‘The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce’: LAFF Review

The Drew Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Prettybird Films

The Drew Still - H 2015

An uplifting tale of sporting success, straight out of Compton.

NBA player Baron Davis turns film director to pay fond tribute to a remarkable amateur basketball league in South Central LA.

A humble community sports project that grew into a nationally renowned launch pad for professional basketball talent, the Drew League was launched 40 years ago at Charles Drew Junior High School in Compton, Los Angeles. Titled after the league’s can-do motto, No Excuse, Just Produce charts the bumpy but mostly uplifting history behind this long-running summer institution.

Featuring guest appearances by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Byron Scott and other star players, this is a fairly conventional documentary targeted mostly at dedicated hoops fans. But even non-hoops fans can enjoy its celebration of self-made success in an economically deprived, mostly African-American neighborhood. 

Veteran NBA player Baron Davis, who grew up in the same tough South Central community as the program and made his Drew debut at 13, serves as producer, co-director and interviewee here. Between commitments to the LA Clippers and New York Knicks, Davis has diversified into acting and filmmaking in recent years. He previously produced Stacey Peralta’s 2008 documentary about LA gang culture, Crips and Bloods: Made in America.

No Excuse, Just Produce takes place in these same deprived streets, with rival gang affiliations a depressingly inevitable part of the backstory. But this film paints a much more positive portrait of a place most outsiders only know through gangsta rap lyrics. It is telling that the Drew basketball court was respectfully designated a “safe haven” by both Bloods and Crips, even if some of its young players were later killed in tragic gang-related clashes just a few streets away.

The heroes of this story are not the superstar athletes but the selfless coaches and mentors who have kept the Drew League going for decades, often serving as surrogate parents to troubled young men with no fathers at home. Chief among them is Oris “Dino” Smiley, a bear-like figure of huge charm and charisma, who has run the league as a kind of family business for 30 years. One former star player, Kenny “Bad Santa” Brunner, credits Smiley with helping him rebuild his life and career after he served jail time for armed robbery. A key theme of the film, Davis says, is “how basketball can be a father to the community.”

Powered by a funky soundtrack of hip-hop and R&B, the visual material is archive-heavy — crisp contemporary interviews spliced with scratchy-looking video clips from the 1980s and 1990s. But even though the filmmakers touch on broader themes of poverty and racism, from the Watts riots to the Black Panthers, Rodney King to NWA, they are clearly more invested in the action on this one remarkable court than in any broader socioeconomic analysis.

Paying fond tribute to an admirable community institution, No Excuse, Just Produce contains more warmth than depth. Compared to all-time classic basketball documentaries like Hoop Dreams, it feels pretty minor league, lacking the same dramatic highs and lows. But Davis cannot be faulted for wanting to give something back to the unsung champions of his old neighborhood, and this film is a fitting tribute to them.
Production company: Prettybird
Cast: Dino Smiley, Baron Davis, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Byron Scott, DeMar DeRozan
Directors: Baron Davis, Chad Gordon
Producers: Paul Hunter, Ali Brown, Erikka Yancy, Gus Roxburgh
Cinematographer: Erik Hemans
Editor: Quinn Alvarez
Sales company: Preferred Content
Unrated, 75 minutes