May 08 2014

The Impact of the Drew.

As summer approaches, basketball takes over in the city of Los Angeles.

L.A. is a hoops town. It has been even before the Lakers moved in from Minneapolis in 1960, though that decade started the Wooden Dynasty at UCLA and brought Hall-of-Fame stars from the NBA like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. In a vast landscape, the hardwood was a unifier.

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But the influence of the Drew League was something special. Founded in 1973 by Alvin Wills, an inner-city community organizer, the Drew League was originally a six-team basketball league hosted at Charles Drew Middle School, near the intersection of Compton and Firestone. What started as an in-school program turned into a mecca of sorts for pro-amateur basketball, basking in the glow of digital media and sponsored by one of the most influential athletic corporations in the world, Nike.

Drew Middle School, the original location of the Drew League.

Drew Middle School, the original location of the Drew League.


The Drew League banner above the entrance to the gym at King Drew.

The Drew League banner above the entrance to the gym at King Drew.

With the league only days away from starting up, I had to check out the activity at its current location, King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science. By activity, I mean a normal school day. The gymnasium was full, but there wasn’t a basketball to be seen. The school’s volleyball team was preparing for a playoff game against Crenshaw. But the building worker, Bradshaw, was anticipating the buildup of the start of the league. After all, he was wearing a Drew League shirt that had the league’s motto, “No Excuse. Just Produce.”

“They’re coming in soon to put the floor down,” Bradshaw said. “Nike. They’re putting the floor down. For now, this banner is all there is.”

It’s an exciting time to be around the neighborhood. The Drew League only started playing at King Drew, a school located just south of the Willowbrook Blue Line station, in 2012.  It is a big source of pride in the neighborhood.

I was pointed towards Washington Park, the old location of the Drew League before the games moved to Willowbrook. There I encountered a few players getting a pickup game in. One of those players described the Drew League as a fun basketball setting, played like a four-month All-Star season.

Oris “Dino” Smiley, the commissioner of the Drew League since 1985, was at Washington Park. Last year was a big year for his league, as it was the 40th anniversary. This upcoming summer, Smiley has big plans for the league. The league is going to do even more community involvement related activities this summer, have a larger variety of color for player apparel, and he just got off the phone to confirm an appearance by NBA All-Star Stephen Curry. But when asked about the impact of the Drew League in the neighborhood, Smiley pointed to the Drew League Foundation that he started in 2008.

Washington Park in Florence-Firestone, where the Drew League played for most of their 40+ year history before moving south to King Drew.

Washington Park in Florence-Firestone, where the Drew League played before moving south to King Drew. NBA players started playing in the league here in 2006.

“As far as the impact, with the Drew League being 41 years old, we founded a non-profit foundation. And it’s been great,” said Smiley. “We’ve given out over $75,000 worth of scholarships to kids in the community going off to school. We’ve supported these kids not just when we give them a scholarship … Those who have been to college knows it’s tough times. Dorm fees need to be paid, books cost 400 bucks. They reach out to us, we make sure it gets to the school, and we follow them all the way through until they graduate.

“It’s just been a blessing for us to be able to step in, raise funds, and get these kids motivated to go to school,” added Smiley, who said the Drew League Foundation Scholarship Award Dinner will be on July 25 at the Carson Community Center.

The Drew League has now expanded to 28 teams, and will begin play on Saturday, May 17. The games are free, something that Smiley emphasizes, and the entire block buzzes with activity on the weekends. “What we’re proud of is that we never charge – all of our games are free, so come on in and enjoy it,” Smiley says. Last year, the league had a 14-week schedule, culminating in a team called Hank’s Blazers taking the championship.

“Look out for 2014,” Smiley says. “The ticker is ticking.”


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