By Lisa Cameron
"The ABL, women's professional basketball in the United States. Wow!"
That was my reaction when I first heard of the league. My next thought was "I wish I could be a part of it."
I really had no idea whether I had what it takes to compete with players on a professional level. You see, I went to college for academics, and I purposely chose to attend a smaller school which emphasized academics over sports. I always planned on playing college basketball, but since I didn't choose a school based on basketball, I was never sure how I compared to players in other leagues.
After completing my undergraduate studies and taking a year off to do biological laboratory research, I went on to graduate school. At the end of my college playing days, I felt a void in my life, one that could never really be fulfilled again, at least not in the same way. The camaraderie of a team, playing the sport that you love, is like nothing else.
Until recently the option to play competitive basketball after college did not exist in the U.S. Now that a post-college option was available, I yearned to be a part of it. Pick-up games and shoot-a-rounds after college were just not the same for me.
I'm lucky because I attend graduate school at Stanford, and while continuing my studies, I can watch games of one of the most prominent women's basketball teams in the country in an area where women's basketball is popular. In fact, I suspect that if I had not been in school at Stanford, I would not have heard about the start of the ABL.
Once I learned of the ABL, I wanted to find out what players would be eligible, and what their skill level would be (those other than top, signed players). I found the phone number for the ABL office, then in Palo Alto (where Stanford is located), and called to get some information.
I had hoped to get an idea of whether I have the skill and background to even be considered as a possible player in the league. Instead, I got Christy Hedgpeth's voice on the answering machine which said to leave a message about why I had called and my address. A week later, I got a player application in the mail.
At first I was psyched. Then I wasn't sure whether I should even consider it, since the league was going to be made of Olympic caliber players. For at least three weeks I debated what I should do and asked people I knew and those who had seen me play whether they thought I should send in the application. In the end, I figured I'd never know if I didn't try, so I sent it in.
A month later, someone from the ABL called me at work and told me I was invited to tryout and that I was expected at tryouts in Atlanta at Emory University at 3 p.m. Tuesday, May 28.
Wow! I had made it in the door!
I considered the invitation an honor in itself. The chance to go and play with great players was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I have no idea how people were evaluated and offered invitations, or even whether there was any kind of elimination based on the written applications.
I had very little knowledge about the format of the whole process going in, and I think most people (at least in my group) were in the same situation.
Regardless, I was off to Atlanta. I arrived the day before the start of the tryouts in Atlanta and stayed with a friend. Registration and the first tryout sessions were afternoon of the next day.
Approximately 250 players were in the first group. The ABL told us nothing about how tryouts were arranged or the number of people in each group so most of the information on numbers and personnel I figured out while I was there.
Although it felt strange not knowing exactly what was going on, I think the ABL may have purposely arranged it this way to give each player a fairly equal shot (in theory) as possible. No labels were openly put on players -- as in these women are better than those -- however, we all soon figured that out.
My group was divided into three tryout sections alphabetically, and based on my own rough estimate, there were 65-75 women in each of those sections, which totaled about 200-225 players in the A group -- meaning the group which tried out during the first two days of the tryout period. After the first two days, group B arrived with, I assume also approximately 250 players. And at the weeks' end, group C came into town and was combined with those players from A and B who made the cuts.
In addition, players such as Christy Hedgpeth, Jennifer Rizzotti and Michelle Marciniak, who had already signed contracts with the league (which owns all the teams) were on hand to scrimmage with remaining tryout players.
So, as far as I could tell, there were four groups of players in the tryout process: signed players who were guaranteed to play (they just didn't know where); the C players made up of recent graduates and some other good players (Sonja Henning of Stanford, for example); the B group (players who had overseas experience); and the A group (players who played in and graduated from college and had not played overseas.
But I just went into the experience looking for an opportunity to be a part of something great, at least at the beginning, and not necessarily to get a contract. Still, I gave it my all and hoped to make the second round.
I had spent much of the previous two months getting in shape, but I didn't know if would even be able to stay on the court with these players. I had never really found out how good I was, so needless to say, I was nervous going in.
I was a bit surprised as players gathered in the gym moments before our tryout time. There were many people the same height or shorter than me (5-9). When I talked to my former college coach days before the tryouts, she suggested I play a 2 (shooting guard) because I was probably not tall enough for a 3, and certainly not a 4 -- two postions I did play at times at Amherst.
The fact that I was not completely outsized alone calmed me in the early stages of the tryout that first day. Then as soon as we started warming up and doing drills, my nervousness went away and I was fairly relaxed and loose.
And to my pleasant surprise, I could definitely hold my own against a lot of the players.
I really enjoyed getting a chance to play with so many good players but I realized while I was there that it was more than that. Gathering that many good women basketball players in on place was rare, and certainly something I never experienced before and probably will not experience again. I felt very special being in on the ground level of a new opportunity for women in sports.
The best thing about it was the atmosphere. I thought going in that everyone would be vying for a spot and be very competitive -- but everyone was very supportive. Everyone cheered for and encouraged one another during drills and scrimmages. It was like we were all part of a team.
It was unfortunate that I didn't really get to know people well enough to keep in touch with players that I met there. I guess many people knew each other as teammates or opponents, but I really only learned the first names of my teammates that I scrimmaged with.
The tryouts themselves worked like this: Each session was an hour and a half and players in each group (A,B, and C) had three 90-minute sessions to exhibit their skills. Emory University has beautiful facilities which included a basketball gym with four full-size basketball courts side by side in one room -- an excellent place to have these tryouts.
Approximately 65 to 75 players were on the courts at one time, divided into groups of eight to 10 on each halfcourt.
First we had a group stretching period, which after the first meeting was led by various tryout players. Then we took a quick jog around the gym and divided up into equal groups for drills.
Common basketball drills were used for general warm-up, such as the full court weave with layups at each end, two- or three-person passing drills with layups at each end, dribbling drills (with and without cones) with layups at each end, and later defensive slide and one-on-one dribbling drills.
The second half hour usually consisted of position-specific shooting drills with the 1,2 and 3 positions together and 4 and 5 doing something else.
In addition to shooting drills, we played one-on-one, two-on-two, and three-on-three in progressive order -- non-stop.
It was during this portion that I got the most tired. The last 20 minutes or so was devoted to scrimmages. We usually played two 10-minute games as a team of eight or nine players, so each person got just over five minutes playing time each game.
I was surprised at the relatively short amount of time we spent scrimmaging, since I thought this would have been the most important way to display one's talent. But I guess the organizers had other ideas.
We were evaluated by the coaches and general managers from each team (and in some cases the assistant coaches) when they were available -- for instance, the San Jose team has a general manager, but still does not have a coach. In addition, there were various other coaches there to run the drills and coach the scrimmage teams.
Renee Brown from the women's US National Team did an excellent job running the whole tryout session.
I tried out with the same group of people two out of three times, and the third session we were mixed up to give us a chance to play with and against different people.
At the end of the two days, the organizers, coaches and general managers met and chose players to move on to the next round. At 10 p.m. Wednesday night (May 29), one of the founders, Steve Hams, came out and read the list of names of the players who would go on to the next round. He read off the name and number of each player, and after 12 names, stopped.
We all couldn't believe it. That's it? Wow!
Personally, I was not surprised that my name and number were not read, especially since there were only 12. Even some excellent players who I guarded or saw play were not chosen to move on.
When the 12 names were announced, I did not recognize any, which was not that surprising I guess since I only knew the names of the few people on my scrimmmage team.
I enjoyed the experience and felt privileged to be a part of it. However, after the list of names to move on only included 12, many people were disappointed and somewhat upset with the ABL. Many people had given up a lot of time and money to make the trip to Atlanta, and they felt the situation was not well enough explained to them. I often heard people say that if they knew only 12 people would make the next round, they may not have spent the money to come.
In many cases I understood their disappointment. But I still hold my opinion that the tryouts (or at least the first two days) were an excellent experience which brought together some great women's basketball players for a new opportunity -- professional women's basketball in the United States.