It’s Monday night at the Excelsior Boys and Girls Club gym, and the air is tinged with excitement.
At one end of the court, the 10 players of the SF Cyclonez are busy dribbling, passing and taking practice shots, all in anticipation of their game against the Irish Hoopsters, just moments away.
The players, decked in bright yellow jerseys, look like any other team in the PAL fall basketball league. But they are unique in one respect: They are an all-girls team, while their opponents are all boys.
The Cyclonez are the only all-girls team among the 37 PAL basketball teams.
(Altogether 34 girls out of 370 kids play PAL basketball, but the Cyclonez are the only all-girls team while the other 23 girls are on coed teams.)
Competing against boys doesn’t bother the Cyclonez a bit. They are energized by it, as evidenced by how hard they will play tonight.
Their coach is Sergeant Sergio Chin, an inspector in the Tenderloin Station. Chin has been with the San Francisco Police Department for 18 years.
Chin’s daughter is on the team, but he says, “They’re all my daughters.”
Chin has coached basketball for 31 years, and the Cyclonez for two years. Besides PAL, the girls play together year-round on an AAU team, also coached by Chin. (AAU, or Amateur Athletic Union, is one of the largest youth basketball programs in the country.) Chin also has coached his daughter’s school team at St. Anne’s, and currently coaches the 7th grade boys basketball team.
A referee blows the whistle, and all but a handful of players move off the court.
The ref blows the whistle again—jump ball—and the game begins. A Cyclone girl leaps up, grabs the ball and tears down the court, looking for a teammate to pass to. She lofts the ball over the heads of two boys, and her teammate easily catches it and races toward the hoop. The boys, disoriented for a moment, snap into defense formation under the basket. A player tries to shoot, a Hoopster blocks the shot, snatches the ball and races in the opposite direction.
The action is fast-paced and vigorous, with players on both teams who are skilled and good ball handlers. The girls range in height from 5’0 to 5’8, which means they are a pretty good match for the St. Cecilia boys.
Chin calls a timeout, bringing the girls into a huddle.
“That big guy on their team,” he murmurs. “You got him …” he says motioning to Carolynn. “You girls got to support her … He’s gonna score if you let him. You’ve got to box him out, don’t let him get in there …”
The girls put their fists into the center of the circle. “Defense!” they yell in unison.
“Let’s go!” Chin says.
PAL basketball is played in the fall, from September 26 through November 19. Chin likes this set-up because it gives his girls extra playing time before the school and competitive club leagues begin their winter season.
Playing against the boys also helps sharpen their skills. “It’s good for them,” he says. “I tell them on court, play hard.”
The Cyclonez range in age from 12 to 14; all are in 8th grade. They attend a mix of public and private schools, including Presidio Middle School, St. Phillips, St. Anne’s, and Aptos.
Chin says this group of girls has unusually good chemistry. “My philosophy is, create a fun atmosphere. We don’t have any cliques on this team. I empower the girls to solve problems on their own. I’ve been with a lot of teams over the years. I haven’t seen a team with camaraderie like this.”
He tells the girls, years from now they won’t remember the wins and losses. What they will remember is the fun they had.
The Cyclonez get the first two baskets, one nice short jumper from a few feet out followed by a high arcing shot just inside the 3-point range. They’re up 4-0. That lead won’t last, and in the third quarter, the team’s energy sags a bit. They finish out the night with a 43-19 loss. Even so, the final score fails to capture the girls’ skills on the court, their tenacity and energy, and the fact that they play in a very competitive bracket against very accomplished teams.
The Cyclonez chose to play against boys teams in PAL because “basically it makes us get better,” Chin says. “The intensity is the same, but the boys are faster and stronger.” To get the same level of competition in all-girl basketball leagues, Chins says the Cyclonez “play up,” competing against high school junior varsity teams.
Despite tonight’s loss, the girls are all smiles as they come off the court. Says Nina, “It was really fun!”
Do they like playing against the boys? Justine says, “Yes, because it’s a challenge.”
Adds Cameron, “You have to be more aggressive to play against the guys.”
Gisela sums up the girls’ feeling about the game: “We’re happy because we played as a team.”