The Drew League celebrates 50 seasons

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

LOS ANGELES – The Drew League has become a regular part of the NBA offseason while also serving as a fixture in South Los Angeles.

“The Drew,” celebrating its 50th season this year, is known for bringing NBA 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 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. Working for a community organization at the time, Wills transformed the popular “Homeroom Basketball” program at Charles Drew Middle School into what we know today as the Drew League. The school hosted the event until 2005. He brought in top talent to play and wore various hats to keep the show running, which included doing some play-by-play announcing for play, umpire, scoring and whatever it took to make sure the game went smoothly.

“That was all we did [in the neighborhood]” said Wills, describing the importance of basketball in the neighborhood. “There are no bowling alleys, no shopping centers, no movie theater. So every night we were in the gym.”

The Smileys currently run the league, led by Chaniel Smiley, who took over for his father and former commissioner Dino Smiley in 2017. Dino became commissioner in 1984, though he has been part of Drew since he was 13. He is credited with coining the slogan for the league, “No Execuse.” It is printed throughout the gymnasium, 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 when that model is said, whatever is going on, whatever happens, whatever takes place, it means finding a way to push through it and as long as you do your best. That’s all that matters, not giving up. No matter what adversity comes your way, just try your best to push through and not keep making excuses, because nobody likes 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 also serves as a member of the board of directors for the Drew League Foundation along with eight others.

“After me [finished] college, I was actually going to do something else,” Smiley said. “Then I noticed how important this is to our society. So I started trusting the league itself and being more dedicated to it.”

Completely homemade

It’s easy to get lost in the bright light of NBA talent coming through 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,” 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 at Drew, he has built a career in overseas basketball. Session played collegiate basketball at Weber State, starting 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 the Qatar player of the year.

Since then, Session has dominated the Drew League and was also drafted to be part of the BIG3 League. Session is part of the viral Ballislife team that goes cross-country and dominates streetball.

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

“We’re giving that platform to the average Joe,” Chaniel Smiley said. “To come and show their skills and by having the cameras, the stream, the audience, the visibility, we want to elevate these guys if they’re doing well, especially if they’re from our community.”

The Drew and society

Although on the surface you see flair and show from the Drew League, it’s for a good cause. The Drew League is supported by the Drew League Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing a safe and positive pathway for youth 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 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.

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

“I started playing at Drew when I think I was 13 years old,” Davis said. “Being born and raised in LA, you know, when I played in the league, it wasn’t popular. It didn’t have social media. The NBA people didn’t come by. It was just really a local league. And when I first came to the NBA, my goal was to bring more NBA players to Drew, build it up as one of the best summer leagues in basketball. So throughout my journey from my rookie year all the way through, Drew has always just been part of my give-back and what I can give back to the basketball community one in LA.”

Since Davis’ retirement in 2012, he has served 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 where fans submit trick photos through social media. With every shot made, SimpleHuman will donate $25 to the Drew League Foundation.

The future

Through its 50 seasons, Drew has grown to become one of the most prominent summer basketball leagues in the world. The Drew has traveled overseas and played 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 inked a deal with the NBA to stream games through the NBA app, as well as branding deals with Nike and Adidas.

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

The Drew looks to continue its expansion and uplift the community and its members, putting South LA on the map to build on its 50-year legacy.

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