by Sarah M. Kazadi / @sarahmkazadi
Every Wednesday and Friday night, the hardwood court at Wadleigh Secondary School in Harlem welcomes a flock of well-traveled basketball players you’ve probably never heard of, all carrying game as varied as their pasts.
Like the pull-up trey? Meet Christie Marrone, a guard from Brooklyn, NY, who played at the University of Maryland and professionally in Puerto Rico. If you’re into a versatile low-post game, talk to Ayesha Barkley, a forward from East Orange, NJ, who took her skills to Europe and Africa. On this particular night in June, they’re both in the small gym at Wadleigh, fighting to help their teams advance to the next round of the Riverside Classic women’s basketball spring league playoffs.
“Playing in here is probably one of the best competitive leagues I’ve ever played in in New York,” said Marrone, after leading her That Ain’t Right team to a win over Franchise. “It’s good, the fans are awesome and it’s just a good environment,” she added.
The eight-team league is the brainchild of Director Luis Rodriguez and his co-director—and overseas professional player—Milani Malik. The project, almost two years in the making, took its first steps in mid-April, becoming the only professional women’s basketball spring league in New York City. WNBA players and overseas pros now had an indoor option for regulated hoop games before the summer basketball season got underway.
“A lot of us who play overseas, during the spring we have nothing,” said Malik, who has played internationally in Israel and Montenegro. After spending years honing her skills on outdoor courts throughout New York City, she can attest to the strain playing on concrete puts on joints. “We all play outside but we need something indoors as well,” she said. “We can save our knees, so it’s great.”
Malik and Rodriguez juggle the duties of running a smooth operation without any major help, besides sponsorship from the New York Women Chamber of Commerce. Malik does everything between setting up and suiting up for game time—from selecting the music blaring through the speakers, to using social media to make sure that the women aren’t playing for an empty gym. WNBA players like Shannon Bobbitt and Alex Montgomery have shown up, as well as male pros like Stacey Daniels, who also plays for the Riverside Classic men’s division.
“My mid-range game has gotten a lot better because that’s something that I worked on after seeing some of these girls knock down shots I’m not as efficient with,” said Daniels, who’ll be playing on Black Ink this summer at Tri-State and Dyckman Park.
For many of those playing in the spring league, the ultimate goal is to be running up and down the court at Madison Square Garden, playing for the New York Liberty or any other WNBA team willing to offer a spot on its roster. Some, like Ayesha Barkley, have gotten close.
“I gave it a shot my second year out of college, I did a tryout for the Chicago Sky” said Barkley, who made it as far as the final cut before being let go. “I’m going to try it again, just to represent for home,” she added.
Rodriguez hopes his league can help the cause. In addition to fans, he says that WNBA officials and others regularly come scout the talent on the court. Once the playoffs wrap with a championship game on June 14, Rodriguez and Malik have sights on a Riverside Classic women’s summer league, set to tip-off in early July. The league may also expand to the Dominican Republic, all in an effort to give aspiring professional female players another route to their ultimate goal.
“This is just the beginning,” said Rodriguez. “Just like any business, there are going to be ups and downs. Right now we’re good and we’re going to be way better.”
Sarah M. Kazadi is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has been featured on various platforms, including CBS Sports Network and Newsweek magazine. To see more samples of her written and video journalism work, visit sarahmkazadi.com.