Silk Haynes, front left, and Seavahnia Kuka, front right break a huddle during tryouts for the Women's Basketball Premier Association on May 7 at Fremont High School. Credit: Vincent Dimasaca

Hunched over, RaeVaughn Barnes grasps her basketball shorts, catching a breath.

“It’s been eight years,” Barnes gasps, thinking back to when, as a community college student struggling with academics and mental health, she walked out on her team midseason. Barnes later learned that several Division I schools were offering her a scholarship. She hasn’t played organized basketball since.

“I think about how I walked out every day,” said Barnes, who moved to Oakland in 2018. Those regrets brought her to Fremont High School in East Oakland on May 7, as one of 20 players trying out for the Women’s Premier Basketball Association, or WPBA. After full-court sprints and side-to-side shuffles, followed by one-on-one and three-on-three drills, Barnes is battling fatigue before a series of full-court, five-on-five scrimmages end the nearly five-hour camp.

The WPBA, rebranded this season after a consolidation of the national Women’s Universal Basketball Association, is co-founded by Faatimah A, a graduate of Alameda’s Encinal High School who has played professionally in eight countries, and Oakland business partner Iris Triska, the director of league operations. The six-team circuit plays Saturdays from June 4 through July 30 at Fremont High. Using $200 player registration fees and several sponsors, the league provides players with professional officiating, highlight tapes, and season statistics—all essential for those looking to sign with professional international teams.

“I’m trying to go as far as I can,” said East Oakland native Doris Jones, who completed her first season playing overseas in Cyprus, an island nation on the Mediterranean Sea. Jones, who starred at KIPP King High School in San Lorenzo before finishing her college career at UC Santa Barbara, hopes a solid WPBA season will propel her to more lucrative international opportunities. “Leagues like this make it easier to stay around basketball after college.”

Point guard Jasmin Guinn, the all-time leading scorer at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, shows former Skyline High School guard Silk Haynes some crossover techniques between scrimmages. Guinn, a Berkeley High School graduate and animator for a San Francisco advertising agency, has no plans to play internationally but enjoys leading fastbreaks with other highly skilled and competitive women.

Nana Jackson earned her master’s degree just weeks earlier from Grand Canyon University and returned to the East Bay for a business consulting job. Jackson, a guard, hopes this WPBA season will help her bounce back from an ankle injury and lead to international offers.

“We need each other; women need to start a foundation and build upon that,” the former Piedmont High School star said, looking onto a court bustling with former college players and a collaboration of coaches and trainers, many volunteering. “This is a step to get exposure to let people play. Hopefully, people can see what we’re trying to do and where we’re trying to go.”

If one person in this Oakland public school gym knows the rigors of playing women’s hoops, it’s guest speaker Alexis Gray-Lawson, the only Oakland native to have played in a regular-season WNBA game. “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” Gray-Lawson implores the players, who are being scored on their ability level in order to create balanced teams.

Gray-Lawson, now athletic director at her alma mater Oakland Tech High School, admits to the players that she wasn’t ready for her first WNBA contract. “I bought a Maserati,” she recalls. “I couldn’t drive it because I can’t drive a stick. I just kept it in the driveway.” She implores them to save their money.

After winning two state championships at Oakland Tech and leading Cal to NCAA Tournament appearances, the West Oakland native was drafted in the third round by the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. She rode the bench as a rookie before signing with a team in Samsun, Turkey, that paid twice her WNBA salary.

Oakland native Alexis Gray-Lawson speaks to players about her experience playing overseas and in the WNBA. Credit: Vincent Dimasaca

“Samsun was the worst place I’ve ever been,” Gray-Lawson jokes. “I loved Taco Bell and McDonald’s, especially at that time, and all they had was lamb.” 

It was a 20-point performance against basketball icon Diana Taurasi in the Turkish league that helped Gray-Lawson earn a spot on the Phoenix Mercury roster. She averaged 4.1 points and 13.6 minutes over the 2011 and 2012 seasons for the WNBA team.

A decade after Gray-Lawson’s final WNBA game, America’s premier women’s basketball league still has 12 teams, less than half of what major American men’s leagues boast. With 12 players per team, the WNBA has 144 roster spots, compared to 450 in the NBA. A collective bargaining agreement reached in 2020 boosted WNBA player salaries—though they still dwarf those of top international league teams—but limited roster flexibility. That became evident when the final WNBA roster cuts were made in days leading up to the Oakland tryouts. Among players left off teams were fan-favorite Te’a Cooper, a defensive-minded guard let go by the Los Angeles Sparks; Layshia Clarendon, a Cal alumnae and WNBA All-Star who started 20 games last season for the Minnesota Lynx; and several recent first-round draft selections.

“Te’a Cooper? I’m like, how are you going to let her go?” questioned Haynes, who played at Cal State East Bay. “We have come a long way since (the WNBA’s founding) in 1997. I would have thought that they would have expanded the teams. In the NBA you have 30 teams, versus we’re still stuck with 12. We’re still working. We’re not done yet.”

Last summer, an ownership group led by retired basketball star Alana Beard announced its intention to bring a WNBA team to Oakland, with the Oakland Arena targeted as a possible home. Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan has for years advocated bringing a team to a city, especially given the recent loss of the Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors. Warriors owner Peter Lacob has also expressed a desire to bring a WNBA team to the Bay Area. Northern California hasn’t had a WNBA team since the Sacramento Monarchs folded in 2009. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert recently told The Seattle Times that the league is looking to add two teams in the next few years. The WNBA previously announced the 2021 season was its most-watched on TV in 13 years.

“A WNBA team would be awesome,” said Athenian School of Danville graduate Paige Thompson. “The Bay Area is so diverse; I think people would rally around it.”

Following the recent roster cuts, WNBA Players Association Vice President Chiney Ogwumike cited the need for a developmental league, such as what the NBA has in the G league. 

All-Star Breanna Stewart tweeted that the WNBA “is at a tipping point.” This comes at a time when Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, one of the game’s most recognizable players, is being detained in Russia after customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. Griner earns the majority of her income playing for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, and was returning to the country after an international break. Russia invaded Ukraine weeks after Griner’s detainment, raising questions as to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the American star for political leverage. The U.S. state department recently changed Griner’s status to “wrongfully detained,” and is actively seeking her return.

Faatimah, having played professionally in El Salvador (2017), France (2018), Australia (2019), Norway (2019), Greece (2020), Egypt (2021), and currently Mexico, helps her league’s players “know what red flags to look for” in international teams and “find the best place to start their career.” The Oakland resident said she helped 14 players land international deals during two years as the Western Conference director of WUBA, which played games in Oakland and San Jose. The goal this season is to get 15-to-20 participants signed to international contracts.

“I think there’s nothing but growth and possibilities for women’s basketball,” said Shelley Russi, a 20-year Division I college referee whose training business, Ref-ology, will provide officials for the WPBA games. “The world has spoken that women’s sports can provide as much entertainment as well as opportunity for generations to come.”

RaeVaughn Barnes catches her breath during the WPBA tryouts. Credit: Vincent Dimasaca

In the American college ranks, where Griner came to stardom at Baylor, women’s basketball programs and players are changing the sports landscape. Head coaches Dawn Staley at South Carolina and Tara VanDerveer at Stanford are as recognizable as most WNBA coaches. The 2022 national championship game between South Carolina and UConn received the highest TV ratings for a women’s basketball title game in 18 years. Female athletes are striking a chord with demographics often ignored by major American sports, thanks to new rules allowing college athletes to profit from endorsements without losing eligibility. Female athletes in all sports with large social media followings—often on the TikTok and Instagram platforms—are garnering sponsorship deals from companies who want to tap into their young female demographic.

“Now that we have the world looking a little more at women’s sports, I think they’re realizing what they’ve been missing for a long time,” said Russi, an Alameda native and 1988 Bishop O’Dowd High School of Oakland graduate. “The games are good, the competition is good and the energy level is really high, (setting the stage) for something really important to take hold.”

For Barnes, who said “the last eight years have been a real struggle,” that simply means getting back on the court. 

“I didn’t get the help that I really needed,” she recalls of her time at McLennan Community College in Texas. “I lost everything.” 

During tryouts at Fremont High School, the 5-foot-10 player demonstrates the size to bang with post players for rebounds and length to defend guards on the perimeter. But after nearly a decade from the game, fundamentals are admittedly rusty.

“I gotta stop fading away on my jumpshot,” Barnes said, glaring at the rim.

Two days after the tryouts, Faatimah and Triska finalize rosters. Barnes is assigned to play for the Alameda Mystics—her dream reborn. As soon as she catches her breath.

Nick Lozito is a Sportswriter and designer whose work has appeared in The Oaklandside, Berkeleyside, KQED, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He is a graduate of Oakland Technical High School and Sacramento State University.