In girls basketball league, it’s all about the team


By judith stiles

It was not a coincidence when opponents, both with shirt number 15, finished a double-overtime basketball game, scoring almost all the points for their respective teams. And it wasn’t surprising that neither girl received an M.V.P. award or special accolades for their great play, after the game at the Greenwich Village Youth Council’s Girls Basketball League at P.S. 41.

At times, numbers 15 — Rachel Selmore of Team Justis Mortgage and Alessa Ramos of Team Cowgirl — seemed to have their own game dialogue going, when Selmore would dribble down the court and deftly pop one in the basket, only to be answered by Ramos driving down the court for a clean layup. Crowds tend to notice the high scorers in a game, but the atmosphere is remarkably different in this league where the main mission is to learn how to play basketball and have fun. Players are rarely singled out for praise, while trophies are given to every player, as opposed to M.V.P. awards to just a few standouts. It seems every youth sports league has its superstars, but not here because there is no premium on being the “best player.” Novices play side by side with more experienced girls and they feel free to experiment with shooting, even if it means the ball doesn’t get anywhere near the net.

In fact, in the Justis-versus-Cowgirl game more than seven shots sailed behind the backboard with nobody in the stands even wincing.

For 13 years, volunteer coaches, mostly women who played college basketball, have set a tone of inclusiveness, where berating the players from the sidelines is an absolute no-no. In other sports, such as soccer, many of these same girls take it for granted that a coach will repeatedly yell at them for “mistakes,” causing them to go numb and tune out, or making them afraid to experiment on the field. Scolding players loudly from the bench is the trend in youth coaching these days. In contrast, the G.V.Y.C. league has created a refreshing comfort zone where individual growth and teamwork are nurtured. Positive reinforcement and specific suggestions from the coach on how to improve the play create a fundamentally different atmosphere from what is cheekily described as the “high testosterone” style of coaching.

Veteran coach Shannon Carr has teamed up with Michelle Malakoff and Sara Douglas to teach the Justis team the basics of basketball.

“We are very fortunate to have all of our coaches, especially Shannon, who is very patient and understanding, and she has a great knowledge of the game,” said Harry Malakoff, the commissioner and founder of the G.V.Y.C. Girls League. Among her many qualifications, Coach Carr recently led the St. Ann’s School varsity girls’ volleyball team to win the state championship.

Thirteen years ago, Malakoff began this all-girls league out of necessity; his daughter Michelle had been playing basketball on a coed team, and the boys typically passed to each other, leaving the girls out of the action. This all-girls league, now home to two divisions with more than 80 players from ages 9 to 15, is one of the few noncompetitive places to play organized basketball in the city. Malakoff flashed a big smile from ear to ear when he proudly described how his daughter started in this league years ago, and is now back in New York City co-coaching a team. Her enthusiasm hasn’t waned over the years, evident in her earnest talk to the Justis girls before the big game.

“Remember, we have a great defensive team! You are so good at keeping the other team from shooting,” she said, with clipboard in hand, ready to go. When the game got underway, all the coaches, including Arthur Stern of Team Cowgirl, occasionally made comments from the sidelines about marking an opponent on defense or jumping more for rebounds. At 4 foot 10 inches and with shorts that hung way below her knees, feisty Noa Azulai of Justis had no fear of the giants on the other team. She was told by coach Carr that “short girls are good at moving to the open space, and you have the advantage because you are faster.” Azuali took it to heart, zipping around the court as the team’s playmaker. Polly Carr was the queen of rebounds as she leapt up and snatched almost every one, cradling the ball to her chest before she made her next move. Riyo Perry and Grace Bergere also scored for Cowgirl and with 30 seconds left on the clock, Ramos tied the game once again, as the crowd erupted with cheers. This sent the game into overtime, followed by a second overtime, which concluded with a final score of 26-20 in favor of Cowgirl.

Carr praised the Justis girls in a postgame huddle and reveled in the excitement of the game. She then quickly moved on to what they would be practicing the following week. Not a tear was shed over the loss, as a few Cowgirls chatted with some Justisers about plans for the rest of the weekend and the latest styles in hoops shoes. Everyone trotted off the court in their snazzy sneakers, while ironically the player who scored the most points, Selmore, had been wearing old-fashioned black high-top Keds. One of the parents who was puzzling over Selmore’s amazing command of the game blurted out, “Sure this is a great league, but I bet it was the sneakers!”

You can check out Team Justis when they play during half time at the Columbia University women’s basketball team’s game against Dartmouth on Sat., Feb 3., at Levien Gym at Broadway and 119th St. The Columbia game starts at 7 p.m. For more information, e-mail das2145@columbia.edu.