The Drew League: ‘No Excuse, Just Produce’ The first of our series on summer pro-am leagues starts with the California competition where NBA stars show up to play
Mike James attracts a crowd as he aggressively drives the lane, but the former NBA point guard is astute enough to understand his options. As James, who in 2017 was a productive starter in a brief fling with the Phoenix Suns, takes flight, three defenders go airborne with him. He twists in the air and finds teammate The Game in the corner.
In a tightly defended contest, The Game, by either defensive lapse or strategy, finds himself wide-open.
With 16 seconds on the shot clock, three minutes left in the game and his team down three, he weighs his options. Pass out of the corner to kill clock, or fire away. Game goes for the dagger, lets one fly and misses, leaving the near-capacity crowd groaning in unison.
Welcome to The Drew, where the slogan printed on the bottom of the shorts of every player tells you all you need to know about this league: “No Excuse, Just Produce.”
A decade ago, few knew about the Drew League outside these streets of South Los Angeles, as it was known mostly to the local ballers who would compete each summer for bragging rights.
Today, The Drew is well-known to millions, thanks to the strength of social media that has made the brick walls inside King/Drew Magnet High School noticeable on a global level. Basketball fans fiending for a highly competitive summer hoops fix come from all over to attend games with hopes of seeing NBA stars.
Back in the day, New York used to be the offseason destination for NBA ballers, as Harlem’s Rucker Park was filled each summer to see players like Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Kyrie Irving put on a show.
Now, players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Chris Paul and DeMar DeRozan come to L.A. to get their street pass punched, eager to experience a moment in what’s now considered summer basketball’s Game of Thrones.
“The Drew League has helped give this community pride,” says Dino Smiley as he sits outside the gym at the Washington Park recreation center, where some of the biggest moments in the history of the league occurred. “Right where we’re at now, Kobe got dressed here before his game. We have tours coming down to our site and people taking pictures of the gyms we’ve played at because they want to stand in the place where Kobe and LeBron played.”
Now it’s the place where everybody plays. Since the July 1 date when the NBA allows its players to play, DeRozan, James Harden, Rudy Gay, Pascal Siakam, P.J. Tucker, Nick Young, Kyle Kuzma, Nate Robinson, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Metta World Peace and Cuttino Mobley have been among the long list of current and past players who have suited up.
Expect more NBA stars in uniform when the playoffs begin on Friday.
“It’s a great place to come and work on your game,” said Siakam, the Toronto Raptors forward who was named the league’s Week 7 player of the week. “You have to bring it when you play here.”
That’s because those NBA players find themselves on the court going up against guys named Beast, Body Snatcher, Mr. Iso, Bugatti and Nitty. Some are local legends.
Many of these guys are professionals who star in leagues around the world. Most of these guys are eager to prove just how thin the line is between their abilities and the skills of the NBA guys who make millions.
That’s the desire of David Kinder, who played professionally last season with the San Diego Guardians in the American Basketball Association. Kinder drives nearly three hours in each direction from his home in San Diego to match his game against top-notch players.
“Sometimes you get two, three, four NBA players a game versus two, three, four a day in other pro-ams,” Kinder said. “Coming here lets me play up to my competition level.”
The games are physical. Guys talk trash. Players get separated and, on rare occasions, there are fights.
If you want to see something soft like that exhibition basketball game they played about 10 miles north of here at Staples Center in February, a game that lacked defense, passion or competitiveness?
This ain’t it.
“This is for bragging rights,” said Smiley, wearing a blue Drew League baseball cap. “It’s competitive, and sometimes it gets heated. It’s all in the spirit of competition.”
Why do the locals believe that, when it comes to basketball, West is best?
They maintain that Southern California’s now the producer of the world’s best players. Considering the last two MVPs (Harden and Russell Westbrook) and four All-NBA players last season (Harden on the first team, DeRozan and Westbrook on the second team, and Paul George on the third) all grew up in the Los Angeles area, it’s hard to argue.
“L.A. is the mecca of basketball for the entire world,” said Wayne Slappy, a local basketball trainer, while watching a game from the top row of King Drew gym. “You have the up-and-comers, the established players and the older NBA veterans. You have it all here in one space.
“That’s why Los Angeles is the place to be in the summer for basketball.”
Even though he’s been commissioner for 35 of the league’s 45 years, Smiley’s been connected with The Drew since the league’s inception.
On the day of the league’s first game, played at Charles Drew Middle School, Smiley was the young boy who climbed the ladder — eraser, chalk and air horn in hand — that was propped next to the wall on the sideline just off midcourt.
With all eyes on him carrying out his role as scorekeeper, he often felt like the most important person in the gym.
“I’d be up there for three games, and the gym was always hot,” recalled Smiley, who was a 13-year-old student at the school at the time. “But I enjoyed it. I loved basketball, never knowing that it would take me places I never thought I’d be.”
The league has taken Smiley around the world. China’s version of Drew launched this year with 700 players on 64 teams, and there are discussions about introducing The Drew in Australia.
That’s a wide net cast by an institution that began with six teams in 1973. The mission then: to provide an outlet for young men growing up in a section of Los Angeles that was often fractured by gang violence.
One of the first NBA players to establish strong, close ties to The Drew is Baron Davis, the retired two-time NBA All-Star once described by Brandon Jennings as “the Godfather of Los Angeles basketball.” Davis grew up in South Central, stayed home to play college ball at UCLA and continues his strong bond to the league as an adviser and financial supporter.
“He’s been the face of this league,” Smiley said. “He’s the first real NBA star to come from this neighborhood and the first NBA guy that, even at the high point of his career, said, ‘I’m not too big to come back to The Drew.’ ”
Davis did more than just come back to play. He organized bus trips for the local kids to attend NBA games at Staples Center and provided free summer camps and donations. Davis made sure players such as Harden and DeRozan, both of whom he mentored at The Drew when they were young, understood the importance of staying connected.
On most game days, Davis, who directed the 2015 documentary on the league (The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce) can be seen walking the building and mingling with fans and players. He’s hard to miss: The bearded baller is almost always wearing his trademark white T-shirt.
“I’ve been involved with this a long time,” said Davis, who plays in the BIG3 while occasionally suiting up at The Drew. ”I’m still happy to be here.”
If Davis is the player who kept the league relevant, the established NBA superstars who showed up to play during the 2011 NBA lockout are the guys who helped extend the reach to global levels.
Kevin Durant was simply looking for a place to play when he showed up at the Washington Park location (home to the league from 2006 to 2011).
The next week Smiley got a call from Davis, who asked that the commissioner delay the games played that day. An hour later, Smiley was shocked to see LeBron James step out of one of the four black SUVs that pulled up to the gym.
“When he saw the atmosphere, he asked if he could play,” Smiley said. “I said, ‘Of course the King can play.’ We got him dressed, and when he walked out, the crowd went crazy.”
The video of James punishing the rims spread on social media, which led to Kobe Bryant showing up a few weeks later to play with the Drew League All-Stars as they prepared for an all-star game against the Washington, D.C.-based Goodman League.
As word of Bryant’s visit spread, there were so many people who lined the streets outside the gym that sheriffs on horses were outside to handle crowd control as police and local news helicopters circled the building in anticipation of the visit by the Lakers star.
“Kobe walked in, and at first, the crowd was in shock,” Smiley said. “Then it got crazy.”
The practice game was already strong with DeRozan and Harden, two rising stars at the time, playing alongside the likes of Jennings, Nick Young and Trevor Ariza.
Bryant’s presence and play made it legendary, capped by his dribbling down the clock in the final seconds of a tied game before nailing a 3-pointer over the outstretched hands of Harden.
First the crowd erupted, and they mobbed Bryant as he backtracked toward center court with his arms raised triumphantly.
“A special moment,” Smiley said, “that this community will never forget.”
After the NBA players showed up en masse in 2011, they never left.
That meant the Drew, to accommodate Kobe, Kevin Durant and James if they ever decided to return, needed a new space.
Today, games are played at a 1,400-seat King/Drew Magnet High School gym that’s often crammed for the seven games played each Saturday and Sunday during the summer. The league has grown from six to 28 teams, who get in by invitation only.
What’s the atmosphere at Drew games?
Let’s call it NBA-lite.
There’s a celebrity row (that’s been filled by Khloe Kardashian, Zendaya and a long list of basketball stars), a DJ, a T-shirt toss and, occasionally, halftime entertainment (Clipper Darrell approached a female referee during halftime of a recent game, dropped to one knee as he grabbed her hand, and lip synced as Freddie Jackson’s “You Are My Lady” blared from the speakers.)
There’s a media check-in, accommodating the dozens of videographers and beat journalists (yes, the Drew League is a beat) who cover the action from every angle, providing highlights that have been viewed by the millions.
In those rare instances when the journalists miss the viral moment, the league’s crew of videographers and photographers are there to pick up the slack, delivering coverage of key plays as well as weekly updates on the latest sneaker fashion worn by the players.
And after the game? There’s an area outside for postgame interviews, some of those conducted by a local media company that provides interns to the league.
You can’t have a summer league without an announcer, and the guy holding it down at The Drew is George Preciado, who’s been seated just beside the scorer’s table entertaining South Los Angeles crowds for 21 years.
His voice is known around the world by fans who hear his snide remarks that follow the highlight-worthy plays on the videos that go viral.
Do something wrong and Preciado will clown you (when a guy missed an easy dunk recently, Preciado said, “You need some squats and some creatine.”).
Do something right and he’ll bestow upon you a local nickname that will stick to you forever (Nick Young, at The Drew, goes by “I am Legend” because of Preciado).
“Don’t get dunked on or get embarrassed,” said Franklin “Nitty” Session, the one-time backcourt mate of Damian Lillard at Weber State and the reigning two-time Drew League MVP. “George won’t give you any slack.”
With no one wanting George to call them out, the competition is fierce.
“You have to be ready to play,” said Siakam, the Toronto Raptors forward and recent Drew League player of the week after a stat line of 38 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists in a recent game. “It’s an honor to play here. But you won’t get a break just because you’re in the NBA. Guys will come at you.”
Watching The Game miss more shots than he makes these days — including that recent ill-advised, late-game 3-point attempt — it’s clear, at 38, he’s a shadow of the 6-foot-5 highflier who used to dunk his way through The Drew.
But The Game recognizes game. And if the league gave an award for top executive, The Game would be the clear front-runner.
The Game’s worth is proven by the huge championship banner that hangs on the west wall of the gym that honors his team, Birdie’s Revenge, as the 2017 Drew League champions. It’s his first title.
It’s unclear whether The Game has ever had to pay a luxury tax at The Drew. But it’s clear he’s never had a problem signing talent.
On one team he had in 2012, he recruited NBA All-Stars Paul George, DeRozan and John Wall to play alongside him, and The Game even got singer Chris Brown to suit up for his 2012 team, The Money Gang. But even with that team (which didn’t play an entire season together, as NBA players often drop in and out), The Game never won a title.
“I took a year off,” The Game said. “I did a little more scouting, put together … more pieces.”
Those pieces, a collection of mostly unknown but talented players, fit.
There’s Mike James, the onetime Phoenix Suns point guard/longtime European star who four years ago scored a Seattle Pro-Am record 67 points. James, a native of Portland, Oregon, combines playmaking skills, explosiveness and the ability to shoot accurately from long range. He recently signed a three-year deal with Olimpia Milano in the Italian League.
Handling the post is Marcus Bell, one of those old-school, mean-as-hell intimidators. Bell, who played part of a season at Idaho before finishing his college career at a Division II school, is a double-double threat every game.
Those two pieces were important because The Game already had a franchise player in Session, the cocky-to-the-core 6-foot-2 guard.
Don’t know Session? You should ask somebody, and you could start with guys such as Chicago Bulls guard Denzel Valentine, and former NBA stars Nate Robinson, Gilbert Arenas and Metta World Peace. All have been torched by Session in one-sided matchups that are mostly video-verifiable.
The way Session gutted Valentine was particularly brutal, as he dropped 44 points while completely embarrassing the 2016 NBA first-round pick.
“I don’t care who you are,” said Session, a Watts native. “And I definitely don’t care who you play for.”
It’s an approach that’s provided Session legendary status.
“He’s the league’s most unheralded player, and for the past few years he’s been the league’s best player,” Smiley said. “The way he’s playing now he’s got a good shot of being the MVP for a third straight time.”
As the long stretch of seven Saturday afternoon games comes to an end, Davis sneaks away from the action for a food break. He knows what he wants, the popular tacos, and when his order is finally ready he grabs a bottle of sauce to add just a light touch of fire.
It’s been a long day. Davis had gotten back to Los Angeles earlier in the day from Detroit, where he played the night before in the BIG3. He was keeping his presence low-key when he arrived at King Drew gym that afternoon, but he suddenly found himself on the court in the role of peacemaker, calming the participants of a rare, ugly, bench-clearing brawl.
Clearly, Davis cares.
He cares for the community that raised him, or else why would he even be here on a spectacular day of sunshine when he could easily be on a beach?
He cares for the league that’s provided him, and other players, with opportunities, which is why he put his time and effort into directing the documentary on the league so the history would be preserved.
He cares for the kids, as he donated the $25,000 he recently won in a video gaming competition to The Drew.
“There is so much that he’s done for us,” Smiley said. “And so much that he continues to do.”
In between bites of his tacos, Davis is asked about his strong commitment to the league.
“This is a big part of my life, and this hasn’t changed since I first started coming here when I was 13,” Davis said. “We in the real L.A., with real L.A. hoopers.
“This is what summer basketball is all about.”