings people together no matter who you are (as long as you’ve got skills). Basketball becomes the greatest equalizer.
You have to come in with a strong, competitive team. We don’t just let anyone walk in.
Chaniel Smiley
"We’ve always prided ourselves on high competition,” explained Chaniel Smiley, Dino’s Daughter, and successor, “You have to come in with a strong, competitive team. We don’t just let anyone walk in. And when you respect the game and that nature, it amplifies everyone else —everybody is on the same accord.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, maybe it's this mentality, but when you’re sitting there in the bleachers you feel inspired to pursue whatever your thing is, basketball-related or not. As you’re sitting there, surrounded by the neighborhood, you feel part of something.
Maybe it’s the game, maybe it’s the dynamic announcer, George Preciado, the voice of the Drew for over 20 years, maybe it’s everyone repping the notable “Drew League” t-shirts, maybe it’s Chaniel Smiley, the first-ever female commissioner of the Drew League, jumping up from her courtside seat and immersing herself into the crowd of fans on the corner of the court to celebrate a win, maybe it’s all these things that have left a mark on Los Angeles, and the basketball world.
“People have this misconception about LA basketball, that we’re cool,” explained Patrick Rembert, Drew League Player and last summer’s MVP, “and we are cool, but we’re also really tough.”
The Drew League
The Drew League
Nearly 10 years before the creation of the Drew League, the 1965 Watts Riots broke out. The six-day conflict between Watts residents and the Los Angeles Police Department occurred after a white highway patrol officer arrested a Black man, Marquette Frye, with the suspicion he was driving drunk. When it was revealed that the officer used brute force to detain Frye, the community responded. It was a response to their steady neglect. Massive fires were set, thousands were injured, and 34 people died.
The East Side of South Los Angeles was slow to recover. The poverty and lack of infrastructure made the area an environment that fostered gang violence and illegal drugs. For a while, Watts wasn’t a place people always felt safe. But in 1973, the Drew League gave the community a glimpse of reclamation. Alvin Wills, the league’s founder, started something to uplift his community and he brought in a 13-year-old volunteer to help — Orvis “Dino” Smiley.
Come 1984, Dino followed down Wills’ path and took over the league. What was once a six-team conference eventually expanded to 28. But Dino never deviated in his delegation. “I did everything myself, I didn’t ask anybody for anything. I did the snack bar with a little hot plate, mopped the floor before the teams got there, swept, I did everything.”
One of his biggest worries was what would happen to the league without him. He must’ve known how much people needed it.
The Drew League
The Drew League
Fortunately, his daughter Chaniel understood how much the Drew League means to her neighborhood.
Outside the gymnasium one Saturday afternoon this June, Chaniel’s brother and creator of the official Drew League clothing line, Desmond Smiley, sat behind a folding table lined with sweatshirts, t-shirts, joggers, and hats. Each item featured either “Drew League” or “Drew Crew” in the team’s well-known cursive script. The color palette included white, off-white, royal blue, black, deep gold, and teal green. On the other side of the table were lines of customers waiting excitedly to make a purchase and rep the brand.
Among the urgent energy, Desmond maintained a calm demeanor, he spoke coolly, “We’ve always been a part of this all our lives, especially my sister. She just always was his (Dino’s) assistant, she grew into this, was groomed into this. She was always going to the meetings, getting to know the players, taking the initiative to do all the little details here and there.”
And Desmond always had a vision for the brand, but he never expected players in the NBA like Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams to rock his line. When he saw Nick Young wearing one of his t-shirts for a Warriors game night walk-in, he said the moment was “jaw-dropping.”
But you could almost see the pride radiating off of him when asked about his sister and the family business. “My dad is kind of getting a little older,” Desmond said, “and for her to step in, it was perfect. And not only that, she’s the only woman commissioner. It’s a really big deal in my opinion.”
Chaniel explained how she paid close attention to her dad’s leadership and techniques. As the time got closer to Dino stepping down and Chaniel stepping up, one day Dino didn’t come to the game. When he called Chaniel he said, “Hey I’m not going to be there this weekend, you got it.”
Chaniel Smiley
Chaniel Smiley
Chaniel remembers the day being “nerve-wracking” as everyone came up to her asking where her dad was. She responded, “he’s not here, it’s me.”
And since that day, she’s been carrying on the legacy her dad built for almost 40 years.
Chaniel calls the Drew League “the lion’s den.” She explained how the crowd comes from all over LA, up from the OC, in from the IE, and even out-of-towners “stop by the Drew,” she said.
They are there for one reason the Commissioner asserted, “to see good basketball.”
As for the guys that come out and play in the summer, she joked how they’re not leaving the summer league with a million dollars. Players come and put their pride on the line.
“When you’re off-season, you want to get better, so you want to put yourself in the lion’s den and really have people come at you so that you’re ready when you go back overseas, to the NBA, or your collegiate team,” Chaniel said.
The Drew League
The Drew League
And while the Drew is definitely about preparation, it’s about something more too. One of the most iconic moments in the Drew League, and both Chaniel and Dino’s favorite memory is “knowing and anticipating the arrival of Kobe Bryant.”
Kobe dropped 43 points and the game-winning J over James Harden. The entire gymnasium stormed the floor, and he, the Black Mamba, welcomed it with his hands raised in the middle of the court, like a boxer at the sound of the bell. A moment like that, almost unbelievable, is only possible in the context of sports.
Now, Kobe was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. The Hall of Famer and 5-time NBA Champion loved the game, was obsessed with the game, and honored the game however he could — like in that August of 2011.
Before he made the game-winner over Harden, the crowd was getting heated. Everyone was up out of their seats, they couldn’t contain themselves. Kobe’s police escort approached him and said that the nature of the crowd posed a security threat and strongly recommended that they leave.
“I gotta’ finish the game,” Kobe responded.
That right there is the beauty of the game. And not everyone is able to witness it. But the Drew League has made sure that a lot more people can.