Basketball was once an escape for Faatimah Amen-Ra A.
The different-speaking girl with a single-letter last name who immigrated to the U.S. from Toronto was bullied at her East Oakland elementary school. Her single mother sold handcrafted soaps on weekends at the Berkeley Flea Market, and Faatimah worked in a food truck. Her middle school years were spent in Oakland homeless shelters. She found peace on the city’s courts.
Now basketball is life for the West Oakland resident.
In the midst of a playing career spanning four continents, Faatimah, now 31, launched the Women’s Premier Basketball Association in 2022. The league—the first in California to be certified by the sport’s international governing body, FIBA—opens its second season Saturday with an expanded group of eight Bay Area teams.
“It’s really hard to find spaces to play the game we love,” said Faatimah, who will also play for the WPBA’s Alameda Wolves this season. “It keeps people invested in the game. It’s vital for Oakland.”
Saturday’s slate of four WPBA games will be played at Alameda Point Gymnasium on 1101 West Red Line Avenue, beginning at 12:30 p.m. The league plays Saturdays through July 29, with an All-Star Game tentatively scheduled at Fremont High School in Oakland on July 14.
Nola Curtis-Khidr (formerly Taylor), a 2005 Fremont High graduate and current member of the Oakland Swish, has enjoyed an international playing career with stops in Romania, Turkey, Malta, Montenegro, and Puerto Rico. Still, she said she would have loved to have played in the East Bay in past summers if there’d been the opportunity.
“There was nothing out here for us to do, for real,” Curtis-Khidr said, recalling her options after her playing career ended at Texas A&M University-Commerce. “If I was doing workouts, it was on my own. Faatimah is doing something nobody has the guts or the bandwidth to do.”
Faatimah’s mother, Maxine Thompson, emigrated from Canada with her four children in 1995, when Faatimah was 4. The family joined a mosque in Berkeley and Faatimah later played street basketball at Dimond Park in East Oakland and Lincoln Recreation Center downtown.
Thompson, a native of Jamaica, expected her kids to speak proper English. While Faatimah was teased and bullied because of it at school, her well-spokenness later allowed her to help support her family.
“Do you know how to take orders?” Faatimah recalls being asked by Muhammad, an Oakland food truck owner. Soon, Faatimah was being picked up at 7 a.m. for long weekend shifts of taking orders, cleaning the truck, and occasionally making french fries.
“They should make a movie about her,” said Jamala Sanford, who along with older brother Kenya Babers became a father figure to Faatimah as she entered high school. “She is the definition of determination. Everyone played checkers. She played chess.”
Sanford and Babers first saw Faatimah play basketball in 2006 on the Alameda summer circuit. The middle schooler modeled her game after another undersized point guard, Allen Iverson. When Babers became an assistant girls basketball coach at Encinal High in Alameda, he recruited Faatimah to join the team. The brothers made a promise to see Faatimah and her classmates graduate.
After Babers died of an enlarged heart, Sanford replaced his “best friend” on the Encinal coaching staff.
“I was never a part of anything,” Faatimah said of her childhood. “Then I met caring people who wanted me to succeed.”
She led Encinal High to the playoffs her senior season, with “Uncle” on the bench. “We didn’t rebound,” Sanford recalls of an elimination loss to Dougherty Valley High of San Ramon.
Following graduation, Faatimah played at City College of San Francisco where Sanford said coaching “politics” kept her on the bench. After a season at Santa Rosa Junior College, the point guard earned a scholarship at Texas A&M International University in Laredo. Faatimah regained her Canadian citizenship, in hopes of playing for the national team, and concluded her collegiate eligibility at York University and Ryerson College in Toronto.
“Nobody should have to fight the way that she did,” said Sanford, now an assistant girls coach at Lincoln High in San Francisco. “She had to push for every opportunity.”
Upon returning to the East Bay from college one summer, Faatimah met Shelley Russi, an NBA refereeing consultant overseeing a youth summer league. Faatimah picked up the referee trade while making a crucial professional contact. This summer, Russi, a 1988 Bishop O’Dowd graduate, will oversee WPBA officiating through Ref-ology, the referee training program she co-operates.
“She embodies inclusivity,” Russi said of Faatimah. “She wants everyone to feel their needs are met and hold them accountable for doing their part. And that’s a tough thing to do in society today. We have an amazing relationship, but if I’m refereeing one of her games and I do something she doesn’t agree with, she will tell me. Being able to have a healthy dialogue is what’s so cool, because we’re not going to sugarcoat anything to make it look good.”
At Ryerson, Faatimah reunited with her Toronto family and, on the court, began seeing her potential. She returned to Oakland each summer to work at the Golden State Warriors youth basketball camps. After her college eligibility concluded in 2017, she performed well at an overseas scouting combine and landed her first professional roster spot in a lower-level El Salvadorian league.
While her contract stipulated she would have her own room, Faatimah instead slept feet away from another American player in a tiny room without a properly locking door.
“It was dangerous,” Faatimah said, “so I moved to the capital. There were bugs. No hot water. I had no privacy for two months. Chicken and rice every night, unless I walked to Pizza Hut.”
On the court, Faatimah averaged 30 points. The stellar scoring made her a coveted American import for European teams generally capped to two or three such players, each. She landed in France, with a fourth-division team, in 2018, and has since played in Australia (2019), Norway (2019), Greece (2020), Egypt (2021), Canada (2021), Mexico (2022), Spain (2022) and earlier this year in Ireland. Last summer she represented Jamaica in the FIBA Caribbean Championships.
“My childhood prepared me for moving around,” Faatimah admits. In Oakland, Faatimah finds purpose in securing funding and support for a women’s basketball league many basketball fans hope serves as a bellwether for the city’s pursuit of a WNBA expansion team.
A collaboration of mostly volunteer coaches, trainers, referees, media, and players makes the WPBA possible. Sanford, along with coaching the Hayward Reign, tackles problems as the season approaches. Jasmin Guinn, Faatimah’s teammate on the Wolves, assists with graphics and promotional material. Former WNBA player Alexis Gray-Lawson is a coach and advocate.
“She has great attention to detail,” Sanford said. “She has always been the voice of reason. Everyone she talks to she learns from; then she plugs them in (to her network).”
Faatimah takes pride in getting players signed to international teams, as well. FIBA’s portal allows international leagues and fans to track WPBA statistics.
“This brings meaning to (Faatimah),” Russi said of the league. “There’s other things she could be doing. She has a diverse skill set. She understands the media. She can referee. She can play. All these traits make you a leader. Faatimah has the desire to make an impact.”
Correction: The original headline for this article stated that Faatimah Amen-Ra has played basketball on five continents. She’s played on four.