Every Tuesday night, the South Gym of the Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center transforms into a dizzying spectacle. Choreographed dancers strip down to their sports bras. Celebrities pose for photos and autographs. Screaming fans wave handmade signs. It feels like a high school championship game, except that the players are about a decade out of high school, and all of them are women.
Most of them are actors, comedians and models, and they’re here to play parks and recreation league basketball. A year ago, none of this existed. There were no women’s games, no cheering and no sexy dancers.
The North Gym, meanwhile, where the men’s teams play, has only the sound of squeaky sneakers and bouncing basketballs. “It feels like a morgue over there,” says Maria Blasucci, team captain of the Pistol Shrimps, the most famous team not just in this league but probably in any municipal league in the country.
The bleachers are littered with scripts to study during halftime and stacks of Pistol Shrimps merchandise to be autographed and mailed out to fans all over the world: a pizzeria in Carbondale, Illinois; a family in London; the 12-year-old in Arizona whose letter to Dick’s Sporting Goods went viral when she asked why there were no women in the chain’s basketball catalog.
Credit the Pistol Shrimps’ massive social media following to point guard Aubrey Plaza, coincidentally from the TV show Parks and Recreation. This past summer, the actress introduced the world to her basketball team on The Tonight Show. “We like to ball, and we ball hard,” she told Jimmy Fallon. “No haters allowed.”
“You’re either with us or against us,” Plaza added. “And may God help you if you’re against us, because we will dunk on your ass so hard.”
The Pistol Shrimps have yet to identify a hater of the Pistol Shrimps (and have yet to dunk on anyone’s ass). But “no haters” has become a mantra for the underdog team, which won only two out of 10 games last season.
“Before they even played a game, it was like, ‘Pistol Shrimps are the greatest team in the world,’?” says Patrick Fisackerly, the Pistol Shrimps’ self-described No. 1 fan, referring to the rhetoric on its Facebook group and event pages. “Now it’s like this huge, wonderful community. All these women getting together, it’s kind of a feminist statement.”
Fisackerly met the Pistol Shrimps’ Amanda Lund and team captain Blasucci, both blondes who wear their red team jerseys with short shorts and tube socks, at a UCB sketch-writing class four years ago. Blasucci invited him via Facebook to a Pistol Shrimps game, and he hasn’t missed one since. “The basketball team is sincere, but everything else is absurd,” he says. “There’s no need to market a local basketball team.”
Yet that’s exactly what the Pistol Shrimps have done. They’ve racked up several thousand Twitter and Instagram followers, plus T-shirt sales to four countries. The team formed its own dance squad, led by actress Angela Trimbur, whose dance-centric YouTube videos have been viewed by millions.
The Pistol Shrimps don’t have any corporate endorsement deals (yet), but that hasn’t stopped them from faking it with a series of phony Burger King promos. Their latest, shot to look as if it were made in 1996 — a nod to the movie Space Jam, their aesthetic inspiration — went viral after it was picked up online by Entertainment Weekly, The A.V. Club and Eater.
In September, GQ labeled the Pistol Shrimps “the hottest pickup basketball team in America.” But to call the Pistol Shrimps a pickup basketball team isn’t just inaccurate. It also understates the team’s crucial role in relaunching a women’s basketball league in Los Angeles.
Before the league began last April, the city’s Department of Recreation & Parks couldn’t muster enough teams to form one. For years, even as the men’s league thrived, the women who signed up were out of luck.
Without the Pistol Shrimps, the league wouldn’t have existed at all.
Maria Blasucci hadn’t played basketball since her freshman year at Marymount High School, an all-girls Catholic school near UCLA. But, like most of her actor friends, she dropped out to pursue theater.
Now 28, the actor and comedy writer saw the adult basketball league as her second chance to be cast in the role she’d most wanted: the jock. In early 2014, she lined up a group of friends to form a team. Like any dedicated actor rehearsing for a part, Blasucci did her research (most of her previous basketball knowledge came from Space Jam) and enlisted a coach.
The only basketball fanatic she knew was Mark “Bizzy” Smith, a professional DJ who tours the world with rapper Juicy J. They’d met six years prior while working at Nielsen. Bizzy had always wanted to coach high school basketball. “So this is kind of a way for me to judge, you know, can I actually coach?” says the Philadelphia native. “If you start coaching kids and you’re not good at it, there’s a good chance you can ruin those kids’ lives. There’s no way I’m going to ruin these women’s lives.”
Biz recruited a second coach, his roommate and fellow baller Chris Vanger, and convinced Paula Brunelle, a seasoned ball handler whom he’d met playing pickup games, to join the Shrimps.
“You’re hard-pressed to find a women’s game, which is why I would just go and play with the guys,” aggressive point guard Brunelle says. “You would ask about a women’s league but they would never put one together,” she adds of the L.A. Department of Recreation & Parks.
Aside from Brunelle, mean-mugging Plaza and quick-as-lightning point guard Ally Stoltz, the team’s only other high school basketball vet is Stephanie Allynne, its top scorer, who makes three-pointers look effortless.
Many of Allynne’s teammates were still mastering a basic understanding of the game, starting with terminology. “Our first practice, everyone kept using theater terms for what we were doing,” says Paisley Grey, a Ford fashion model who traveled the world with Stoltz, who had been her roommate at Loyola Marymount University. “We were like, ‘Oh, the audience is going to love us!’ Instead of shuffling, we would be sashaying across the court.”
After months of practice with coaches Bizzy and Vanger, the Pistol Shrimps finally looked like a competitive team. They learned to set picks, block shots and shoot layups.
Then came the bad news: The L.A. women’s basketball season was at risk of being canceled, which had been the pattern year after year. Only one other team had signed up for the spring 2014 season. A minimum of four teams is required.
Devastated, Blasucci shot off an email to league assistant Connie Carbajal. “There is no reason that your women’s league shouldn’t be as booming as your men’s league,” she wrote. She noted that there hadn’t even been any information about a women’s league on the city’s website. “There are tons of women who want to play but have no idea this league exists.”
Blasucci knew the disappointment of having a season canceled. In 2012 Ghost Ghirls, the Jack Black–produced sitcom she co-wrote with Lund and friend Jeremy Konner, was bought and then dropped by Syfy before Yahoo swooped in and picked it up as a web series.
Determined to save the spring basketball season just as Yahoo had saved her show — at least, for the one season it ran — Blasucci and her teammates emailed their contacts from the acting and comedy worlds.
Allynne emailed close to 100 people and started putting teams together. “It was such a weird thing of, like, all day writing names down, saying, ‘OK, they can be on a team,’ and then other players knew of players who wanted to be on a team,” she says, comparing herself to an all-star PTA mom.
In a single day in February, Allynne formed four new teams: the Beatdown (whose star is comedian Mo Welch); the Lucille Ballers (led by Upright Citizens Brigade comedian Fran Gillespie); the Kimmy Dribblers and the Traveling Pants.
Within days, seven teams had signed up. At least two of them consisted solely of free agents who had previously been waitlisted every year when a league didn’t materialize.
Once the season started, basketball took over their lives. “It’s bonded everybody in a weird way, in that when I see them at UCB or within the community, it’s become a different conversation,” Allynne says. “Before, everyone was talking about their careers or their relationships. Now when I run into people, it’s endlessly basketball.”
Their fans followed, too. The bleachers of Pan Pacific Recreation Center were packed with the same enthusiasts who previously filled the seats at UCB to see comedians such as Lauren Lapkus. A member of the Kimmy Dribblers, she plays the only female prison guard on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. Comedian Tig Notaro, Allynne’s girlfriend, originally joined the Pistol Shrimps but was forced to withdraw after a back injury.
“That was so easy, in a way,” Allynne says. “How did this come to exist through basically the UCB community?”
L.A.’s Department of Recreation & Parks has 15 men’s basketball leagues with about 100 teams playing at rec centers from Granada Hills to Venice. According to Carbajal, the department’s league assistant, “Women’s teams are just much harder to keep going for a variety of reasons: Women choose family, food, gas first” over the league’s $425-per-team registration fee, which covers gym rental, referees, scorekeepers and trophies.
“Men, they don’t care. They just play basketball,” adds Carbajal, who has worked in the department’s Valley Municipal Sports Office for 14 years and can’t remember one women’s basketball league during that time. “Women are so involved with their families, or whatever else, that their sports come [second].”
The popularity of the Pistol Shrimps’ basketball league suggests otherwise. Between its first and second season, which ended in December, the league ballooned from seven to 12 teams and started playing at a second, more upscale gym — the Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center — in addition to the Lake Street Community Center, where it started.
Recreation coordinator Fredrik Matevossian recalls a women’s basketball league about eight years ago that lasted for one season, but it’s “hard to dig up that record,” he says. The department could not verify the last time there was a women’s basketball league in Los Angeles.
“We always advertise online and we provide the registration forms, but the interest wasn’t there,” Matevossian says, adding that Recreation & Parks’ softball leagues, for example, are much more popular among women than the basketball leagues.
Still, in the fall/winter 2014 season, the only women’s softball league was at an Encino sports complex, compared with 41 men’s leagues, from Northridge to Westchester.
“There should be posters up on your gym bulletin boards announcing that this season starts in April,” Blasucci wrote in an email nearly a year ago to Carbajal. “Why can’t we call those [waitlisted] teams and tell them that this season has more teams and they should register again?”
Ultimately, it was Blasucci who reached out to the waitlisted free agents via email. One result was the formation of Pretty in Pink, whose players were strangers to one another. They also were some of the league’s best.
Pretty in Pink doesn’t need Instagram followers or T-shirt sales. Its members can outrun and outshoot the other teams and make sly, behind-the-back passes. Meanwhile, in the crowd, fans of the rival team wear shrimp-shaped foam hats and Pistol Shrimps–branded T-shirts, wave frozen bags of shrimp and scream, “I’m in love with the Pistol Shrimps!”
“They’re beating us in crowd, and we’re beating them on the scoreboard,” says Sherrelle Holmes, Pretty in Pink’s 28-year-old star player. “For us, it’s comical.”
Her family and friends are more traditional fans. “It’s showtime!” they scream when Holmes effortlessly snatches the ball from the other team and lays it up into the opposite basket within a matter of seconds. Showtime is her nickname, or simply “Show.”
She earned that moniker as a kid, long before playing at Bodine High School in Philadelphia, where she averaged 28 points a game one season. At Wilmington University, she was ranked in her college division as third in the nation in assists.
“I tell Show, ‘Stop doing those fast breaks. Pass it to us so we can practice something else,’?” teammate Maritza Lopez says. “It’s just not fair to murder the other teams like that.”
Holmes, who works in outreach for a nonprofit drug-addiction treatment center in Hollywood, is her team’s coach and captain, which is why it can’t be her “showtime” all the time.
“A coach can say, ‘Get out of the game, get in the game,’ whatever,” says Holmes, who’s brawny and wears her braids pulled back into a tight ponytail. But “we’re still in friendship mode,” which can be fragile for any group of adult women from disparate backgrounds who have been thrown together.
“Coaching boys, there’s certain ways you could say stuff,” adds Holmes, who previously coached a boys rec league team. “But with coaching girls, if you say something the wrong way, it can go over wrong.”
When she moved to L.A. with her wife and son two years ago, Holmes took to Google to find a league, just as Blasucci had, and eventually ended up on the Department of Recreation & Parks’ website, where she joined a waitlist.
A year later, she got the email from Blasucci. With help from Pretty in Pink’s team manager, Ciji Winge, they formed a team of strangers who had just one thing in common: They wanted to ball. In two seasons, Pretty in Pink is undefeated.
The teammates have become friends, but they see one another only at the games on Tuesday nights. They’re all commuting: Holmes in Hawthorne, fellow top-scoring point guard Anna Onaindia in Culver City, Tami McDunn in Monrovia, Winge in Ladera Heights, Lopez in Glassell Park and so on.
“I don’t know anything about their lives, but I feel like I know their personalities just by the way they play, and the way we interact,” says Lopez, 22, one of the league’s youngest players. The Pasadena City College basketball player joined last season, when she initially didn’t make the team at PCC. An aspiring fashion designer, she takes classes there in addition to working a nearby retail job.
“I know it’s pretty weird and clichéd, but I know these girls more than I’ve known other players that I’ve played with for years and years in high school,” says Lopez, who was the star of her team at CALS Early College High School in northeast L.A. She was hooked on the game at age 8, after reluctantly being forced into it by her mother, a volleyball champion from Mexico.
“Once I started playing again, I realized this was a part of me that I didn’t know was so huge. I thought it was just a hobby or a school team, but no. It kind of pulls my life together,” Lopez says. Her father, a soccer fanatic who owns a screen-printing business, designed Pretty in Pink’s white cotton jerseys with pink cursive letters.
In the four years since graduating high school, she’d done everything she could to find a basketball league — including sending several unreturned emails to recreation centers around town.
“I feel like the city is saying that they’re making attempts [to get women involved in sports] but not really following through,” she says. Now when she tells her PCC teammates that she’s on a city league, “They’re like, ‘What, you have a game? In a league?’?”
But the most common response is, “You play with Aubrey Plaza? Let me know when the next game is.”
When they played the Pistol Shrimps in the first season, Pretty in Pink won 47-16. The score would have been 47-14 if it weren’t for starstruck Holmes, who accepted Plaza’s plea for a charity shot.
Recalls Plaza, “She was the point guard and I was defending her and she literally just said to me on the court, ‘Yo, I watch your show, can I get a picture with you after the game?’
“Only if you give me the ball right now,” Plaza remembers telling Holmes. “She just gave it to me because we were losing by 50 points, so she didn’t give a fuck. Then I made a humiliating layup that I now regret because I looked like an asshole.”
Both teams still laugh about that story, especially after Plaza recounted it on The Tonight Show. But between the first and second seasons, the Pistol Shrimps amped up their game, training fiendishly every Sunday morning with coaches Bizzy and Vanger. When they returned to play Pretty in Pink in season two, they weren’t so easy to beat.
On a Tuesday night in late October, the teams are neck-and-neck in the first quarter. The fans are on the edge of their seats. “Come on, Shrimps! We believe!” yells Fisackerly, the Shrimps’ No. 1 fan, who often erupts into Bon Jovi lyrics: “Whoa, we’re halfway there! Whoa, living on a prayer!”
At one point, Blasucci knocks the ball out of Holmes’ hands. The crowd erupts in cheers. “You guys are killing it! Yes!” Fisackerly shouts as Blasucci makes a shot and Holmes misses one.
There are five minutes left in the first half and the Pistol Shrimps are down by just a few points. Blasucci fumbles with the ball and drops it near the sideline just as her teammate, comedian Molly Hawkey, swoops in and grabs it. Then Hawkey drops it, too, saving the ball between her thighs. Finally, she passes to Blasucci, who misses the shot. The crowd lets out a collective sigh.
Meanwhile, Trimbur, the dancer-comedian, sits on the sidelines counting down to halftime. “Thirty seconds to go. Saddle up, bitches,” she says. The dance squad awaits its turn on the court.
Pretty in Pink scores another three-pointer, the buzzer sounds and about a dozen women in high-waisted black booty shorts, sheer stockings, knee pads and brightly colored sports bras leap onto the court, beaming. “Ladies and gentlemen, the L.A. City Municipal Dance Squad,” says an announcer’s voice, which leads into “Run the World (Girls),” Beyoncé’s high-energy anthem to female power.
“Girls! We run this mother!” The L.A. City Municipal Dance Squad slithers on the wooden floors, then lines up to perform a version of the can-can. The dancers create a human tunnel, and Trimbur, on her hands and knees, scurries underneath them while seducing her fans with intense eye contact.
In the second half, Pretty in Pink takes a sweeping lead. Showtime racks up all the points. Trimbur gets the ball and immediately chucks it blindly at the basket, where it bounces off the rim. Grey, the model, misses a pass and then guiltily glances toward Bizzy, as if to offer an apology. But he just gives her a thumbs-up and pops his bubble gum. His team is balling hard against the toughest team in the league, and that’s all he can ask for.
Despite the final 63-30 score, Blasucci can’t hide her pride. “That’s fun basketball, not rough basketball,” she says, in contrast to the rival team that excessively fouled the week before.
“Yeah, they’re ballers,” Bizzy agrees.
At the Dec. 9 playoffs at Pan Pacific Recreation Center, the Pistol Shrimps still have a shot at glory. The teams who win their first game tonight will play in the semifinals immediately afterward. The championships are the following week.
Undefeated Pretty in Pink ends up winning the upper-division championship after a close final game against the Beatdown, a team of UCB comedians who also happen to be very good at basketball.
In the lower division, the Pistol Shrimps play Controversy, one of the two teams they’ve defeated this season. Each team scores and blocks shots at a rapid pace, keeping the game close until the last two minutes, when the Pistol Shrimps take the lead by one. Then Allynne’s three-pointer makes it 32-28.
With 20 seconds left, Controversy scores another basket: 32-30. And then the clock runs out. The Pistol Shrimps win.
Trimbur can hardly believe it. She falls down in a fit of ecstasy and clutches Allynne’s ankles while writhing on the ground. Blasucci takes a seat on the bleachers and flips out her phone.
“Who’s texting you?” Fisackerly asks.
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SHOW ME HOW
“The WNBA, baby,” Blasucci teases with a smirk.
But in the next game, the Pistol Shrimps lose to the Kimmy Dribblers, and their season is over.
Plaza is exhausted, and not just from playing two back-to-back games. She’s been up since 5:30 a.m. filming the series finale of Parks and Recreation.
Still, she doesn’t break her Pistol Shrimps character. “Haters need to be aware of the Pistol Shrimps because they are not playing around,” Plaza says. “And they just want to ball. It’s not about anything else.”