How LeBron, Kobe and Durant played a role in changing Drew League

LOS ANGELES — Just inside the entrance to the gym at King Drew Magnet High School, seven chairs sit a few feet away from the meeting of sideline and baseline. It’s a Saturday afternoon in June, and that means the intermittent squeaks of sneakers, the pounding of a ball, the muffled verbal jabs, the reactionary yelps of spectators, and of course the free-flowing, booming voice of public address announcer George Preciado are customary sounds. To so many, they’re also comforting sounds.

The Drew League was established in South Los Angeles in 1973 (Nike/Drew League)
The Drew League was established in South Los Angeles in 1973 (Nike/Drew League)

To the man who looks on from the leftmost chair of the seven, they’re especially customary and especially comforting. His name is Carl Munns. Forty-three years ago, Munns won the first ever Drew League championship with Horney’s Hornets. Five years ago, he looked on as Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant put the pro-am summer league in national headlines. Today, he wears a grizzled grey mustache, grey shorts that cover his knees, white mid-calf socks, and a lanyard around his neck. From the lanyard hangs a credential. But it doesn’t say “Media.” It doesn’t say “Staff.” It has a more important word.

“Legend.”

Next to Munns on legends row is Tommy Bates. He, too, was there 43 years ago at Charles Drew Middle School and at Washington Park between 2006-2011.

“We had no idea that this is what we were setting the ground work for,” Bates said, a hint of pride in his voice.

Nor did anybody else.

“The Drew,” as it’s often called, was founded in 1973 by Alvin Willis. Willis, at the time, worked at Charles Drew Middle School. At Charles Drew, lunchtime was basketball time. The cafeteria was the playground. Students would line the outdoor court. Each homeroom had a team. Each team had a coach. One of them was Willis. So one day, Willis decided he was going to start a league. Six teams. Drew Middle School. One season per summer. One champion.

“The teams we had back then," Munns said. "These teams [today] couldn’t touch ‘em.”

* * *

Late in the fourth quarter of a tight game, repeated whistles suddenly pierce the air, followed by shouts. Right in front of the far bench, anger briefly prevails. Players from both sides come together. Refs intervene. A coach slides in between them.

Over by the scorer’s table, a head instinctually snaps around. Dino Smiley, in his white “Drew Crew” T-shirt and tight-fitted black Nike cap, senses a bit of trouble. Calmly, he steps out onto the floor. Immediately, the argumentative voices die down. His composed, reassuring nature attracts attention. Now it’s other heads turning towards him. Amid the fleeting chaos, he talks to a few players — players who were talking over one another before, but who now listen.

Dino Smiley has been the Drew League commissioner since 1984. (Nike/Drew League)
Dino Smiley has been the Drew League commissioner since 1984. (Nike/Drew League)

Smiley is essentially the godfather of the Drew League. He’s the commissioner, the second one in league history, and has been since 1984. Everybody soaks up his words when he talks. They acknowledge his presence when he strides by. It takes him 10 minutes to walk the short distance from the lobby to the court because he’s pulled into three separate conversations. He’s revered here. Nearly every single fan, player and staffer in the gym recognizes him, and he estimates that he knows 75 or 80 percent of them personally.

Smiley, more than anybody, has witnessed the Drew’s evolution. On the first weekend of the inaugural season in 1973, he climbed a ladder up to a chalkboard beside the court. In one hand, he held a piece of chalk, for keeping score. In the other, an old t-shirt that functioned as his eraser. On the step-pan of the ladder rested an air-horn. That was for the end of quarters.

Soon, Smiley’s role expanded. He operated out of a cramped closet, cooking on hot plates for players and spectators. He’d swing open the door to see the game. He’d rush out from the closet to update the scoreboard.

“The first few years, guys were happy just to come and play,” Smiley said. “They all lived right outside the gates of Drew, all in the same neighborhood, and they would just play.”

Then the pros started to trickle in. Marques Johnson. John "Hot Plate" Williams. Lester Connor. Byron Scott.

“We knew we had something special,” Smiley said of the ‘80s, around the time he took over as commissioner. “But still, it was neighborhood games, nothing really big.”

The league continued to grow. It became a safe haven for teens and young adults in crime-ridden South L.A. Ex-NBA player Baron Davis, who has played in the league, coached in it this past Sunday, and directed a Showtime documentary on it, has said that gang affiliations get left at the door, and Crips and Bloods become teammates. In 2008, Smiley helped start a Drew League scholarship foundation to send inner-city kids to college.

However, despite all the good it had done, and despite Smiley’s love for and importance to the community, by 2011, all the responsibilities — the organizing, the meetings, and especially the fundraising — had worn him down. He was ready to close up shop. The 38th season was going to be the Drew League’s final one.

And then Kevin Durant walked through the door.

“No entourage,” Smiley said. “No security.

“The lockout was a changing point, because we were really looking to let it go at that time. But when those guys start coming through the door, it was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, something is changing here.’ ”

Now it’s become a regular July stop for players from around the NBA. It wasn’t just the visits of Durant, LeBron and Kobe. James Harden, who dueled with Bryant in the Black Mamba’s famous appearance, has become not only a Drew League veteran, but a defending champion. Nick Young got dunked on in 2013. DeMar Derozen cried after a playoff loss in 2014, according to Smiley. Klay Thompson battled Harden in the playoffs last year. Paul George, John Wall, Paul Pierce and Brandon Jennings have made appearances. Metta World Peace led his team to victory this past Saturday.

Smiley is sure Harden will be back again later this summer. “If KD doesn’t go [to the Olympics], he’s gonna show up once he’s under contract,” Smiley said, a smile creeping onto his face. “And LeBron has bought a home out here …”

He brings his right hand into a loose fist, and knocks twice on the wooden table.

“Who knows? He may pop up. Especially if you get Steph Curry to come. Get a third chance.”