The decline of Southern California basketball

What has happened to the state of girls and women’s basketball in Southern California over the last few years? Simply put, it’s like the sport has fallen off the face of the Earth here.

The area has historically yielded basketball greats, from the USC National Championships of the 1980’s to Tina Thompson, Cynthia Cooper and Lisa Leslie. The Sparks’ WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002 marked a time when the team and the league were wildly popular in Los Angeles. City high school teams reflected this passion, as competition was great and many teams were nationally-ranked.

In recent years, however, player quality and interest at all levels of women’s hoops in Southern California has declined.

One of the first things I noticed when I moved here almost a decade ago was that USC, UCLA and other area college teams didn’t draw the crowds that they do in other cities. This isn’t unusual for a large urban area with lots of attractions and distractions to compete with, so I could understand it. The high school play was great, though, so I caught as much of that as I could when I wasn’t coaching.

In 2007, changes began happening that continued year after year, as coaches of high-profile prep teams began leaving sometimes long-time gigs at schools. The programs then declined. Now there are virtually no Los Angeles city teams that are contenders anymore – that honor belongs to the teams of the suburbs, which we in California call the Southern Section.

Last winter’s final high school rankings looked good for Southern California, as five of the top 25 teams were from the Southern Section. That number will likely go down this year to the levels of the top 25 of 2012-2013, as several seniors graduated last spring.

One, two or even three schools represented in the nation’s top 25 is paltry in light of the fact that the Southern Section includes about 570 high schools.

The number of high-profile recruits from Southern California has declined, as well. Look at the rankings of the class of 2015 compared to those of the class of 2011.

So what is going on? High school and club ball coaches have a lot of theories, but nothing concrete, and no one wants to go on record to discuss them. Some point to the lack of free programs in the cities (due to budget cuts) that prevent athlete involvement. Others say the draw of private and charter schools have siphoned away all the talent, and watered it down. It’s probably a bit of both. What doesn’t seem explainable to me is that the passion and enthusiasm around high school and club ball just doesn’t seem to be there anymore. I can’t tell you why, but it’s trickled upward to the adult level, too.

Incredibly, this past summer there were no NCAA-certified summer leagues for adult women in the Los Angeles area. There have been two in recent years, but neither was in operation in 2014. Organizers of one league said no one was available to run it. The other league reported faltering interest and lack of players.

The Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League is Pro-Am, but none of the teams are in Southern California. This indicates a lack of interest in the area.

The only women’s league this year is the Drew League, going on right now. But organizers have declined to return my messages asking for a website or game schedule.

The Sparks saw a 16 percent decline in attendance this year, with the Staples Center seemingly empty for almost every game.

In one of the most densely-populated areas of the country, the sudden lack of women’s basketball is a mystery. It’s not like there is a lack of quality players. What happened? I want my basketball back.