When the school year ended, it only meant one thing for Chaniel Smiley: the start of summer basketball at The Drew League. Growing up, Smiley spent her summers running around Charles Drew Middle School in Los Angeles with family members, watching the local talent showcase their skills, and gulping down gallons of “Drew-Aid.”
Chaniel’s father, Oris “Dino” Smiley, is a prominent figure to the Watts section of Los Angeles. Smiley played a pivotal role in making “The Drew,” a home for many the community for nearly 40 years with its summer and winter leagues. Under Dino’s tutelage, Chaniel learned how to execute the league, and in 2017, she became the first female commissioner of The Drew League.
Three years into her tenure as Commissioner, Smiley was faced with her biggest decision to date, whether or not to cancel the league this summer. When COVID-19 began to spread through the world, it was uncertain how long the virus would be around and, unfortunately, put everything on a standstill.
On May 13, following a “Safer at Home” order from LA County, it was inevitable that there would be no Drew this summer.
“It was very tough to make that decision, and a lot of our staff were hurt by it and understood it was the best decision,” said Smiley. “I didn’t want anybody under our watch to be sick. I didn’t want to put anybody at risk, and basketball can wait.”
Like The Drew, many other summer basketball leagues across the country were canceled due to the current pandemic. Summer hoops are a huge part of each community. It gives residents something to look forward every day, bragging rights for respective neighborhoods, and even an opportunity for pros to stay sharp during the offseason.
The Drew League had been around since 1973, but the summer league took a leap in attendance during the 2011 summer.
The NBA had just gone into a lockout due to a collective bargaining agreement dispute between the players union and the owners. As the days went on, the 2011-12 season began to look bleak. So players began to take to any and every local summer league to get some run.
But it was a visit from LA’s finest Kobe Bryant that changed the trajectory of the Drew.
“It was a madhouse,” Smiley remembers. “It was great energy because everybody loves Kobe. He was very welcoming and tried to reach as many hands out in the stands as possible, signing every autograph, taking pictures with as many people as he could. That game put us on a different level because Kobe knew about that league and wanted to come. We’ll always love Kobe for that.”
Roshun Wynne was just completing his junior season at Cal-State East Bay and wanted to be a part of the great competition that was going on at The Drew. Wynne was quickly introduced into the rigors of the league as his team faced off against future MVP James Harden.
“I’m not going to lie he went off, he went for 50,” said Wynn. “That was a game to remember. I held my own though [I had] 15 points [and] I had a couple of steals. That was a great stepping stone for me, just to know that I could play against those guys.”
Wynn, who went on have stints with the NBA’s Development League known as the G-League and National Basketball League of Canada, has been a regular at The Drew ever since 2011. Known as “The Stickup Kid,” he was a part of the 2017 championship team, Birdie’s Revenge, that was coached by fashion designer Tracy Mills and featured platinum-selling artist The Game and three-time Drew League MVP Franklin “Frank Nitty” Sessions.
Wynn was hopeful about playing again this summer but realizes why there was no Drew League this year.
“I understood the magnitude of what could happen and how many people would be affected if the Drew League were to happen,” said The Stickup Kid. “I would rather be safe than sorry. It was disappointing because we were looking forward to coming back for redemption.”
The dent that of not having summer hoops has left in each community has been felt on every level– from fans to commissioners. If all goes well, the return of live events in 2021 gives everyone something to look forward to.
“We definitely feel like we’re the prominent team in The Drew just based on how hard we work and how hard we play on both ends of the floor,” said Wynn. “I didn’t like the way it ended. I know T Mills didn’t like the way it ended, I know [Frank] didn’t like the way it ended, so we’re definitely coming back with a chip on our shoulder.”
Smiley understands that despite the 2020 hiatus, when everything gets back to normal, it’ll mean that much more to everyone involved.
“This is [the fans] yearly ritual,” said Smiley. “They come to the Drew, they have their area where they sit, they get their Drew-Aid. It’s the same people that you see every year. That tradition was just pushed back for a moment. But we’ll be a lot stronger. We had a whole year to analyze the planning so that when next year comes about, we have a much more explosive season because everybody misses it.”