With Drew League Popularity Soaring, Even NBA Stars Must Follow Protocol to Join

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJuly 3, 2016

Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant, right, playing for Goodman League, drives on Thunder teammate James Harden, left, playing for Drew League, during an all-star basketball game at Trinity University in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

These days, Dino Smiley, the director of the Drew League, gets all sorts of calls. This one “totally surprised” him.

On the line was a representative of Kristaps Porzingis, the New York Knicks’ rookie sensation.

“He wants to play,” the Porzingis proxy told Smiley. “What does he have to do?”

Porzingis planned to be in Los Angeles for a photoshoot later this summer. His trip would overlap with the Drew League final on August 27.

“When he comes down for the championship game, can he play that day?”

Five years earlier, Smiley had fielded a similar request from a living legend. Back then, it was Kobe Bryant who wanted in. The dog days of the NBA lockout had left him hungry for live competition. He asked about playing in the championship game, even though, per Drew League rules, he couldn’t participate since he hadn’t suited up even once during the summer campaign.

Could Smiley, the longtime proprietor of a fledgling pro-am in Watts, California, really turn down an icon like Bryant, a five-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers?

Either way, Dino did. So when Porzingis’ people posed the same scenario to Smiley, he knew how to respond.

“I don’t mean to laugh,” Smiley replied, “but Kobe Bryant asked us that in 2011, and if I told him no, you know I’m going to tell Kris Porzingis no.”

“You can’t tilt the championship game,” Smiley told Bleacher Report. “These guys have worked hard for this.”

So has Smiley. He’s been involved with the Drew in one way or another since Alvin Wills, a local middle school coach, founded it 43 years ago. As a teenager, Smiley sat perched atop a ladder, keeping score during hot summer weekends. At 23, Smiley received the keys to Wills' humble hoops kingdom.

In the 33 years since then, Smiley has stewarded the Drew from a South Central Los Angeles curiosity to a stomping ground for NBA superstars, with plenty of help from neighborhood boys made good.


Stars Come Out

The league had seen a sprinkling of NBA players over the years.

In the ‘80s, Byron Scott, Big John Williams and Lester Conner frequented the Drew. In the ‘90s, Paul Pierce and Baron Davis were among those who took up the mantle. In the 2000s, Davis started bringing his buddies, though at that time, Tyronn Lue and Earl Watson were hardly household names.

“We were like, ‘That’s it,’” Smiley recalled. “It sustained us and, tie a ribbon on it and let it go.”

Then, the 2011 lockout hit. Pros were left searching for competitive runs with NBA rules.

Davis directed them to the Drew. The stars followed.

Kobe. LeBron James. Kevin Durant, who asked to play twice in one day.

“You’re top three in the world, man,” Smiley told Durant. “You can play twice.”

Durant would play two more times that summer—against the Drew. The Beltway native assembled his own loaded squad on behalf of Washington, D.C.’s Goodman League. John Wall, fresh off his rookie season with the Washington Wizards, joined in. So did DeMarcus Cousins. And Rudy Gay. And Ty Lawson.

The Drew countered with its own merry band of L.A.-based NBA talent: James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Brandon Jennings, with JaVale McGee and Craig Smith up front.

The teams split their meetings in D.C. and Long Beach, the host winning each in a close contest. But it was the crowds, more than the games themselves, that opened eyes.

Snarling traffic getting to the games. Lines stretching for “half a mile,” as Smiley recalled. Fans scrambling for pictures and begging for autographs. Spectators ecstatic to get in. Others equally upset to be turned away.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Smiley said. “That, to me, said we’re here, we finally got to the big stage.”


The Baron Davis Effect

The Drew wouldn’t be the belle of the offseason ball today without Davis. The two-time All-Star grew up around the Drew and started playing in it, against grown men, when he was in the 10th grade.

Baron was probably the purest point guard I had seen, because he had a strong body, strong leadership, could jump out of the gym, Smiley remembered. Just had a fierce, fierce competitor inside of him.

Davis mentored the budding stars from his neighborhood—the Hardens and DeRozans and Jennings of the world—who have since paid the invitation forward to their peers, Angeleno and otherwise.

“Especially with the L.A. players, what he has done has been that pied piper where they all feel like, ‘Hey, it’s good to come home and play at Drew,’” Smiley said. “And now, even across the country, with players from all over, it’s as though they want to be baptized at Drew. So it’s a ritual to be able to play at the Drew League, whether it’s once, twice, the whole season. They feel that they want to come in and play.”

Davis’ Showtime documentary, The Drew, has only intensified the attention paid to the league. The calls from curious onlookers are coming in hotter and faster than ever. 

Smiley has met plenty of spectators who have driven out from the NBA's Las Vegas Summer League to see established pros in L.A.

“I was in Vegas, but my kids wanted to see the Drew League,” they would tell him.

His reply: “Wow, you left Las Vegas to come to the Drew League? ... It was good to hear."

All of which has lent the Drew a different cachet within the basketball world.

In 2012, the NBA shuttered the Drew’s online broadcasts for displaying images of pro players—and for going head-to-head with its own showcases in Sin City. Now, with consultation from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s office, the Drew is working with ESPN to stream its games again.

In 2013, Nike hopped aboard to sponsor the Drew. This past June, the apparel giant gifted LAUNFD, the 2015 Drew League champions and a team originally founded by Davis, with custom Kyrie 2 iD shoes.

The Alumni of Drew U

The Drew’s disciples, be they Davis’ proteges or otherwise, are doing their part to spread the league’s gospel.

DeRozan, Paul George and Klay Thompson—all Drew Leaguers—will be representing the Stars and Stripes at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Stanley Johnson, a Drew regular before the Detroit Pistons drafted him in 2015, will be competing against USA Basketball’s senior team as part of the Team USA Select squad in mid-July.

To accommodate those conflicts, Smiley moved the Drew’s usual start date from mid-May to June 4. That same clash could push the Drew’s rubber match with the Goodman League to next year, along with its rematch against Jamal Crawford’s Seattle Pro-Am (the Drew lost in Seattle last year, 135-124).

But with so many of the best players—including Drew Leaguers like Harden and Andre Drummond—turning down Olympic invitations from USA Basketball and other NBA representatives (i.e. Nick Young, Jordan Clarkson, Metta World Peace, Solomon Hill, Derrick Williams) expected to participate, the Drew might not miss a beat.

“A lot of people were saying, ‘Hell, all the guys are leaving the Olympics because they don’t want to miss the Drew League,’” Smiley said. “We looked up and we said, ‘Yeah, it looks kind of funny.’ And then they all start going, ‘When is the league? When can we play?’ We know we’re going to continue to do this.”

And not just for the players’ sakes. The Drew has become a training ground for people of all stripes within the basketball world.

Lue, once a Drew League player, became an NBA head coach this past January and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first title in June. Watson took over as head coach of the Phoenix Suns after Jeff Hornacek was fired in February, and he had the interim tag removed from his title in April. David Fizdale, who played in the Drew and went to the same high school (Fremont) as Smiley, was recently tapped to lead the Memphis Grizzlies.

Chances are, those three will spend plenty of time yelling at Bennie Adams and Rodney Mott, veteran NBA referees who’ve both called games at the Drew.

“It does us really well to see these guys all do different things, and they always credit it back to the Drew,” Smiley said.


LA's Home Court

For all the Drew League has done in recent years to attract talent from everywhere and expand its brand outward, it remains, at its core, a local institution. There’s no money at stake for the players. Those who show up do so for pride, competition and the love of the game.

“It’s like the home court of California,” Johnson told Bleacher Report. “If you really play basketball for real, you get on a Drew League team, you want to play well.”

Johnson (who’s playing for the Pistons in the Orlando Summer League) and the Drew’s other Team USA members may well drop by in between other obligations to preserve their eligibility for the playoffs, which finish after the Olympic gold-medal game.

Porzingis could follow a similar protocol soon, too. He’ll have to if he wants to taste the Drew League postseason, before he gets a crack at the NBA's version with the revamped Knicks.

“Oh, I understand,” Porzingis’ representative told Smiley. “You told Kobe no. He has no leg to stand on.”

“That’s right,” Smiley answered.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.


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