By Casey Gisclair
Arguably the best sporting secret in Baton Rouge doesn’t wear purple or gold. It doesn’t play its home games in Tiger Stadium before 100,000 people. Heck, it doesn’t ever compete in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center or even Alex Box Stadium.
The best sporting secret in Baton Rouge instead is nestled comfortably in the quaint gymnasium and recreation center that’s attached to New Light Baptist Church on the north side of BR.
They are the Louisiana Bayou Angels—the semi-pro local women’s basketball team that actively competes in the Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League (WBCBL), a little-known showcase league that lands dozens of young ladies professional contracts each season.
The players are well-known names—some have played professionally for years. Others are looking for a shot at that elusive contract that they’ve chased for their whole lives.
But veterans and rookies alike tout one thing about being a Bayou Angel: It’s the experience of a lifetime and everyone who enters the program leaves it the same way—as family.
“It’s a family-like atmosphere,” said Angels forward Hannah Kador, a Southern grad who has been with the semi-pro team for several seasons. “Everyone has everyone else’s backs and we work hard to achieve our goals, while making lifelong friends in the process.”
THE GOAL: TO GIVE PLAYERS A CHANCE TO COMPETE
Step foot into New Light’s gymnasium and the sounds of basketballs pounding on the floor is immediately present.
Walk through the lobby and approach the double doors at the front entrance and a tall, slender man’s voice captures the moment and immediately sets the tone.
“Tap, tap, tap, tap! Keep pushing,” the man says to a young lady with the basketball in her hands.
The clock on the wall reads 7:08 p.m. on a Tuesday night.
The Angels are eight minutes into their practice—one of two they have in a week.
The voice doing the talking comes from head coach Riley Harbor III, the man who has run this team for many years.
The players on the floor are doing basic dribbling drills, where they use fold-up chairs to work on crossovers and other ball handling skills.
The drills are routine. The Bayou Angels open every practice the same way. But as players get into somewhat of a lull, Harbor’s loud, deep voice carries and snaps them back into focus.
“Do it like it’s in a game,” Harbor shouts. “You can’t get better if you don’t push yourself, ladies.”
Harbor is a basketball lifer. He’s played throughout his life, and still does to this day. A Corporal with the Baton Rouge Police Department by day, Harbor’s No. 1 love away from God and family is basketball.
His wife of many years Deidre Harbor said that her husband’s dream as he nears retirement age to build a gym of his own—loaded with all of the latest and greatest equipment that he’d love to share with aspiring players around the country. She jokes that if that happens, the two’s in-home dynamic would drastically change.
“If he does that, I won’t see him anymore,” Deidre says with a laugh. “He loves basketball. He is always either doing something for the sport or is in the process of planning something for it. That’s what he loves. That’s his joy.”
The Angels are a little project Harbor got involved in as a way of trying to grow the sport in Louisiana. The WBCBL is likely unfamiliar to the average fan, but it is known by basketball talent scouts stateside and throughout Europe, where countless countries have professional leagues consisting of American-born players.
The 2015 version of the Bayou Angels features several standouts with pro experience—names like former LSU All-SEC player Quianna Chaney, former Tulane standout Roshaunda Barnes and former Auburn standout Lori Nero. Chaney and Nero have more than 15 combined years of professional experience between the two. Barnes has also done several tours overseas.
The Bayou Angels also have former Nicholls State University All-Conference player Sumar Leslie, who has two years of overseas experience. Leslie is missing the 2015 season after recovering from a foot injury, but has vowed to return in 2016.
Other players on the roster are fresh out of college and are searching for that elusive professional basketball contract. Still others just utilize the league as a chance to stay active and compete in a highly competitive basketball setting.
“We just want to give these young ladies a chance to get their names out there—a chance to keep playing,” Harbor said. “We have a lot of talent in the state of Louisiana, and we’ve been blessed to give them a place where they can come and be a part of a team that plays and showcases itself before scouts with overseas teams.”
THE FORMULA WORKS—THE TROPHIES PROVE IT
“Oh yeah!” Harbor says with a big smile as a player knocks down a jump shot in practice. “That’s all day.”
Harbor pushes his young ladies to succeed so that they can obtain their own personal goals at the professional level.
While all of that is taking place, the team does have its own goals, too.
The WBCBL season takes place throughout the summer, and the Bayou Angels are an annual championship contender.
The team has won many WBCBL Regional Titles, an honor that has taken the team to Nationals for the past several years.
While there, the Angels have also reached the pinnacle of the 60-plus team WBCBL, which has teams from the East Coast to the West Coast. In 2012 in Miami Lakes, Florida, the Bayou Angels trumped the St. Louis Surge 90-80 to win the WBCBL Championship.
To get to that point, the team beat the Winston-Salem Lady Warcats, Columbus Lady Wings and Kansas Nuggets in postseason play.
Kador was a member of that 2012 squad, and said the competition is fierce. She said the final seconds ticking off the clock were a feeling unlike any other experience in her career.
“It was a great feeling,” she said. “To know that you’re the best in the entire country at something, it just fills you with pride. Because we’re all so close to one another and we’re all such a tight-knit family, it makes it even better because it’s something you can share with your teammates forever.”
This year’s squad is as strong as ever, and the Angels rattled off six-straight victories to open the season. This has folks asking the question: Could this year be the year that the team wins another title?
That will be decided throughout the summer.
Maybe then, the team won’t be quite the secret it is today.
But even if it is, Harbor is OK, because he knows that in New Light’s gymnasium, there’s magic happening. Dreams are coming true—literally, and young ladies are able to bond, grow and improve their lives through the game of basketball.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Harbor said.