EAST GARFIELD PARK — It took a “leap of faith” for Ana Sierra to make her women’s basketball league her full-time job.
The West Side resident was laid off from her corporate position downtown in 2019, staring at her computer and going through the motions of polishing up her resume. But Sierra always liked the gym more than her desk. She wanted to be an entrepreneur and hoped to find a way to empower women and girls that looked like her.
And what Sierra — a former college player at West Virginia State University — knows best is hoops.
“I was looking for open runs. Ladies that played ball. I didn’t really see that,” said Sierra, a New York native who moved to Chicago in 2010. “I still wanted to hoop.”
So, Sierra made her own league — and made it her full-time gig after getting laid off. The Ana Sierra Women’s Basketball League kicked off its seventh year Tuesday at the JLM Center in East Garfield Park, 2622 W. Jackson Blvd.
The semi-pro league features women’s players in their 20s and 30s, many of them former standout college hoopers and overseas professionals. Games take place on Tuesday and Thursday nights at JLM through the end of October.
Sierra serves as a player, team captain, organizer, promoter, accountant, league commissioner and personal friend of the 60 women playing across six teams.
Sierra thinks grassroots women’s basketball can be successful business on the West Side and beyond. The league’s games have become gathering spaces for the community, and on Opening Night last week, more than 200 people filled the bleachers.
“I want to open doors for younger ladies that can be inspired by us older generation playing basketball,” Sierra said. “Doors have been open. But there’s still a lot of work to do, because I still believe we’re not truly recognized the way we deserve to be. Not only as athletes, but also as women.”
Sierra rocked her red Nike 95 Air Max sneakers and greeted everyone with a hug. One young girl handed her a crayon drawing with the league’s slogan: “Girls Hoop, Too.”
Friends, family, and community members have pitched in to help Sierra keep the league going — which has outlasted many others that fizzled out after a year or two.
Several hours before tip-off Tuesday, Sierra hustled around the gym and dished out tasks. Joe Hemphill and Charee Tousant worked together on a banner, Monte Springs manned the shot clock, “Juice” plugged in speaker cables and Krystal Hill kept taping and retaping a poster that couldn’t quite stick on the wall.
“I’m just really happy that the people in my support system that have been with me then, are still with me now,” Sierra said. “We work collectively to keep it going.”
League player Britney Landers assembled a ball rack with the help of her 2-year-old daughter, Brielle. Landers said it takes the determination of someone like Sierra to create opportunities for women to play basketball on the West Side.
“Ana, when she focuses on her league, that’s her pride and joy. She’s complete hustle,” Landers said. “With everything going on, there’s not as much women’s basketball that’s being shown in Chicago. For Ana, for her league to be a jumping off and on point as much as she makes it, it’s very eye-opening for everybody to see it.”
Sierra also credits mutual support from other Black entrepreneurs for keeping the league afloat, even through a hiatus caused by the pandemic. The league is sponsored by Urban Fêtes, a lifestyle brand that puts on silent discos around the city. In timeouts between game action Tuesday, Sierra handed the mic to local entrepreneurs so they could talk about their businesses.
Terrance Robertson of T-Kay’s Katering served up jerk chicken and dirty rice. Sierra’s godmother, Monica Jenkins, sold $5 tickets at the front desk; in exchange, Sierra provided table space to sell her Mary Kay beauty and skincare products. Calvin King, founder of non-profit Free Lunch Academy, read to kids from his children’s book, “Be A Buddy Not A Bully,” at his table on the sideline of the court.
Terranika Reynolds, player and team captain of Family Ties Basketball, made this year’s jerseys through her company, Be Great Printing. Like Sierra, many league players are entrepreneurs.
“When you have a bunch of women in the same space that love doing what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis and don’t hate on anybody, it’s amazing,” Reynolds said. “It’s just women being themselves. They come in here, throw some sweats on, T-shirts, shirts, and be free. Get buckets; that’s it.”
Reynolds, who had an accomplished career at Marshall High School and then Malcolm X College, traded buckets with The Truth’s Labrenthia Murdock-Pearson, a former Division II player at Lewis University.
Family Ties Basketball has fielded a team in the league since its inception, and the players used their experience to out-hustle newcomer team The Truth for an opening day victory.
Murdock-Pearson was just happy to be playing basketball. The sales professional said the transition out of life as a competitive player was difficult, but Sierra’s league provides a rare opportunity to show she still has a scorer’s touch and a smooth jump shot.
“This gives me that spark and that fire I don’t get at work,” Murdock-Pearson said. “It’s nice to have leagues like this that Ana put together for the women, because there’s not a lot of things for older women in sports to do. It’s nice to have these to still scratch that itch we have. That competitive itch.”
Sierra hopes the league can be profitable this year. She’s expanded her operations and launched sneaker drives, mentorship programs and basketball clinics for girl hoopers. She’s seen support and interest in women’s basketball grow across the city.
“I do feel that we are the future. And we deserve it, honestly,” Sierra said. “I’ll continue to be an activist for girls and women’s basketball.”
Sierra concluded Tuesday night with a win, sinking a few key lay-ups in the nightcap game with her own team, ASWBL Gold.
The determined entrepreneur has another goal on her list: win her own basketball league for the first time.
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