Lonzo and LaVar, Swaggy P and B-Diddy: Drew League is back and all’s right in SoCal

Former NBA player Nick Young shoots free throws for The Most Hated Players during a Drew League game June 26, 2021.
Former NBA player Nick Young shoots free throws for The Most Hated Players during a Drew League game June 26. The league is back in action after a summer off during the pandemic.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Midway through the second game of six on a recent Sunday, Dino Smiley greeted an old friend, punctuating a 30-second conversation with exclamation marks at the end of every sentence.

“How you doing, man!” he asked.

“Wonderful, man.”

“Wonderful, man! Good to be back!” Smiley said, and the man went inside.

“Swaggy P [will] be in here in a little bit,” Smiley explained. “One o’clock. That’s his uncle.”

The 61-year-old Smiley, who ran the Drew League for more than three decades before handing off the reins to his daughter, Chaniel, was the center of attention. He couldn’t go more than a few minutes at the league’s opening weekend without a wave, a greeting, a conversation. He knows everybody. Everybody knows him.

Two teams play a Drew League game at St. John Bosco High on June 26.
Two teams play a Drew League game at St. John Bosco High. The league has resumed this summer after skipping last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
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The day had all the trappings of celebrity that have given the Drew League, L.A.’s famed summer pro-am basketball league fast closing in on half a century, its outsized reputation. Nick Young — the homegrown former Clipper and Laker known as Swaggy P — did indeed show up midway through the first half of his team’s game, proceeding to struggle mightily in a 26-point loss. LaVar Ball made a coaching appearance, with his NBA point guard son Lonzo sitting courtside.

The Drew League, though, is better understood through the prism of Smiley and the seemingly endless group of old friends who sought him out on opening weekend. For years, twice-weekly trips to King/Drew Magnet High School in Willowbrook were a staple of their summer, and in 2021, trips to St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower will be, too.

That group, left without a home in 2020 because of the pandemic, waited on edge to learn whether the league would operate in 2021. Smiley spent more time with his family, trying to take his grandson to the gym to shoot and finding time for a vacation once things opened up a bit toward the end of the summer. But, he said, “our body was trained to be here like this.”

Now, it can be. The only noticeable difference in the Drew League is its location. Since the Los Angeles Unified School District, of which King/Drew is a part, isn’t hosting third-party events yet, the league couldn’t get a permit to play in its usual location at the the corner of 120th and Compton Avenue. On a recent Sunday morning, a group of regulars descended instead on St. John Bosco, filling the parking lot as the day went on.

“It’s a reunion right now,” Chaniel Smiley said.

Though the league couldn’t put on a season last summer, the Drew League Foundation, of which Dino Smiley is the CEO, continued its annual turkey drives for Thanksgiving, toy drives for Christmas and awarding of scholarships to 15 recipients, with a gala over Zoom. Those events would have kept running regardless; the urgency to play this year was less over money and more because something unmistakable would have been lost with another hiatus.

“When things are shut down, you go two, three years, it’s not the same,” Dino Smiley said. “So we were glad to see the crowds were still here, games were still here, everybody’s good.”

Finding a gym was the biggest piece of the puzzle, Chaniel Smiley said. Between that, getting the appropriate permissions for NBA and NCAA players to participate, reassembling its staff and making sure fans could attend, the league completed a jigsaw that usually takes about five months in roughly 50 days, with St. John Bosco giving the go-ahead in May.

Chaniel Smiley, commissioner of the Drew League, watches a game at St. John Bosco High.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
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That process culminated last weekend, when the 48th and hardest-to-plan season of the league tipped off, with things looking normal as could be. Announcer George Preciado’s voice rose over the sound of shoes squeaking. A line formed at the snack bar. Wearing a black Drew League hat, a “Too Tired to Care” Snoopy T-shirt and a grin, Dino Smiley ambled around the gym, greeting old friends and laughing. Casper Ware Jr., that rare player better known for his Drew League exploits than his brief NBA stint, hit a go-ahead jumper with the clock about to expire in the day’s first game. Later, he stood near the snack bar operated by his mom, shouting “No. 64!” when no one picked up their order of tacos.

“Usually I’ll take a two-week break after my season [overseas in Australia], but I wasn’t supposed to play today and I got here and I was like, I got the itch,” Ware said. “I got the itch and I couldn’t sit out.”

Portland fans buzzed with excitement shortly after noon Saturday when Anfernee Simons, a baby-faced 19-year-old guard, touched the ball for the first time as a Trail Blazer.

Ware grew up watching his father, Casper Sr., play in the Drew League. Every Saturday and Sunday during the summer meant spending all day in the gym, watching Paul Pierce and Baron Davis, who was in the building as a spectator last weekend. Ware would stay over at the Smileys’ house and considers Dino family.

Casper Ware drives to the basket during a Drew League game at St. John Bosco High on June 26, 2021.
Longtime Drew League star Casper Ware Jr. drives to the basket during a game at St. John Bosco High on June 26, 2021.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Last summer, he said, was the first time since his sophomore year of high school that he didn’t play in or watch the Drew League. “It’s kinda weird,” Ware said, “‘cause you’re like, what do I do now?”

When the news came that the league would resume this year, no one on staff declined to return, Chaniel Smiley said. The vast majority of teams and players also returned without hesitation.

“You know what,” she said, “it’s like we picked up where we left off.”

Zena Edosomwan throws down a dunk during Drew League play at St. John Bosco High on June 26, 2021.
Zena Edosomwan throws down a dunk during Drew League play at St. John Bosco High on June 26.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)