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The Drew League continues to be South L.A.’s summer basketball showcase

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — For more than 40 years, Dino Smiley and his family have seen many changes in their community — major and minor.

Among the changes were a major cultural population shift from largely African-American neighborhoods to mostly Latino, the 1992 Rodney King riot, the West Coast hip-hop and rap genre the emergence of African-American and Latino art culture, the lethal presence of gangs and drugs in the community and the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement.

Despite all those changes, the Smiley family makes sure one thing hasn’t changed: the successful Drew League basketball showcase every summer.

Alvin Wills founded the Drew League in 1973, when he simply wanted to start a basketball league at Drew Junior High — now Drew Middle School — for Drew alumni who had moved on the to high school and college.

Starting with only six teams, he felt that the league could be a place for young men and women of South Los Angeles to learn life lessons through basketball, form meaningful positive relationships on the court that would spill over into the neighborhood and build an institution that would bring top high school, college and professional players back to the community.

One of the most popular Drew Jr. High alumni, Casper Ware Sr. eventually became one of the L.A. City Section’s greatest players at Fremont High School from 1977-80. He is still involved in the Drew League as a coach.

He coaches his son, Casper Jr., who, after short stints with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets as well as playing professionally in Germany, now splits time between the NBA Summer Pro League and the Drew League to help keep his NBA aspirations alive.

Smiley lamented the current status of local City Section basketball talent in South Los Angeles, where once the talent flowed across the region. Now, it seems to be less than a trickle, due the demographic changes in population, open enrollment and constant transfers to schools outside the Los Angeles Unified School District to private schools. What was once a talent-rich environment appears at times to be deserted.

“I went to a (Los Angeles City Section) high school game a few months ago,” said Smiley, a Fremont High graduate himself. “It’s a different landscape now . Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when you watched City teams play, you knew who Dane Suttle … a Casper Ware was. The game was played with a high competitive nature, teams were well-coached and fundamentally sound. Now I don’t see anyone as skilled in the fundamentals as back then. … As far as I see, lots of City players are undersized. It’s not the same.”

In 1985, Wills, a longtime friend and mentor of Dino’s, gave Dino a chance at directing the league. A visionary at best, both men helped expand the league to 10 teams. With the expansion, the league eventually outgrew the small Drew Junior High gym, moving to the Col. Leon H. Washington Park gym.

As the popularity grew, so did the number of participating street ball legends, collegiate athletes and NBA stars.

Since then, the Drew League has evolved from an ordinary parks-and-recreation freelance pickup basketball outlet to perhaps the most professionally organized family-run business in the nation. Admission is free, but it seems like otherwise.

Usually by the second game of a seven-game set, played on Saturdays and Sundays through early August, the stands are mostly always full. Basketball enthusiasts flock to the spacious and state-of-the-art King-Drew High School gym to see a high-quality, intense competitive set of pro-amateur games, where all 28 “invitation only” teams have a home-court advantage. At the popular snack bar, the ‘Drew Aid’ lemonade is a favorite beverage.

Those who attend Drew League games will watch high-energy games involving Los Angeles natives Nick Young, James Harden, Casper Ware Jr., DeMar DeRouzan and former Los Angeles Lakers’ star Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) among many others.

In past years, notables such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Michael Cooper, John Williams, Jason Hart, Paul Pierce, Kenny Brunner, Trevor Ariza, Maurice Spillers, Mark Neal, Rob Kennedy, James Gray and Lamar Gayle participated in the Drew League.

“The Drew League is not a ‘weekend warrior’ type of league where guys show up to get a few runs and command the courts all day saying ‘we got next,’” Smiley said. “Those who play in the Drew are serious. … They’re playing for NBA or professional jobs here and overseas — their livelihoods. They are being interviewed and are auditioning for those jobs. A most valuable player award from the Drew League means a lot overseas. For example, four of the five top scorers in China last year were from the Drew League.”

In the NBA lockout-plagued year of 2011, Bryant scored 43 points in a game where he was matched up against Harden. Thousands of fans showed up to see the matchup, though many fans were still standing outside the King-Drew gym.

In that year, many NBA players played in either pick-up basketball games across the nation, leagues hosted in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. or the Drew to fine-tune their abilities or just to keep in shape during the stoppage.

The Drew League could be considered a basketball island of sorts. When the league began operating, there were several other prominent weekend basketball leagues, such as Joe Weakley’s Run, Shoot and Dunk, which gained a large following at Denker Park, Crenshaw High School and Los Angeles Trade-Tech College. That league, named after the late former Manual Arts High and Crenshaw High assistant coach Joe Weakley, seemed to be on even par with the Drew League. Sometimes it appeared to be a contest to see which league could reel in standout NBA players like Freeman Williams, Norm Nixon, Marques Johnson and numerous others.

“Joe, like Alvin [Willis], was a mentor to me,” Smiley said. “He taught me quite a bit in helping shape me into the person I am today. He was a great, great man.”

In 1998 and 1999, Weakley and Smiley decided to create a Western Division-Eastern Division format in which seven teams from each league competed against each other while alternating between playing sites at Crenshaw (West) and at Drew Jr. High/Washington Park (East).

Other leagues were formed and maintained at Venice Beach, where the 1992 film “White Men Can’t Jump” was featured and based, Hollywood High School, Van Ness Park and other venues around Los Angeles, but the Drew League has outlasted and outshines them.

With the support of private donors and contributors, the league continues to thrive and survive even though the Los Angeles basketball landscape appears all but dried up in a region dominated by soccer leagues.

This year’s Drew League installment includes the participating teams: Salvatori’s No Schnacks, NWA, LAUNFD, Hard Times, Hank’s Houdini’s All Stars, Hank’s United Ballers, CABC, Sky Ryse, ICEO, Jaguars, Citi Team Blazers, Salvatori’s Nova Stars, Pandas, Juglife, Hank’s Bulldogs, Salvatori’s Spirit, Hank’s New Image, Legacy, Reapers, Hank’s Panthers, LA Loop, BB4L, MHP, The Clozers, COA, Tradition, Problems and the I Can All Stars.

Former UCLA and Golden State Warriors star Baron Davis, a South Los Angeles native, produced a documentary, ‘The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce,’ that was featured at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month. (Courtesy photo)
Former UCLA and Golden State Warriors star Baron Davis, a South Los Angeles native, produced a documentary, ‘The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce,’ that was featured at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month. (Courtesy photo)

The league’s visibility was heightened when Los Angeles native (a Drew participant and former UCLA and Golden State Warriors star) Baron Davis co-produced and co-directed a documentary “The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce,” that was featured at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month.

“We’ve been blessed all of these years to be helped by lots of great people,” Smiley said. “Many other leagues have come and gone over the years and after all of this time, we’re still here.”