Living in a society marked by division, it can be hard to pinpoint areas where barriers fall and bridges grow across chasms. But in Los Angeles, at the corner of Compton and Firestone boulevards, lines fade away in service of a singular cause: basketball. And some of the best WNBA players in the game — Essence Carson and Odyssey Sims of the LA Sparks and Noelle Quinn of the Seattle Storm — will be featured performers in a middle school gym when the Women’s Drew League Playoffs kick off on Sunday.
Drew League: A meaningful urban legend
Chelsea Gray, the diverse, do-all guard with the LA Sparks, also plays in the Women’s Drew League. She competed in the regular season but will miss the opening round of the playoffs, with hopes of joining her Lady Cheaters for the rest of the playoffs. Prior to the weekend start of the playoffs, Gray explained what playing in the Women’s Drew League means to her:
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.
Community, a vital structure for humans inhabiting Earth which has been shredded by individualism and technology-driven isolation. Community, that union among neighbors which gets cast into chaos when its inhabitants are subjected to systemic, socioeconomic disenfranchisement.
In South Central Los Angeles where the Drew League was founded and the games are played, a once-predominantly African-American community gave way to an influx of Latino residents, with both groups facing historical disenfranchisement and the ills that come with it, like crime and gang activity — issues often worsened by gentrification, that effort to improve blighted neighborhoods that always seems to come at the expense of the community’s original inhabitants.
As with many major cities in the United States, the deepest divisions are along financial faults, with no place that this is more true than LA, where people in Bel-Air and residents of South Central often live in two different Americas. In bringing exciting basketball competition to South Central, the Drew League also helps to erase some dividing lines by uniting players from diverse worlds. Some of the wealthiest athletes on the planet have participated in the Drew League, communing with and competing against streetballers and college athletes.
Bringing groups together is how a community develops pride and grows; it’s how the community’s inhabitants shatter the stereotypes heaped upon them by racism and history.
Drew League founder Alvin Wills sought only to spark an activity that would allow young people in his community to learn life lessons through the game of basketball. What it has become is nothing short of urban legend, if not a model for committed community leadership.
Wills founded the Drew League in 1973 as a way to support the development of the young people in the neighborhood. By 1985, the league had expanded from six teams to 10, so Wills appointed Dino Smiley, a “longtime friend and mentor,” to the post of league director. Now, the league is made up of 28 teams that earn the right to “battle it out on the hardwood” by invitation only.
The Drew League at 45
Fast-forward to today, and the Drew League is an institution. The league’s major sponsors include Nike, Time Warner Cable, Monster and BodyArmor Super Drink. The Drew League rosters have been filled over the years with NBA star power, like Kobe Bryant, Michael Cooper, LeBron James and JaVale McGee.
And, now, with WNBA stars.
The original Women’s Drew League was started by Smiley in 1987. It apparently fell away for a time before Tenesha Ware — now the Women’s Drew League Commissioner — breathed it into a second life. Now, the Women’s Drew League is one of the most competitive women’s basketball leagues in LA.
The Women’s Drew League includes “athletes that’s played professionally, either WNBA, overseas, or both,” according to Chelsea Gray, which means the playoffs should make for a rare treat for Sparks fans chomping at the bit to see the likes of Carson, Gray and Sims rock Staples Center again, half a year into the future. To witness their greatness now, get thee to the Charles Drew Middle School gym.
Here are the teams competing in the opening round of the Women’s Drew League Playoffs, along with their standings and the star-powered members of their rosters:
- Action (7-1)
- N My Feelings (6-2) — Essence Carson, Noelle Quinn and Odyssey Sims
- Runnit (6-2)
- Lady Cheaters (5-3) — Chelsea Gray
- Pro-Training (3-5)
- So Cal Splash (2-6)
- Unwanted (2-6)
- Walking Buckets (1-7)
No. 2 N My Feelings has a ton of point-guard prowess in defensive pest Odyssey Sims, 2016 WNBA champion Essence Carson and 2018 WNBA champion Noelle Quinn. On Sunday, they play team Unwanted in the first round.
The No. 4 Lady Cheaters are led by 2016 WNBA champion Chelsea Gray — a do-all guard skilled at creating scoring opportunities for others, but also adept at carrying the scoring load when duty calls. On Sunday, the Lady Cheaters will face team Pro-Training without Gray, but she hopes to return for the rest of the playoffs should her team advance.
The Women’s Drew League Playoffs tip off on Sunday, Dec. 2, at 11 a.m. PT. In the opening round, the eight teams in the playoffs will compete in single-elimination, win-or-go-home contests.
When: Sunday, Dec. 2, at 11 a.m. PT
Where: Charles Drew Middle School, LA | Firestone and Compton boulevards
How to tune in: If you’re in LA, get thee to the middle school gym! Otherwise, check in with the Women’s Drew League on Twitter.
Sunday’s game slate:
11 a.m. — Runnit vs. So Cal Splash
12 p.m. — N My Feelings vs. Unwanted
1 p.m. — Lady Cheaters vs. Pro-Training
2 p.m. — Action vs. Walking Buckets
The Women’s Drew League Semifinals will take place on Sunday, Dec. 9, and the Women’s Drew League Championship will be played on Sunday, Dec. 16.