Oakland vies for WNBA team

The region is brimming with elite women’s basketball. Cal reached the Final Four in 2013 and Stanford won its third national championship in 2021.

The Warriors moved from Oakland to San Francisco in 2019, the Raiders left Oakland for Las Vegas in 2020 and the A’s are now toying with the same idea. Why does the African American Sports and Entertainment Group think Oakland can be the new home of a Women’s National Basketball Association franchise?

Logistically, the AASEG envisions using the Oakland Arena vacated by the Warriors. The heart of their proposal, however, is that the Bay Area has more WNBA fans than eight of the league’s 12 current markets. 

Proponents of league expansion say that adding to the 144 roster spots will decrease the number of talented players without a spot on a team, and expanding beyond 12 cities will broaden the league’s exposure. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said that expansion is “part of a transitional plan” but will need to wait for the economic model to develop.

Whenever the WNBA expands, Oakland will be at the top of the list of potential locations. The region is brimming with elite women’s basketball. Cal reached the Final Four in 2013 and Stanford won its third national championship in 2021.

“It’s a goldmine ready to hit,” said Malik McCord, the girls basketball coach at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. “If somebody would invest in that, they would sell out… It wouldn’t just be the people from Oakland which would be here to support, but people will be coming from everywhere to support.”

Nevertheless, since the Sacramento Monarchs folded in 2009, there has not been a WNBA team in Northern California. That same year, McCord began coaching at O’Dowd and found that the school had two gyms, the “Boys Gym” and the “Girls Gym.” If someone was talking about O’Dowd basketball, they were referring to the boys team that had won nine Northern California championships. The girls basketball team had never reached the title game, and McCord felt determined to change the culture.

On a smaller, 1,250-student sized scale, Bishop O’Dowd is a model for committing to women’s basketball in Oakland. The Catholic high school owned and operated by the Diocese of Oakland changed the names of the gyms to “Large Gym” and “Small Gym” at McCord’s request, and his team started winning.

The O’Dowd girls team is now a six-time North Coast Section (NCS) champion and three-time state champion. Their season ended in the NCS playoff at 15-7. They finished third in the West Alameda County – Foothill league with a 5-3 record. 

The girls no longer practice in the Small Gym, either. Two days before the first round playoff win over Cardinal Newman, McCord stood off to the side of the Large Gym wearing an all-black training outfit with his three other coaches. His pink basketball shoes gave an extra inch to his 6-foot-3 frame. An hour and a half into practice, McCord drilled the players on inbound plays that could decide a playoff game.

A wide picture shot of a basketball court.
The Bishop O’Dowd High School girls basketball team practices in the Large Gym the day before a playoff game.

The 12 girls on the roster represent the diversity of Oakland, but they all wear the same black or gray basketball shoes that squeak when they run from one baseline to the other and back in under nine seconds after a poor showing in a drill. They can run a play to perfection upon hearing the numbers “45” or “23.” 

Emma Mathai, a senior and captain, commutes to O’Dowd from Castro Valley. She grew up playing soccer and softball, but she found herself arriving early to basketball practice and took it as a sign of her passion. Her hero is Chris Paul because of his pace of play and the way he gets his teammates involved.

Savannah Jones, a sophomore, started playing basketball because of her brother, Ty. She played football for the same reason and during the fall started at running back for the junior varsity team. Her mom, Dorothy Serdar, would watch her play in the JV game and then stay to catch Ty playing middle linebacker in the varsity game. Jones likes Kyrie Irving because of his aggression, moves and finishing at the basket. 

Jasmine Taylor looks up to her granny because she was a very loving soul. The girls did not mention any female basketball heroes, but they lit up at the mention of program alumni, like Oderah Chidom or Asha Thomas.

Chidom, a 2013 graduate from O’Dowd, played four years at Duke. The Atlanta Dream drafted her with the 31st pick in the 2017 WNBA draft, but she never played a regular season game. Instead, Chidom found opportunities to play professionally overseas. She played in Belarus and on the Nigerian Olympic team that competed last summer in Tokyo. Now, she is playing in France with Union Feminine Angers Basket 49.

A poster of girls basketball players in a gymnasium.
The six seniors on the Bishop O’Dowd High School girls basketball team are publicized on a poster outside of the gymnasium.

Thomas approached McCord as a freshman in 2011 and asked, “What can I do for the team?” At the end of her four years, she was an honorable mention All-American and a Top 100 recruit with a scholarship to play at Cal. There, the 5-foot-4 guard set a record for career 3-pointers and is fourth on the all-time assists list. She now plays professionally in Germany for Eigner Angels Noerdlingen, but still finds time to help the team, talking often with Taylor.

A senior captain, Taylor sees basketball as an escape. Before she began to play seriously in sixth grade, she was fighting a lot and getting suspended. She needed an outlet. “I tried boxing, but I didn’t like getting hit in the face,” Taylor said.

A WNBA team based in Oakland, Taylor said, would be another outlet. It would be a goal for her and other young female athletes to aspire to that is concrete and attainable. As she confronts the unknowns of a high school graduation and leaving her community, a WNBA team in her hometown would be grounding.

“I want to get away but also want something to come back to — as a senior, that’s my mentality,” Taylor said. “I don’t really have anything to come back to right now. So I feel like that would be it.”

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