LOS ANGELES — The Drew League has become an NBA offseason fixture while also serving as a South Los Angeles staple.
“The Drew,” celebrating its 50th season this year, is known for bringing the best talent in the NBA to grace the court at King Drew Magnet High School in Los Angeles. These players include Kobe Bryant, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul.
More recently, and arguably most notable, was LeBron James’ monster performance last summer, when he scored 46 points on 18-of-36 shooting, 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 worked for a community organization, turned 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 the best talent to play and wore several hats to keep the show going, which included doing some play-by-play announcements to games, refereeing, scoring and everything needed to ensure the games run smoothly.
“That’s all we did [in the neighborhood]”, said Wills, describing the importance of basketball in the neighborhood. “There are no bowling alleys, no malls, no movie theaters. So every night we were at the gym.”
The Smileys currently run the league, headed by Chaniel Smiley, who took over from her father and former commissioner Dino Smiley in 2017. Dino became commissioner in 1984, although he has been part of Drew since he was 13. This is plastered all over the academy, on uniforms and merchandise.
“The motto is very dear to me,” said Chaniel Smiley. “My father created the motto almost 40 years ago. I believe with that model being said, it means regardless of what’s going on, whatever’s going on, whatever’s going on, find a way to get through it and as long as you do your best. That’s what matters, not giving up. Whatever adversity comes your way, just try to do your best to move forward and not keep making excuses because nobody 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 very young age. She also serves as a board member for the Drew League Foundation, along with eight others.
“After I [finished] college, I was actually going to do something else,” said Smiley. “That’s when I realized how important this is to our community. So I started to trust the league itself and dedicate myself more to it.”
It’s easy to get lost in the bright lights of NBA talent that comes through Drew, but the league has produced players who have excelled both inside the sport and outside the NBA.
Franklin Session, better known as “Frank Nitty”, hails from 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 electrifying performances at Drew, he built a career in international basketball. 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 a few G League teams before heading to Qatar. In 2021, he won the Qatar League and was named as the Qatar Player of the Year.
Since then, Session has dominated the Drew League and has also been drafted into the BIG3 League. Session is part of the viral Ballislife team that crosses the country dominating streetball.
Session received his own exclusive Jordan Zion 2 silhouette, which can only be used for the Drew League. Session is one of the only non-NBA players to receive his own Jordan Brand sneaker.
“We provide that platform for the average Joe,” said Chaniel Smiley. “To come out and showcase their skills and have 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.”
Drew and the community
While on the surface you see Drew League’s talent and show, 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 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 can’t afford an NBA regular season ticket. And some of those elite talents have reciprocated, especially those who grew up in Los Angeles, like former NBA player Baron Davis.
Davis grew up in South Los Angeles and was raised in the Drew League as a fan and player.
“I started playing Drew when I was, I think, 13,” Davis said. “Born and raised in Los Angeles, you know, when I was playing in the league, it wasn’t popular. There were no social networks. There were no NBA guys coming. It was just a local league. And once I got to the NBA, my goal was to bring more NBA players into Drew, build it into one of the best summer leagues in basketball. So throughout my journey from my rookie year to the end, Drew has always been just a part of my giving back and what I can give back to the basketball community in LA.”
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 started an initiative to give back to the Drew League through a public challenge, in partnership with SimpleHuman, in which fans submit tricks via social media. With every shot taken, SimpleHuman will donate $25 to the Drew League Foundation.
Over its 50 seasons, the Drew has grown to become one of the premier summer basketball leagues in the world. Drew went abroad, playing exhibition games in Japan and China. It expanded with a women’s league, in addition to a showcase that takes place in January. Drew also struck a deal with the NBA to stream games through the NBA app, as well as brand deals with Nike and Adidas.
Kyrie Irving has said he will be joining the Drew League this summer, a sign that Drew still has 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 legacy for 50 consecutive years.