“I thought it was going a 10 minute [film].” – Dino Smiley
How do you capture over 40 years of history in a hour and a half documentary? What stories do you tell and what do you leave out and hope you get another chance to tell even more tales in the future? Who gets featured prominently and who gets shown in a five-second clip but isn’t seen again for the duration of the film? That was the challenge Baron Davis and Chad Gordon faced when they set about to create a history of The Drew League, the premiere summer basketball league on the west side.
For decades, all you ever heard about was how New York was the Mecca of basketball and that they produced the greatest basketball players ever both on the street and in the NBA. What “The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce” showed was that the rest of the world – particularly Southern California – was no slouch in that department. The legends of NYC endure and still have a certain luster because it’s been romanticized over and over, but LA had their own path and legend that up to this point, had never been given the proper treatment.
According to Davis, the game of basketball was like a father figure to many kids in the South Central area. Even though he did not grow up having his real father by his side, Davis had his grandparents and basketball to guide him. The Drew League was that refuge for future stars like Davis, those who were on the cusp but fell off the wayside like Kenny Brunner and those who found peace in the game like Tyrone “Big 50” Riley. It was a place where it did not matter if you were an NBA champion like Byron Scott or a member of the infamous Bloods or the Crips gangs; all that mattered to Alvin Willis – The Drew’s first commissioner – and to Oris “Dino” Smiley was that you played hard and you didn’t “act a fool.”
Smiley’s story is so intrinsically tied to The Drew that it was only natural he was featured prominently in the documentary. We see Smiley and his family grow through the years and experience the highs and lows; from the time when maybe the league was going to shut down because the pressure of becoming too much to handle to the tight-knit family operation that it is today. Smiley’s passion really comes through when he talks about the Kevin L. Dandrige Inspirational Player Award, maybe the most sacred of awards given out in the Drew League and named after a player who exemplified the spirit of the league but was tragically killed in a shooting decades ago.
There is plenty of old footage of The Drew’s early days at Charles Drew Junior High School prior to moving to King Drew High School, but just like anything pre-HD, it can be tough to keep track of the action. Where the action picks up is when the non-local NBA players started popping up during the NBA lockout of 2011. Nike’s Big 3 of Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are all credited with increasing awareness of The Drew League and its buoyed by local products James Harden, Paul George, DeMar DeRozan, Nick Young, Brandon Jennings and many more. It would be a disservice to say that nobody paid attention to The Drew prior to guys like Kobe arriving, but nobody can deny that basketball fans are now coming from all over Los Angeles and the world to watch it and feel it live because of that star power.
As a film that wanted to paint a positive message, the documentary does a great job in that regard. It felt like a long thank you by Davis to the community that raised him and the league that kept him safe. Compare that to 95% of the other documentaries and accounts about South Central Los Angeles and I’m guessing most would be shocked that a place like The Drew League could exist where it does. I am curious to see if Baron and his team will get a chance to make even more films about The Drew League because it only seems like they scratched the surface of what stories they can tell. But until the, I’ll be drinking my Drew-Aid the next time I check out some games this summer.