Oakland’s first women’s pro hoops team is just getting started.
Photos courtesy of Marqus Coleman
Young male basketball stars like Lonzo Ball can look forward to long lucrative careers in professional sports. But, unfortunately, women hoops stars are mostly left to the brutish realities of the real world, with the WNBA’s tiny roster sizes allowing for just over 100 professional women’s players across the nation. With hundreds of NCAA-level women graduating every year, how can they scratch that competitive itch?
Marqus Coleman has a solution for the women of Oakland, and it’s one that has been thriving across the country for almost a decade now. The Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League is an independent professional sports league for women ballers, and the Oakland Rise is Coleman and his partner Ronald Williams’ entry into this wide-ranging league.
And believe it or not, the Rise is Oakland’s first women’s pro basketball team.
With dozens of teams across the country, the WBCBL is about providing a place for women to compete on a professional level. Many women in this league play in Europe half of the year, where women’s basketball draws large crowds and dedicated fans.
The Rise, however, is cutting its own path to a fan base. At the opening game on May 13 at Laney College, the Rise packed the stands with local fans, family, and coworkers of the young women playing on the court. The Rise fought hard against the Dallas Diesel in the opening game, but ultimately came up short.
But in the Diesel is the hope of every Rise player overall. These women are not just playing professional basketball; they’re a good team with veteran players, some of whom have been playing in this league for years.
Players like the Diesel’s Chantoya Hawkins, a quick and gritty guard at 5 feet 5 inches tall with an eye for good shots and breakaways. Hawkins graduated from Oklahoma State in 2001, and in any other sport, she’d likely be considered past her prime by now. However, she lit up the scoreboard and played all 48 minutes of the game. She’s living the dream of playing a sport she loves at a professional level, even in her 30s.
Her family even made the trip to Oakland for the game: mom, dad, and sister. And even they could see the potential for the Rise to be a dominant team in the sport. That could take a few more years of building, however. For now, the Rise is a bundle of almost wild talent, knocking down threes, but not quite yet working as a well-oiled machine.
Which is to be expected of a team that’s less than a year old, and as of May 13, had only played one game together. Despite the loss of that game, there were highlights and show-stoppers. Like Javier Brantley’s Jordan-esque drive to the basket, leaping forward for a shot, then adjusting to a reverse layup.
The fans at this packed event at Laney caused quite a ruckus, obviously eager to support the local team with a fervor similar to that of Warriors fans. There were smiles everywhere, even on the referees’ faces. At least, when they weren’t working hard to officiate the fast-moving game.
Reneé Robinson and Lorena Ahumada were two of those refs, and both had played ball in college. Robinson played for University of Virginia, while Ahumada played for Holy Names. They’re both excited to see these young women get a chance they never had after college.
Coleman has always dreamed of owning a professional sports team, and his years of coaching across all levels, from high school to NCAA, are serving him well while he pulls double duty as co-owner and coach this season. It’s not a role he was hoping to play, but it’s one he feels he must right now in order to build toward the team’s future.
Coleman said Rise players have their work cut out for them now that the season has begun. For many on the team, said Coleman, that first game was a wakeup call, showing just how serious and high level this league can be.
“With the organization being so young and never really playing at this level, they have taken a different level of seriousness to how we approach practice,” Coleman said. “For us, our focus is executing our game plan, continuing to get better at the things we do well, but at this level what’s important are the little things. They matter more than anything. If you don’t box out, if you don’t defend or cut off the basketball, or miss two or three shots in a row, you’ll see the pain on the scoreboard on the other end.”
What does the Rise do well? Said Coleman, “I think we can score the ball. I know the score didn’t show that [in the first game]. The girls can shoot the ball really well. I think they play extremely hard. I think in terms of our overall skill set as a group, I think we can be better than what we showed. The nervous energy playing in front of their family contributed to it. It’s not a college game. It’s much faster, there’s a 24-second shot clock. The ball moves faster, and moves in transition a lot faster. As they get acclimated to that, they will continue to execute.”
Ceciley Johnson is the Rise center and power forward, and at 6 feet 2 inches tall, she’s a powerful force under the hoop. When she first found out about the Rise, she thought it was a joke. She had been playing during open hours at the Laney College gym when folks started asking her if she’d be coming out for tryouts.
“Marqus was like, ‘You’re going to come out and play for my team?’ I thought it was a joke at first. They were like, ‘No, we’re super serious. We want you to play on the pro team.’” Johnson said she was excited to get a chance at fulfilling her dream, “because I’ve always wanted a team here. I played overseas for three years, but I would love to come back and play in front of all my friends here.”
Europeans are passionate about women’s basketball, and Johnson played in Romania and Switzerland. She said her time in Romania, in particular, was a life-changing experience. “I had a good time in Europe,” she said. “The overall experience was definitely needed. It humbled me. How people live in Romania is completely different than how they live here, but the culture of how they managed to live on a daily basis versus how privileged we are has really humbled me,” said Johnson. She said she would be followed to practice every day by local homeless boys, who she’d feed when she had extra food left over.
Indeed, Johnson has now played just about everywhere but Oakland. Before her time in Europe, she played for West Texas A&M and Ohlone Community College. But her game with the Rise was the first one she’d had a chance to play in her hometown.
Hopefully, if Coleman’s plans pan out, Johnson will have plenty more games with the Rise. “I hope that this organization can sustain itself for a long period of time,” said Coleman, “And be able to give a lot of women the opportunity to play at this level. The Diesel, a couple of them played in the WNBA, and 10 years overseas; it was positive to see that. I think from an organizational standpoint, I’m learning lessons every day. How much we’re involved in the community will help because we’ll have an earlier start. People will know who we are going into next season so it could generate a lot more excitement.”