In 1973 Alvin Wills established the Drew League with six teams. From its beginning, he believed the league could be a place for young men and women of South Central Los Angeles to learn life lessons through basketball. Today the league is thriving as the heart of the city, having established itself as a home for hoopers from all walks of life and a model for building community.
The Women’s Drew League provides a rare opportunity for fans to enjoy both WNBA and college talent under the same roof — all for free. WNBA hoopers who have hit the court over the years include former Seattle Storm players Kaleena Mosqueda Lewis and Noelle Quinn (now head coach), current Las Vegas Aces point guard Chelsea Gray, former Connecticut Sun guard Essence Carson, and current Atlanta Dream guard Odyssey Sims, just to name a few.
Chelsea Gray, who dropped 39 points in the 2018 Championship Game giving her team, the Lady Cheaters, their 4th straight Women’s Drew League championship said, “It’s amazing to be able to bring people out from the community to enjoy the game of basketball. Don’t get me wrong it gets really competitive. But it’s great to play against some athletes that’s played professionally, either WNBA, overseas, or both. It’s a great environment and I hope it’s around for a lot more years to come.”
As a mecca for female-identifying basketball players for generations, the Women’s Drew has inspired healing in Southern California, and a bright future. So let’s take a look back at how the league started, where it’s headed, and how you can watch no matter where you are.
At times Drew League fans have encountered traffic lines stretching for “half a mile,” Commissioner of the Drew League, Dino Smiley, told Bleacher Report. There have been spectators ecstatic to get in and scrambling for pictures and autographs, and others equally upset to be turned away. “We couldn’t believe it,” Dino said. “That, to me, said we’re here, we finally got to the big stage.” While the Drew has officially ‘made it’, the future wasn’t always so clear, especially for the women’s game.
Today the Drew League is an institution. Since its inception, the league has continued to bring together players from all walks of life: wealthy pros, street ballers, overseas hoopers, and college athletes, right in South Central. NBA players such as Kobe Bryant, JaVale McGee, James Harden, LeBron James, and Isaiah Thomas have appeared on rosters, and big name up-and-comers too, such as Shaquille O’Neal’s son Shareef O’Neal.
There’s no money at stake for the players. Instead they play for pride, competition and the love of the game. “It’s like the home court of California,” Stanley Johnson, former Detroit Pistons guard, told Bleacher Report. “If you really play basketball for real, you get on a Drew League team, you want to play well.”
Meanwhile fans and players aren’t the only ones showing up. The league has captured the attention and wallets of big-name sponsors such as Nike, Spalding, and Time Warner Cable. And there has been talk of ESPN streaming the games again.
As the men’s league rose in prominence, so too did the women’s. Originally started by Dino in 1987, the Women’s Drew League is now one of the most competitive women’s basketball leagues in the US. But, there was a time where its future was unclear.
The idea for the women’s league emerged back in the days when women’s basketball started to gain traction: the days when when Cynthia Cooper and Cheryl Miller were gracing the courts at USC. At the time, a lot of young ladies were coming into the Los Angeles area to play basketball at Crenshaw High School under Joe Weakley. Dino says it was the combination of those two factors that ignited the push for something similar on the East side of the Harbor Freeway.
“So we brought the women in, it was great. It was real simple. We had T-shirts with their numbers on it, and we had about 6 teams. One team I think was called Sweet and Low, one team was called Polite, it was just great – the names were unique. And they played. And they really enjoyed playing. They played hard, had good crowds. And then we let it go because Drew had gotten so much bigger. And really there was no one here to take over the women’s league.” said Dino.
Luckily Tenesha Ware-Daniels, who had been working at the Drew League, didn’t let the women’s league languish for long. She took it over, and brought it back in 2001, restoring its glory and then some. Twenty years later the league is still going strong.
“That’s a lot of time. So that means a lot of ladies have come in, which now it’s probably one of the only leagues that you can actually start doing alumni games. You know, because we got some women now that are in their 40s, that used to play.” continued Dino.
“It has evolved to the place to be. And now it’s starting to get some overseas love, you’re getting some WNBA players to step in and play, and you’ve just got a great atmosphere because this school here is a basketball gym. I think you’ve got a lot of gyms that are gyms, but this is actually a basketball gym. So the ladies love it!”
Tenesha, who brought back the league because she wanted to continue playing following her career at Cal State L.A, had a vision for what the league could become from the jump. She told California Prep, “Ever since 2001 our goal is to create an opportunity for women to showcase and exhibit their passion for the game. I remember LA Sparks player Nikki Teasley leaving it all out there, as those original 4 teams would battle each other in the early years.”
She was, initially, playing in the league while running it. “Crazy!” she said. But the first year was a success. Los Angeles Sparks players Nikki Teasley and Nicky McCrimmon both participated and, despite only having four teams, the action was elite.
“When I say each game was a great game, it was like a playoff game every week,” Tenesha told the OC Register. “So that’s what pretty much started the intensity of the league. Since that opening day, it’s just been hard playing.”
Playing in a lot of women’s leagues herself, Tenesha had felt the pain of lackadaisical organization. With Women’s Drew, she set high standards and knew the importance of providing a competitive, organized game each week.
With Tenesha at the helm, the league has put itself on the map. “This is the cream of the crop because the men’s Drew is so known,” she said. “The women’s Drew has been around for a long time, but it’s come up with quality basketball and … the caliber of players, the crowd and just being competitive.”
More importantly, the league is a home. It’s a place those who still love the game can come to play, rediscover their identity, and make sense of the world. Hooper San Dixon who’s been playing in the league for eight years said, “The Women’s Drew League is definitely a place that helped me find my place in the basketball world. A lot of us are out of college, in between playing professional and overseas. So the Women’s Drew League is a home for the best basketball and competition in LA.”
Tenesha has strived to create a circle of giving too, empowering players to use the league as a stepping stone towards future success. Former players have opportunities from going on to be high level refs, to earning money playing professional ball overseas.
And giving back is a mantra the players embody as well. “Ever since I found beauty for the game while playing for George Quintero on our Cal Storm AAU team in high school, I realized each game deserves your 100%. It’s easy to give that full effort at T-Ware’s Drew, because everyone brings their A game and meets your energy. We feel like a family here and it’s good competition and cardio on my Sundays. All the women seem to love playing at the Drew, it lets us give back what was given to us growing up.” said Noelle Quinn.
Throughout the years, the Drew has created a family, and together they’ve inspired a new future.
The women’s league is thriving, continuing to provide a stage for former college and overseas professionals to do what they love. After a pause during the pandemic in 2020, the Drew resumed in full force this year. Following nine weeks of play and two playoff rounds, team Redemption emerged as undefeated Champions, securing victory over nine other teams.
Guard Air Hearn earned League MVP honors, leading the league in total assists, total steals, and most points per game, while averaging 13.73 points, 5.73 rebounds, 2.89 assists, and 1.55 steals. (She’ll be playing for Athletes Unlimited Basketball this season as well.) Meanwhile teammate Angie Castanada racked up 16 points, and knocked in the free throws that secured the championship win for the Redemption squad. Tocarra Ross, Sherrie Session, Janelle Porter, Jineen Williams, Victoria Mazzeo, Ty Young, Maranne Johnson, Essence Carson, Kielyn Wilson, Paris Johnson, Mailee Jones, and Suriya McGuire rounded out the winning team led by NBA skills trainer and LA Premier Prep Founder Coach Keion Kindred, and Assistant Coaches San Dixon and Robert Valentine.
In addition to the quality product on display growing the game and creating a strong culture, sponsors have also stepped up. Michelle Miller, the 2019 Championship Game MVP, is finishing medical school at UCLA while she plays on Team Runnit, which won the league championship in 2019. She credits sponsors such as Nike with helping to continue to elevate the league to the next level.
“Obviously the men’s side of the Drew League has gotten really big, really famous. I think it’s really great that Nike has started sponsoring us as well. My first year playing here we didn’t have that. I feel like it kind of grew a little bit getting that Nike sponsorship,” Michelle told The Next.
Other sponsors such as Spalding, Sees Candies and Dicks Sporting Goods have stepped up to the plate, and also provided added visibility. Dicks helped organize a special exhibition game between the Basketball Beauties League and The Women’s Drew League this year, as part of a multi-day basketball event empowering young female athletes ages 8-18 to take their place on the court.
The Drew’s brand, now known for its competitiveness and community, also provides strong appeal for hoopers — many of whom find their way back to the game and the area, continuing to drive growth. After graduating from UNLV, Kelli Thompson, who played professional basketball overseas for four years with stops in the Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey, is now back on court with Women’s Drew League’s Lady Cheaters.
“I think this is the best place for women’s basketball right now. We don’t have many leagues outside of the WNBA, we don’t have a G League. Getting down here and actually being a part of this is amazing,” Kelli told TheNext.
“It feels good to see all the other girls who put in that work, and it’s even better to see people achieving their goals and then coming back here. I’m super proud of all these girls, whether I know them or not.”
True to its roots, the league impacted the community off the court as well this year, leading a toy drive, and sponsoring families for the holidays. The 3rd annual Drive to the Basket event granted wishes for families and spread holiday cheer.
Of course, the players hope that the league will continue to get more exposure and that its growth will help players with whatever they want to do with basketball. Kelli has noticed an increase in media coverage and in fan support each weekend during the 2021 season. She believes that’s crucial to helping women’s basketball continue to grow.
Games take place every Sunday at Charles Drew Middle School (8511 Compton Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90001) from 11am – 3pm PST, from mid-October through mid-January. You’re in for a full day of hoops with five back-to-back games, and you can expect to see fans like Bobby Brown in the stands.
You can also watch the matches on their Instagram Live Stories and check out recaps on their page no matter where you are.
Of the location, Dino explained, “Opened up in 1963, it was supposed to have been a Junior College. But they made it into a middle school. And we’ve been playing basketball here, organized basketball, since 1973.”
During the most recent season there were 10 teams in the league:
Women’s Drew League teams are invitation only. But the best way to get in touch to learn more is via Instagram DM.
Tune in next season for some of the best basketball in the US, and to support a platform that focuses on showcasing the women’s game.
“My purpose really is just to give the girls a platform, somewhere to play, somewhere where they can show their talent and show their passion for the game. We get a lot of girls that come out every year, and they come out here and they compete.” said Tenesha.
“Women they have passion for sport just as men do, and I’m just glad that I can provide a platform for these women to play.”
Up next, learn about the newest league on the pro women’s basketball scene, Athletes Unlimited Basketball.
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