Dino Smiley still remembers the details of the phone call in 2011.
Then the commissioner of the Drew League, Los Angeles’ top pro-am basketball league, Smiley had seen his fair share of NBA pros play during the league’s 38-year history.
With the NBA in a lockout and facilities closed, basketball stars flocked to pro-ams across the country to stay in shape. Kevin Durant and LeBron James were already past the Drew League that summer, turning in memorable performances.
James’ sheer size shocked a local child so much, Smiley said, that the child asked the king, “Wow, what’s your mom feeding you? Oatmeal and steroids?”
But this time it was different. Two of the best players in the world made their mark in the Drew League, and naturally fans began to wonder when Kobe Bryant would stop by.
Three days after James dropped 33 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists, Smiley got a call from Bryant’s agent – the Lakers star wanted to play.
“I said, ‘well, the season’s pretty much over. We’re going to DC to play the Goodman League and Kevin Durant. We’re taking a team out there,'” Smiley recalled. “And he said, well, he’ll just playing on the same floor that Kevin Durant and LeBron played.”
The Drew League had arranged an All-Star game against the Goodman League of Washington DC that week. The team held practice on Tuesday, so Smiley decided to hold an All-Star game with the Drew League’s top players on the same day.
Bryant’s team faced a squad that included James Harden and DeMar DeRozan, then among the NBA’s brightest young stars. When Smiley walked into the opposing team’s locker room for the day, he got a simple request to share from Bryant.
“While I’m in there, I’m like, ‘Hey, look, Kobe’s coming, but he’s not going to play a little touchy-feely, touchy-feely All-Star type of game. He’s going to have somebody go at it, who’s going to go after him? ‘” Smiley said. “James Harden raised his hand and said, ‘I’ve got his ass.’ And that’s when all the things started.”
Harden lived up to the moment, trashing and defending Bryant all game. Bryant got the last laugh, hitting a game-winning fadeaway over Harden to end the game, sending the Drew League crowd rushing the court and wrapping their arms around the 6-foot-6 guard’s waist. He finished with 45 points.
However, the Drew League’s most iconic moment almost never happened. A police sergeant told Smiley that with two minutes left in the game, he would take Bryant out of the game so he could go back to the locker room and change.
Smiley told the sergeant that if the game was close, Bryant would not come out.
However, Smiley could not have foreseen that how close the game would be. Hearing the roar outside the gym, he told himself to go back inside. When he took a step inside, he saw only Bryant dribbling up the court to make his final shot as fans chanted Bryant’s name.
“I said ‘this can’t happen. This is a dream. There’s no way,'” Smiley said. “He gets to the corner of the free throw line, jerk-step pulls up, shoots it. And I’m like, I know it’s not going to work. Nothing but net… It was magical.”
Bryant’s game-winner still lives in the minds of everyone who has been around the Drew League.
Crystal Hogan, who has been an umpire in the Drew League since 2005, was one of the umpires for Bryant’s game. She called that moment her favorite of all time, but what stood out the most was Bryant’s willingness to play hard for the people who crowded into the small gym in Washington Park in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“The biggest thing I think I got out of it is the fact that he came to Washington Park,” Hogan said. “He came to a little park in LA and did a show for free for our kids in the community.”
Chaniel Smiley, daughter of Dino and now Drew League Commissioner, echoed a similar sentiment. Bryant didn’t just want to play for the sake of playing, but instead gave everyone there a treat.
She said when security tried to get Bryant out of the game early, he said no. Bryant wanted to play to the end and finish the game.
“That’s why we love Kobe forever,” Chaniel Smiley said.
Bryant’s viral performance, combined with Durant and James bringing extra attention, helped the Drew League reach new heights.
“They needed a place to play and Drew was one of the places,” Chaniel Smiley said. “And so it was when we had games between LA and Washington DC. The whole situation was pretty much those who are in braces, they wanted to make sure they were still able to embrace it and enjoy the entertainment. So we kept basketball alive this summer.”
The Drew League-Goodman League game included NBA players Durant, Harden, DeRozan, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Jennings and JaVale McGee. That type of star power helped the pro-ams.
What happened instead was a shift in the popularity of the Drew League, and saved the league. Dino Smiley narrated Yahoo Sports in 2016 that he had planned for the 2011 season to be his last. The responsibility of commissioner was beginning to take a toll on him.
Without the sudden blessing of involvement from the game’s top players and Bryant’s iconic moment, who knows if the Drew League would have survived to see 50 years.
“We were good and consistent all those years,” Dino Smiley said. “But that lockout kind of finally made the NBA players understand that they have a league here, that they can have NBA referees, the DJ, the PA announcer, everything.”