Games Are Chance to Rebound

Times Staff Writer

With six kids at home and a couple of part-time jobs, Marlene Sandoval often feels as if she doesn't have a second to spare.

But on Wednesday nights, she puts the chores and her kids' homework on hold and heads to the gym in Cypress Park, joining other women from across the city as they lunge for rebounds, shoot off-balance threes and jostle for fouls inside the paint.

She started playing last year as a point guard on the Mystics, one of the 12 teams in the league, and is now addicted to the action and camaraderie. Sandoval, 32, was able to keep playing until she was eight months pregnant after getting her doctor to give her a special stomach brace, "a girdle," she called it.

"I had to do it. We had nobody that could run the ball," she explained. "I do it to keep sane. It's tough raising six kids."

More than 100 women -- housewives, professionals, mothers -- play in Cypress Park's women's basketball league. The gym near the railroad tracks in the working-class neighborhood north of downtown has become an unlikely epicenter for a vibrant women's basketball league.

The league started seven years ago and this month began a new season offering two tiers, one for beginners, the other for more advanced players.

"It's just kind of like moms, women, ladies who come down and hear of the league from other ladies, they come down, see the games, see what they like, and start joining," said Jose Macial, the league's director

Women's leagues are popping up across Los Angeles. Currently, there are plans in the works for a citywide league, said city parks department basketball coordinator Brian Cox. But the one in Cypress Park was among the first and consistently draws big crowds. Women come to play from as far away as Pasadena, West Covina, South Los Angeles and even Santa Monica.

Some of them played in high school and college and thought their playing days were over after marrying and having children. Sandoval, for example, played volleyball and basketball in high school, and a little at a community college before she started her family.

"Before I got back into sports, I knew there was something missing," she said.

Women's basketball has grown more popular in recent years, thanks in part to the success of the WNBA professional league, but also because recreational leagues are sprouting up all over the country.

"This goes beyond aerobics and Pilates and all that stuff," said Kevin Grace, a sports researcher at the University of Cincinnati. "These are not women out there for a lark. They're out there to play."

Catch any night of ball at Cypress Park, a triangle-shaped plot of land across from the Los Angeles River, and you'd hardly need any more convincing.

Point guards stare menacingly into the eyes of an oncoming defender. The women lunge desperately for rebounds. They mouth off to the referees when they disagree with a call. Occasionally, nails or eyeglasses get in the way. The larger, heavier women knock down one of the smaller, younger players. Someone hides the ball between her legs in a moment of panic.

Sometimes, fights break out, at least three in the last season.

"It's a game. But when you're in there, it gets serious," said Elena Jimenez, a 42-year-old grandmother who intently watched the action from the stands on a recent night.

Jimenez is part of the old school, one of the league's first players, now "retired." While her granddaughter plays around at her ankles, Jimenez watches for technical mistakes during play. She's here every week, watching.

"Thank goodness I never got injured," she offers without taking her eyes off the ball for a second, "because there'd be no way to get me up."

Susana Solis heard about the league last year through a friend and "just wanted to try it." Solis, a homemaker, had never picked up a basketball before coming to the women's league.

Now she takes her daughter, 7, to watch the Sparks, Los Angeles' WNBA team, at Staples Center. While she played at the gym on a recent evening, her husband, Javier, watched from up against the gym's white brick wall.

He said his wife, 33, organizes her home-keeping chores around big professional games on TV. And on her playing nights, she comes to the gym early and stays later to cheer on her friends in other games.

"Instead of sitting at home watching telenovelas," Javier Solis said, referring to the melodramatic Mexican soap operas, "they're out here playing ball."

"Fouling left and right," he adds with a laugh, "but they're out here, and you gotta give them credit for that."

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