45 years ago, the Drew League started in a high school gym in Compton, California. Without Drew, there would be no Crown League finals on Friday night, now in its fourth year.
Though Compton gave us DeMar, it also ignited the inner fire of Kawhi Leonard after robbing his father’s life at the neighbourhood car wash. Hoops culture under Cali palm trees have cross-pollinated from L.A. to Toronto.
What warrants equal, if not more, attention is L.A.’s entrepreneurial ethos that’s inspired many of us here — that distinctly American Dream drive to make it in Hollywood or the L.A. hip hop scene.
Personifying the Los Angeles entrepreneurial ethos is rapper Nipsey Hussle who runs his own flagship clothing store on the once vacant Crenshaw & Slauson parking lot he used to deal drugs on.
In the same fashion that the Drew League inspired Crown and DeMar inspired Toronto, Nipsey’s music and his story of personal transformation influenced Dane Smith of 1 Love T.O. What makes Smith exceptional from other pro hoopers is what he’s done outside the hardwood lines of Kerr Hall.
Nipsey used his notoriety to develop his Marathon brand. Smith followed suit, using his baller status to expand his sphere of influence by starring in We The North commercials, publishing a self-authored book, and will soon be releasing his short film, Jungle. Being the only Canadian pro hooper to play in the 2016 N.B.A. All-Star celebrity game, he’s verified on Instagram, amassing an online following close to the population of the D1 university town (around 11,000) he hooped for.
Smith has commodified his Varna Brand into two cultural products — book and film — and his ‘Varna’ tees represent a community of residents who are growing up, or grew up, in Toronto’s different hoods. ‘Varna’ references Varna Road, a street in the Lawerence Heights neighbourhood better known as Jungle, that Smith grew up in.
“With the revitalization coming in, they’re gonna break (Jungle) down, build up condos,” says Smith expressing concern. “If projects are not put together within the community, then five, seven years from now, it’s going to be forgotten.”
Smith believed in the preservation of Jungle’s identity so much that he took two years off at the prime of his playing career to sell and market his brand. Playing in Crown League and OVO Bounce, Smith developed a connection with former Raptor James Johnson who visited Jungle.
“James Johnson showing love…just brought the neighbourhood value up. To the young and watching, sitting on the sidelines like ‘Yo, this guy’s here. I know we live in the hood, but we can still have people come,’” says Smith of the significance Johnson’s visit had in broadening the Jungle youth’s P.O.V.
More importantly, Smith used his professional platform to network with individuals outside the tiny world that is Toronto hoops culture. He refers to the time off the court as “educational,” having networked with companies like Ballislife, Netflix, Nike, Apple, Mitchell & Ness, and Kijiji. Becoming comfortable interacting in different social circles developed the cultural capital requisite for Smith’s life after ball.
On a much larger scale, Nipsey is also building value in Crenshaw by partnering with local businesses. He recently partnered with David A. Gross who founded a co-working space called Vector 90, which resembles a milieu more familiar to Silicon Valley than Crenshaw.
“Specialized language, unique culture, and tight networks. These things become real barriers to entry,” says Gross of the perceived inaccessibility of professional fields like law, medicine, and tech to those in inner city communities.
Nipsey and Smith live on opposite coasts, but both men continue to inspire their hoods by creating a community culture through their respective hustles.
Come support Dane Smith at Ryerson on July 27th. Free Crown League tickets are still available here.