“I used to wake up at 6 a.m. to play basketball before work,” Nedra Bryant, aka “Heat,” told me, as she took a break, catching her breath. “It was all men. Then I found Ladies Who Hoop. I never looked back.”
We were on the Upper West Side, in the Louis D. Brandeis High School gym at 145 West 84th Street, for an evening of three-on-three basketball games. Several generations of players warmed up, stretched, and gave each other a hug or handshake before some serious competition.
The games were a blur of passes, shots made, shots missed and a few falls. Through it all, Tonya Carter, aka “The Oracle,” gave a play-by-play, handing out names to the players like ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Blizz’ What is Iz’ and ‘Silent Movie’. “No good,” she called out as the ball missed its mark. After attempting three times to score, a player watched the ball finally slip through the hoop. “The fourth ‘hunh’ did it!” The Oracle called out, making us all laugh.
Ladies Who Hoop was founded by Amber Batchelor, known as “The Mayor” on the Upper West Side. Now in its fourth year, the organization has more than 867 members from all over the city. The benefits of the program reach far beyond the pleasures of the games themselves.
According to the Women’s Sport Foundation, girls and women who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression. They also have a more positive body image and experience higher states of psychological well-being than girls and women who do not play sports.
High school girls who play sports are less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy, are more likely to get better grades in school and are more likely to graduate than girls who do not play sports. Also, according to the National Cancer Institute, as little as four hours of exercise a week may reduce a teenage girl’s risk of breast cancer by up to 60 percent.
Ladies Who Hoop is all about fair play: fair in the level of skill distributed across the teams; fair in the amount of court time players and teams get; and, on this night, fair in the way the games are called by referee Chiene Jones. Jones, whose day job is director of children’s athletics at Harlem Children’s Zone, has just started her own group called “Grow Our Game”, a program that offers beginner skills and development for girls aged five to ten.
Another player, Kook Lim, is a doctoral student in clinical psychology. You can tell she loves the game, and she played well, but she’s also studying how (perceived) verbal aggression can impact female basketball players’ mental health, game performance and career choices.
The Ladies Who Hoop scoring system tracks personal scores as well as team scores. This helps make sure the teams are evenly matched — the better players don’t all end up on the same team. It also motivates performance — players would occasionally check to make sure their score had been entered.
While the play was definitely competitive, I also saw a player helping her competitor off the floor, and a lot of passing, a lot of team play. There was no hogging the ball. These women were mature enough to know how this all works.
Ladies Who Hoop now has sponsors like the New York Times, the Today Show, the New York Liberty professional basketball team, sportswear companies like Point 3 and Title IX, Advil, and the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development. Last April, well-known athletes like WNBA star and cover girl Kym Hampton and Ivy League all-star and current pro Armani Cotton, worked with Ladies Who Hoop to host the First Annual Free-Throw Contest at the opening of a new condo building on the UWS.
The popularity has enabled Batchelor to create two youth groups, one for kids under 12, the other for teens. Batchelor’s group has also worked with Goddard Riverside’s Beacon Program, which offers sports activities for youth on the UWS.
With the passing of Title IX, the impact of women’s sports has been felt in the board room. Ernst and Young did a study on women leadership and athletics. The research showed that 94 percent of women in the top tier of their companies played sports, and over half continued to play while going to college. This suggests a strong connection between success in business, and continuing sports.
If you’re missing the game, or want to start playing, look up Ladies Who Hoop on Facebook or Meetup. It’s a great place to reconnect with the ball, the sport, and team play.