LOS ANGELES — From the time he was 13 years old, Dino Smiley knew he wanted to be involved in the Drew League.
As a young kid, Smiley kept score for the newly developed summer league in South Los Angeles and he watched as basketball players competed and battled back and forth inside the small brick gym. Ten years later, Smiley took over that very same league, and today he serves as the chairman and founder of the Drew League Board, an organization that not only provides organized summer basketball for high school, college and NBA players, but also provides scholarships to young students from the local area attending college.
Smiley proudly announced the seven recipients of the Drew League Foundation Scholarship last month and presented each of the winners with a backpack and a stipend to help them through their first year of school.
“We don’t want any kid to be dropping out of school because of [extra fees], so we do a lot,” Smiley said. “We give them the $500 to start, and after that we send money if the school is saying they need something, that’s what we do.”
Smiley helped create the Drew League Foundation and scholarship program with his wife when they realized that they could give back to the community through a nonprofit. He and his wife, Stephanie, had been supplying community kids with everything from prom dresses to books to food, but Smiley said he knew he needed help if he wanted to keep offering this assistance.
“We were doing a lot things and it started to take a toll on our pockets, and we said, ‘We’re doing all these things, but we need some help, especially for the ball players,’” he said.
And thus, the foundation was born.
Students have the opportunity to apply every year, Smiley said, and he typically sees about 30 applicants per year. Smiley likes to select applicants who have demonstrated community service, have a high GPA and write a strong essay; he was particularly impressed with this year’s class.
“We looked at them, and we were like, ‘Wow!’ Princeton and Georgetown,” he said.
The Princeton and Georgetown students, Chukwuagoziem Uzoegwu and Brandi Coleman, are just two of the seven winners who have demonstrated their academic commitment in high school and will have the opportunity to pursue a college education with the help of the Drew League Foundation.
The other scholarship winners include Joanna Cardenas (UC Berkeley), Taylor Gaines (UC San Diego), Brandi Crawford (Cal State LA), and Skylar Jefferson (Arizona State).
For Uzoegwu, studying at Princeton will be a chance to see a world outside of Southern California and pursue his passion of computer science. But he emphasized that his strong connection to his community and school helped him reach this level.
“I’m truly gifted to the Drew League,” Uzoegwu said. “I’m a King Drew [Magnet High School, which hosts the Drew League] alumni, so it’s pretty special in my eyes because my high school is helping this foundation, it’s helping other people.”
Uzoegwu’s success has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times, and he said his classes at King Drew, particularly Advanced Placement computer science, helped fuel his interest in the tech business. One day, he said, he hopes to enter the industry or start his own company.
“I actually truly enjoyed the process of coding and the imagination that goes into [it], and also the creative process,” Uzoegwu said. “It’s like a mix of every part of education I’ve truly enjoyed.”
Uzoegwu’s education will continue at one of the nation’s premier Ivy League institutions, and he will no doubt be considered yet another success story to come out of the King Drew Memorial gym.
You can donate to the Drew League Foundation on the organization’s website.
Zach Pereles contributed to this report.