“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”
-- Colin Powell
The WNBA, now in its 27th season, is the culmination of decades of dreams. Women began playing basketball early in the 20th century, but it took several false starts – and an infusion of NBA money – to finally found a stable professional women’s league in the United States.
Faatimah Amen-Ra A’s dream is to make the two-year-old Women’s Premier Basketball Association into the WNBA’s version of the G League, serving as both a training ground for the big time as well as a source for players when injuries strike.
But we all know the saying about the longest journey, and though Amen-Ra A and Shelley Russi, who is also heavily involved in the WPBA, have taken more than one step forward, there are still many more to go.
Right now, for example, the WPBA’s Saturday games are played at the College of Alameda before a relatively small gathering of families and friends of the players. Amen-Ra A runs the eight-team league with the help of a few volunteers – less than 10 – while Russi supplies the officials, who are also working to get to the next level.
The games are filmed so players can create highlight reels for overseas teams, such as the one Amen-Ra A plays for in Ireland, and even the WNBA. Courtney Range, for example, who played on July 29, was in the Las Vegas Aces’ camp this spring before being cut, and the WPBA may help her get another shot next season.
But though Range and Amen-Ra A are professionals with overseas resumes, they don’t get paid in the WPBA. In fact, the only people who get paid even travel expenses are the officials, who are in fact quite good -- but the players? Most are there for the love of the game and a chance to get in a Saturday afternoon run against quality competition.
Still, even though the athleticism and skill level is high, the lack of practice time – and pay – means that the quality of play doesn’t quite measure up. The teams don’t really run sets, or play much more than adequate defense, and sometimes there’s only one player on the bench to sub in.
But Amen-Ra A and Russi know getting where they want to go will take time. This is year two, and the offseason will be spent hustling for sponsors to take the WPBA to the next level. For example, Amen-Ra A could use about triple the number of workers each Saturday, and she’d love to pay them. Russi stepped in at the last minute to offer $5,000 in prize money for the top two teams -- through her companies ref-ology and Blast Equality Collab and with her business partners Don Vaden and Team Schuler of Compass Real Estate -- which adds another level of intensity and, well, professionalism to the league.
And that prize money also upped the ante in the championship Aug. 6, which went to overtime before Berkeley High alum Jasmine Guinn hit a free throw to clinch a 90-87 Berkeley Royals win over the Oakland Swish.
But the cost of lifting the WPBA to the level of even a semi-pro league – where players get a nominal sum for each game – is surprisingly high. And since a TV deal isn’t in the cards, and ticket sales will never generate enough income, sponsorship is the key. And so Amen-Ra A and Russi will do what they can in the offseason to garner corporate support for a league that offers female athletes a chance to keep playing basketball and keep their dreams of a professional career alive.
But right now, all those dreams, and the dreams of Amen-Ra A and Russi, are being played out in a community college gymnasium before a smattering of fans. To make those dreams reality, there will be plenty of sweat, determination and hard work ahead – not to mention the need for plenty of dollars from those who share in the dream that the WNBA shouldn’t be the only home for female American professional basketball players.