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Inside the Drew League: How South Central L.A. draws the NBA's brightest stars to play summer pro-am

Drew League draws NBA stars to South Central
Drew League pro-am scales new heights with appearances from NBA all-stars 04:29

South Central, Los Angeles — It's the middle of summer, but the gym at King/Drew Magnet High School is anything but quiet. Pumping music and a boisterous crowd threaten to drown the players' on-court shouts and the squeak of their sneakers. Welcome to the Drew League.

"The Drew," as South Central Los Angeles natives call it, is one of the most famous professional-amateur basketball leagues in the country. In its five decades, more than 25,000 players have worn its jerseys, and dozens of NBA stars have graced the court — not by invitation, but out of a desire to play in the Drew, named for the junior high where the league first took the court.

One of those natives is Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan, who grew up in Compton, a stone's throw from the gym that hosts the league's current iteration. "It definitely shaped me mentally and physically to be prepared," DeRozan said. 

When he was 14 years old, his father made him play in his first Drew game, which quickly became a weekly commitment. Games are held on the weekend over the summer, the sport's off-season. 

"By the time you walked off that court, you was beat up, you got bruised," he said. "It was tough to score, it was tough to defend, especially these grown men when I was a teenager."

The NBA All-Star said that's a large part of the league — you learn how to compete, fight through fouls and make a name for yourself in the basketball community. "When you step on this court, your reputation's on the line. It could be your last time playing in the Drew if you don't meet expectations," said the league legend.

But it was the NBA lockout in 2011 that drew the pro players in force — and they've never left.

Fans watched the late L.A. legend Kobe Bryant score the game-winning point over NBA All-Star James Harden in 2011, and watched Kyrie Irving drop a triple-double in his debut this season. Last year they crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in an already hot gym to watch Lebron James score almost half of his team's points, all for free.

The Drew focuses on community basketball for all. Most of the players in the league play on their day off and come in solely for the love of the game. 

"It's reality when you come in here. You know, you don't get caught up in – it's nothing flashy about anything," said DeRozan. The league gives individuals who weren't able to play in college or professionally a chance to still compete at a high level.

Founded by Alvin Wills in 1973, the Drew League started with just six teams as a place for young men – and from 1987, women – in South Central to learn life lessons through basketball and stay out of trouble. Now, the league has grown to 22 teams, and has an Adidas sponsorship and a streaming deal with the NBA.

Wills was Dino Smiley's basketball coach-turned-mentor before Smiley took over as commissioner of the Drew League in 1983. Smiley passed his title onto his daughter Chaniel Smiley in 2017.

It's truly a family affair – Smiley's brother works the merchandise, her father is now the CEO of the Drew League Foundation, her mother works the concession stand with her lifelong friends, her cousins are stat keepers and run the clock and her family friend is the DJ.

The elder Smiley came up with the league's slogan, "No Excuse. Just Produce," and the Drew does just that. Jorge Preciado, a 26-year veteran announcer for the league, said it's served as a proving ground for people throughout the basketball ecosystem. 

"We got referees in the Drew League gone to the NBA," he said. "We got trainers that train in the Drew League have gone to the NBA as trainers. We got journalists that have gone from the Drew League to 'The Athletic.'" 

And if the pros ever came calling for him? "I don't want to go to the NBA," he said. Loyalty to the league, he said, "runs deep." 

What sets the Drew apart is its focus on community. Its foundation hosts numerous fundraisers throughout the year to support the people of South Central. Courtside seats are the only ones that are paid for; the proceeds from these go to around a dozen scholarships every year to kids from local high schools.

One of the first was Kumase DeMesma, who started playing at the Drew at age 14, and was soon introduced to the league's work in the community. 

After a career playing overseas, he came back home and is now the head basketball coach at Narbonne High School, in South L.A. "[The Drew] made me want to be a better person, be able to be more involved in my community and help just as they helped me," said DeMesma, who graduated from Narbonne.

Despite its exposure on social media, financial deals and the NBA stars who come and play, DeRozan said the league has kept growing in size and stature over the last five decades because it stays true to its community roots. 

"You have guys that wanna be a part of it and don't want nothing from it," DeRozan said.

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