Rita Forte, Women's Hoops and America

Women's ALL B-Ball (Rita Forte)

Rita Forte simply wants funding for a recreational basketball league for women.

I’m talking about 5-on-5, 12-minute games, for a block of two hours, once a week. Seems easy enough, right?

You'd especially think people would be behind the idea after the U.S. women’s national soccer team captured the World Cup for the fourth time, raising visibility for women's sports and obviating the need for equal pay (highlighted by pieces such as this financial comparison between professional soccer-playing men and women, published by Forbes).

Well, after shooting hoops with Forte, I see how it’s not that simple. Convincing folks to put a couple thousand dollars behind a women’s pickup league seems to be a bit lower on the totem pole of common concerns in this current climate. I mean, have you seen the news lately?

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President Trump’s racist tweets toward four Democratic congresswomen—representatives Ayanna S. Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar—is up there with some of the wildest rhetoric I’ve ever heard from an elected official. And then you've got old heads in the rap game making blatantly erroneous comments, like Jermaine Dupri claiming that all female rappers rap about the same subjects and then trying to cover his ass by creating some So So Def Female Cypher thingy. Clearly pandering.

And that’s just a couple outrageous headlines from this month. But there’s a common thread that ties together these issues, from unequal pay to unequal resources. It’s a matter of unequal respect… even here in the Bay Area.

The Women's All-Ball squad!
The Women's All B-Ball squad. Photo by Kim Woozy. (Rita Forte)

Rita and I met up recently at Strawberry Creek Park in West Berkeley, shot some hoops and talked.

The ball was slightly overinflated, the rim was bouncy, and I made more excuses than buckets as I tried to clear my jump shot of cobwebs. Meanwhile, Rita worked on her footwork in the key and knocked down some mid-range jumpers while explaining the women’s hoops landscape, and how it ties into a larger story of women in America.

“There’s not enough opportunities for women to come on the basketball court and expect there to be other women out there playing,” Rita said as she dribbled and shot.

I grabbed the ball as it went through the net and tossed Rita her change, as she continued. “When you walk by the park, and you don’t see [groups of women], that means we have to organize. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to play—because I was there. I wanted to play after high school and college, and there were others like me. But we had to organize.”

Rita, an Oakland native, says she came up playing ball, but a horrible knee injury in high school derailed her pro hoop dreams. Even still, she attended Williams College on a track scholarship, and along the way fell in love with DJing—that’s how I met her, on the ones and twos during the hyphy movement.

It was around that same time, back in 2003, when she was looking for pickup games but couldn’t find any. The seed was planted, and some years later, she teamed up with Amanda Lesky and started Women's All B-Ball. Over the past five years, they’ve run the league mostly out of pocket, with additional support from players and local businesses, including donated balls from Decathlon in Emeryville.

Their efforts have sometimes been scrappy, playing in gyms with unfavorable conditions or on courts where someone involved in the game is also an employee at the facility, allowing them access.

“From about 2015-2016, we played at Berkeley Youth Alternatives. And one of the players used to work there,” Rita said. “The ceilings are low and it’s shorter than the regular court.”

But that’s where they had their best turnout. At one point, Rita says, they had about 40 women show up for the three-hour hoop sessions, despite playing in a lackluster gym.

Now, Rita and her cohorts have turned to crowdfunding, via Ifundwomen.com. The campaign has run about a month, but they’ve currently met just over 12% of their $15,000 fundraising goal with about a week left in the campaign.

“You can’t do a tournament for free,” explained Rita, as I practiced my crossover and pulled up for a shot. “You have to pay for food, referees, jerseys—we give trophies and cash prizes too,” Rita said, grabbing a rebound off my missed shot. She told me these hoopers are in their 20s and 30s, "but we want to do something for them.”

And it’s not just about the money, it’s about the resources, like access to gyms. Last week, Rita and I tried to meet at a YMCA in San Francisco during a scheduled women’s game, but it was canceled hours before tipoff. Rita also invited me to an Oakland Rise game, a local women’s semi-pro team. But it would’ve been hard for me to get to their home court, which is way out in Concord.

There are a few other pick-up leagues around the Bay Area, like Pick Her Up Ball at Head-Royce—but even their founder got some inspiration from Women's All B-Ball. I wouldn't have even known about the Head-Royce gym if it weren't for my experience playing hoops for a rival college prep school here in the Bay Area. It turns out that Rita also went to a college prep school through the same program I did, A Better Chance, which takes kids out of the hood and puts them in private school settings.

Rita attended an all-girls boarding school in Southern California, and because there was a neighboring all-boys school, teenaged Rita got to compare and contrast the different institutions. She saw that with equal resources, there’s equal performance from all parties.

Damn, imagine a world in which everyone had equal access to resources... I... I actually can’t even imagine it.

A few participants of the Women's All B-Ball League
A few participants of the Women's All B-Ball League. Photo by Kim Woozy (Rita Forte)

But that’s where Rita’s head is. She long ago threw her hoop shoes over the proverbial power line, and retired her dreams of balling in the big leagues, and now she gets her competitive edge off by organizing to fill voids in society.

“Ya’ll have the gyms, we have the formula, we can create a system,” Rita says, talking about the success her league has had in the past.

She took a few dribbles and continued, “People hit us up all the time: when are you going to do this in Vallejo? When are you going to do this in San Rafael?”

She sees the need, and isn't bashful about taking her idea of institutionalizing support for women's basketball on all levels.

“Just imagine, I mean, just remember I said it here first: who said Oakland can’t have the WNBA? The Oakland fans would love it. It could bring back all of the Oakland fans who haven’t seen a basketball game in years because of being priced out.”

Yeah, that would be tight. I can imagine Oakland showing up to watch hoops again at the arena, to hear Kehlani sing the National Anthem and enjoy Kamaiyah performing at the halftime show. I can see Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Oakland's Mayor Libby Schaaf sitting courtside like Spike Lee and Jay-Z do at NBA games.

But I can also see that the WNBA has been overshadowed this summer by news of NBA free agents signing contracts, summer league highlights and Ice Cube's Big3 league. Pro women hoopers don't even get the respect they deserve.

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So I see why Rita's efforts to get support haven't won... yet.

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