The Game Goes On: Basketball after College

For the young female basketball player with an eye to the WNBA, the road seems familiar and established: begin at the YMCA recreational league level, join an AAU-sanctioned team, play on a junior high and high school team, enter the Division I college ranks and then arrive in the pros.

But since only a fraction of college players make it to the professional level, it is not as clear where women can continue their love of basketball after they graduate. Where does the 30-year-old play? And where do older women, perhaps inspired by the emergence of the WNBA and the surging popularity of women’s basketball, go if they have the desire to play basketball but do not have the skills?

Not surprisingly, there are more opportunities for players who’ve had structured training – especially at the college level. Many top college teams looking for high quality preseason games compete against AAU-sanctioned teams that include former Division I players.

In the New York area, Cecil King Jr., whose basketball roots go back to C. Vivian Stringer and Cheyney State, coaches the New York Gazelles. Made up of women who range in age from 22 to 40, they play only Division I teams, but interest has so increased, both from former players and current coaches, that King is looking to organize teams to compete at the Division II and III level.

Some of these “preseason” teams include current WNBA players wanting to hone their skills as well as others hoping to catch a coach’s eye and get a second chance at the pros.

Gary Donna, editor of Hoosier Basketball magazine, has managed the Reebok Lady Stars for 14 years. He counts former Purdue players Stephanie McCarty, Ukari Figgs and Katie Douglas as his better-known players, but others, like Jennifer Jacoby, a ’95 Purdue graduate who played two years in the ABL, are drawn to his team for different reasons. Certainly it’s not the money (a small fee) or the schedule (7 to 15 games, many back to back).

Currently an assistant coach at the University of Illinois, Jacoby admits, “I just couldn’t let it go. That’s all I’ve done for the past umpteen years. You live in Indiana, you live on a farm, you play basketball.”

John Feasel of Ohio Girls Basketball magazine respects the competitive drive of the players – some former All-Americans – to his Legends team. “You can see the level of competition,” he says. “It’s intense. They want to win. It’s not do or die, but they want to be competitive.”

He also enjoys the lessons games offer to those unschooled in the history of women’s basketball. Ohio University’s Dawn Heideman is one of his most committed players. Now a schoolteacher, she once led the nation in shooting percentage.

“A lot of the younger kids see a 35-year-old woman walk out on the floor and say, ‘Oh, jeez, look at that old lady,'” Feasel says. “By the end of the game, after she scores 28 points on them, they’re saying, ‘Great game, Ms. Heideman. That was fantastic!'”

Athletes in Action also competes against Division I teams but offers players a different type of learning. Based in Ohio, players (including the Portland Fire’s Sophia Witherspoon and Notre Dame grad Kelley Siemon) are drawn to AIA not simply because of the basketball but also because they want to learn what it means to have a relationship with God. A three- to four-week training camp provides plenty of on-court preparation, but players also spend time in Bible study to learn to write their own stories of what God has done in their lives. When on tour, players have opportunities to meet with other players and fans and share those stories.

AIA is a volunteer opportunity with powerful benefits, says director Stephanie Zonars. “Players leave our team equipped to know what they believe and why the believe it, and to have a discussion with people that they come in contact with for the rest of their lives,” she explains. “College is demanding and much of the emphasis is on winning. Certainly we take the court to win, but we have a higher purpose in mind: trying to touch lives along the way.”

For year-round basketball, some players turn to what might loosely be called the “Div-1 Underground Leagues” formed at the hub of several Division I schools. When former player Kelly Greenberg returned to Philadelphia to coach at Penn, her sister invited her to participate in a league that pitted her against former high school and college foes. It’s an experience she takes back to the students she coaches because, explains Greenberg, “people who play in this league just want to continue to compete.”

The league also offers an important outlet for players who are moms. “They bring their kids,” says Greenberg. “The kids see their moms out there being athletic, laughing and competing, sharing time with other people. That’s important.”

Renie Shields, who played at St. Joseph’s and now serves as the school’s compliance director, participates in a similar recreation league. “I want to be presented with a challenge,” says the 40-ish Shields. “I want a team where I have to really play defense, I have to box out, and we really need to move the ball to score.”

Patrick Alexander, president of the National Women’s Basketball League (NWBL), recognizes the variety of players and knows potential players are often stymied by the challenges of organizing their own league. That is why the NWBL’s mission statement centers on providing women the opportunity to compete on a national level at all ability levels.

Too often, says Alexander, “when four or five women have gotten together to say, ‘Let’s play some basketball,’ they go to their local community center and they’re told, ‘We don’t have enough room.’ With no program, rules or guidelines, they’re often doomed for failure.”

For a nominal fee, the NWBL offers a start-up kit that includes insurance, jerseys and organizational support so individuals and organization can initiate programs in their communities.

The NWBL sponsors regional and national tournaments among its three distinct levels: Division 1 teams include seven former NCAA Division I or professional players. Division 2 teams have at least five players who’ve played Division I, II, III or Junior College basketball. Division 3 teams are open and include players who’ve never played in college or high school. The NWBL also has a pro division.

Amy Boone, general manager of the San Diego Sporting Club One, linked with the NWBL four years ago. “As soon as I started advertising with the NWBL, I was overwhelmed with phone calls,” she says. “Within a couple of weeks, we had eight teams of women.” She now has 12 Division 2 and 3 teams with players ranging in age from 21 to 62.

“There’s a big variety of what the wishes are of the women and how they follow through,” says Boone. “Some go to regional and national tournaments, some don’t. Some self-coach and some bring in a coach.”

“We’ve tied ourselves into the NWBL, so not only do they have a tournament here, but they have a bigger focus and a bigger picture.” This year’s Nationals take place in San Antonio, paralleling the Final Four.

While the NWBL works on a national level, there are opportunities for women at the local level. In New York, for instance, several upper-end gyms and organizations have leagues. Chelsea Piers, a huge sporting complex, sets aside six hours a week for its eight teams. The New York Urban Professional Basketball League supports 40 teams broken into divisions determined in a preseason scrimmage. Ages range from 20 to 40, and a $1,480 fee per team covers space rental, insurance and NYC referees.

On a less expensive level, some YMCAs devote a couple of hours a week of court time to women, while others offer leagues. Tom Sylvester, sports director of the Long Island City branch, runs a league that has between four and seven teams. His players range in age from 18 to 35, tend to have played early in life and are now looking for exercise in a team-oriented sport. But, says Sylvester, “I’m struggling to keep it together and find new sources of players.”

That can be attributable to the skill level and physical contact often associated with basketball. “We don’t seem to get that woman who’s just coming out to try it as a new sport,” explains NY Urban Professional’s director John Bykowsky.

The intimidation factor is exactly why Steve Bzomowski founded Never Too Late (NTL) Basketball camps. A former Harvard College coach, Bzomowski realized that, without instruction in high school or college, the older player was unlikely to participate in basketball, whatever her interest. So in Boston, New York and San Francisco, NTL offers adult men and women 10-week sessions in the basics of basketball. Ages range from 22 to 60, and the skill levels start at “never touched a ball before” and go up. The sessions – either coed or for women only – take players through 55 minutes of skills and drills, followed by a 35-minute coached scrimmage.

“The theme,” says Bzomowski, “is playing under control.”

Explaining why she takes the New York classes, 41-year-old Louisa Odones’ voice is tinged with pride and regret. “When I was 14, the message was: It was not lady-like to play basketball, so I had to let it go,” she says. “My heart was to play basketball, but I didn’t want to go against society. It took another 25 years to come back to it. Now I’m a grown woman, and I don’t care.”

Classmate Sue Johnson, a college rower, appreciates the controlled and supportive learning environment. “When you learn a new sport as an adult . . . you never seem to make progress because you’re always catching up,” she notes. “Doing something structured – you get to see yourself getting better because of the structure.”

At 50, Janet Campbell enjoys the feeling of power she gets from playing. “To be able to run, jump, have precision and make a shot feels good,” she says.

Adds Johnson, with a laugh, “I appreciate playing with women who are aggressive, who play physically. It’s a chance to not be timid, to actually throw yourself around.”

Johnson would find some like-minded thinkers in the Senior Women’s Basketball Association (SWBA) in California. Founded seven years ago at San Diego’s Mission Valley Y, it organizes a three-on-three league designed for women over the age of 50 (its oldest player is 86). Director Audrey Kallas-Pastore oversees 12 teams with a tradition of competitive success. This year, they brought back five medals from the Senior National Olympics: silver in the 65-plus category and gold in the 50, 60 and 70-plus divisions.

They’ve played at halftime during a Los Angeles Sparks game, been on national television and been the subject of a short film, Shooting Stars. Membership has grown at such a rate that the SWBA is sponsoring an Invitational Tournament in June. With close to 100 participants, says Kallas-Pastore, “there are just not enough tournaments.”

Many new members have never played before, so they participate in a clinic designed to introduce them to the rules and assess their skill levels. As in any league, new talent is carefully scrutinized. “Everybody always keeps an eye out, if they’re looking for a new teammate,” says Kallas-Pastore with a grin.

They’re always scouting. Members lead skill-building clinics, and there’s even a small “farm team” of women as young as 45 – which is sweet irony to Kallas-Pastore – when thinking that being older is the ticket to the big leagues.

“It’s the only time in my life that I’ve ever heard women say, ‘Oh, next year I’m going to be 50,'” she notes. “They’re looking forward to that birthday because they can compete with us.”

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