The Drew League’s line of defense

LOS ANGELES-Welcome to the Drew League, home of Nike Basketball. This is where summer pickup basketball becomes the next best thing to your mamma’s sweet potato pie. Yeah, it’s that good.

NBA players annually climb down from their basketball perch to take on the local street legend, try to impress college hoopsters, and add on another notch or two to their street cred. High schoolers, retirees, basketball aficionados come from all over to root for a favorite player and to watch the best basketball played this side of the Mississippi.

Any time you have the likes of LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Brandon Jennings, DeMar DeRozan, J. R. Smith, Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Metta World Peace and JaVale McGee, Baron Davis and other notable ballers stopping by for a pickup run, you have a good thing going on.

Compton native DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors) tries to get to the basket for the Most Hated Players in the championship game at the Drew League. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman
Compton native DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors) tries to get to the basket for the Most Hated Players in the championship game at the Drew League. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman (2015)

It’s been a build up of over four decades to get that kind of clout. Now all Oris “Dino” Smiley has to do is keep his brand from being harmed. That’s a lot easier said than done when you consider where the Drew League is played.

Sitting on 120th Street between Wilmington and Compton Ave., King Drew Medical Magnet High  School is located smack in the heartland where turf wars are being haggled over and drive-by shootings are only a heartbeat away. Patches of homelessness surround the community.

The Jordan Downs Housing Project and Nickerson Gardens Public Housing Project are neighboring stomping grounds.

For 43 years, the Drew League has proven to be an oasis of goodwill and good basketball that offsets the turbulent climate around it. It is sort of a refuge spot from all the friction. That’s because gang intervention specialists like Luther Keith Jr., Lance Laslie and Joe Evans help try to keep it that way.

“By us being all gang intervention specialists, we know about the neighborhood and community,” Keith said.

They are the men in black. The three men, along with Tyrone Riley, are what you might call the secret enforcers of security at the Drew League. They operate as the perimeter line of defense against neighborhood mess, keeping all the riff raff at bay. That means finding ways to peacefully counteract what gang members do around the neighborhood, Laslie said.

“We kind of make sure they don’t get things started off around the Drew League,” said Laslie.

Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant made a surprise appearance at the Drew League final on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman
Former Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, now a member of the Golden State Warriors, made a surprise appearance at the Drew League final on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

There isn’t much that Keith, Laslie, Evans and Riley have not seen as gang intervention specialists. They’ve been around the block or two. Evans has on both sides of the fence. He used to be part of the problem while growing up in the neighborhood. He’s spent time behind bars.

These days, Evans works on being part of the solution.

“I was part of lot of the negativity and things,” Evans said. “I served time. I saw a lot of my friends die because of that during the whole course that I was incarcerated. So when I came home, I saw the same neighborhood that I grew up in was five to ten times worst than when I left.

“With this generation coming up behind me, they don’t have anybody to look up to like the way I had these guys to look up to. I wanted to be something positive that they could look up to. I try to make as much of myself so that they can see that anything is possible.”

Keith has put in some serious work as a community peacemaker, generating 27 years worth of mileage of gang intervention work in his back pocket.

On any given day, Keith can be found somewhere within the confines of the Compton, Watts or South Los Angeles areas, handing out baseball tips as a volunteer coach or helping out the football team at Centennial High School.

Metta World Peace teamed up with J.R. Smith and The Game in leading the Drew League's La Familia squad to a win Sunday, July 20. Photo Credit: Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com
Metta World Peace teamed up with J.R. Smith and The Game in leading the Drew League’s La Familia squad to a win Sunday, July 20. Photo Credit: Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

On typical Sundays, Keith changes his mentoring cloths to worship wardrobe as he gets his praise on. But during the summer months at King Drew Medical Magnet High School, Keith is more concerned with putting out potential fires than starting one. It’s the best place to be, Keith said.

“The Drew League is the best thing for Compton and Watts,” said Keith. ” It’s free to get in. You get a chance to see some of the players from your community, enjoy yourself and kickback.”

Dealing with the hardest of the hardcore, Keith, Laslie and Evans, and Riley do their due diligence to keep the peace while the Drew League is up and running on all cylinders. While others enjoy themselves, the intervention team make sure they do.

The summer months can be a place of mayhem and chaos in urban communities. South Los Angeles, Watts and Compton are cities that are not immune to this.

The Drew League security staff, by and large, keep that mess from the patrons.This is not optional. The well-being and safety of those attending games is priority No. 1. Having Keith, Laslie, Evans and Riley as the seen and unseen eyes of law and order, has been a plus for the Drew League.

“There’s gangs on each side of the school,” Evans chirped. “We know certain things before they even happen. Part of our job is to address it before anybody know anything. A lot of times, people don’t even know if there is an incident because we’ve already put an end to it before it even started. That’s part of the benefits of having us here. We know the community, and the community know us. They’re (gangs) are less reluctant to do something because of that.”

Smiley brought in the men to operate as the front line soldiers for the Drew League security team. Their task can be a bit difficult. They roam the parking lots, check the stands, secure the locker rooms and monitor the entry gate for any kind of potential trouble to weed out.

Their chief responsibility is to help make sure those sitting in the stands at the Drew League are welcomed and can feel safe. They don’t want any trouble. They look to make sure nothing jumps off.  It’s not an easy job. But somebody has to do it.

“When you come in here, you come to enjoy yourself with your family, not to cause some sort of chaos,” Keith said. “It’s free to get in. If you have a problem, we have to escort you out. When you come in here, you’re going to watch the games and chill. You’re not going to be messing up in here.”

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1083 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (San Diego Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). As a professional journalist, Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a graduate of Howard University.