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The Pistol Shrimps Are Back, They're Ballin', And They're Bringing L.A. Along For The Ride

LOS ANGELES -- The Pistol Shrimps still can't buy a basket.

With halftime closing in, they've yet to score in their first game of the spring season. The players are slightly dejected, but still cheerful and upbeat. Shouts of "We'll make that shot next time!" and "Great look!" emanate from the bench in this gym in North Hollywood.

They're losing, badly, which isn't uncommon. But they're doing it with smiles on their faces.

These are the unlikely saviors of women's rec league basketball in Los Angeles. They're funny, irreverent, and not all that great at the sport they love. But in the year they've been in the spotlight -- featured in magazines, shouted-out on TV and followed by thousands on social media -- they've shown just how seriously empowering the opportunity to play can be.

***

In the winter of 2013, actress and writer Maria Blasucci saw signs around Los Angeles advertising the city's Department of Recreation and Parks basketball league. She hadn't played in more than 10 years, but she thought the league would be a great way to get exercise and hang out with friends.

She asked around to see if she could get enough people interested. Promising ice cream or pizza after every game, she was able to quickly build a team filled mainly with women in the entertainment industry.

"The first email from Maria said something like 'Anyone wanna start a basketball team? We could, like, play for a few hours and then get milkshakes after,'" recalled team member and actress Molly Hawkey. "And pretty much everyone responded with, 'I love milkshakes!' I was, of course, immediately interested. Getting to hang out with a group of cool girls and have snacks? That sounded nice to me."

The women brought in friends Mark Smith and Chris Vanger to teach them the basics of the game, as most of them had little to no experience on the hardwood. Actress Aubrey Plaza, best known for her role as the sarcastic and deadpan April Ludgate on NBC's "Parks and Recreation," heard about the team through friends.

"I was playing pickup games with guys and one of them told me there was a legit girls' league in L.A. and that I should try and be a part of it," Plaza said. "I was excited to play with all girls because playing basketball and being the only girl can be kind of a different experience."

But when the women tried to register their team, which they named the Pistol Shrimps after the very real sea creature, they were told they were the only women's team that had signed up and the season would be cancelled -- just as it had been for several seasons prior.

Rose Watson, the director of public information for L.A.'s Recreation and Parks Department, said there hadn't been a women's municipal league in the city since 2009 due to lack of interest. "The popularity of women's sports goes through phases here," she said. "Something like basketball will be popular for a while and then people's availability changes and it isn't anymore."

With more than 15 men's leagues in various gyms throughout the city, the team couldn't believe women had nowhere to play.

"We had been practicing for months and got really excited and went to sign up for the league and then they told us there was no league," remembered team member, writer and model Melissa Stetten. "Even though they had advertised for one, they said 'Sorry, there are no other teams to play with.' But we had been so intensely practicing and were just so excited that we were like, 'No, there is going to be a league.'"

Watson insisted there was no formal plan to cancel the league but there simply wasn't enough interest to actually start one. No matter the language, the Pistol Shrimps had an uphill battle on their hands if they wanted to play organized ball. They sent out more emails, to women they knew and women referred to them by the city, and quickly recruited enough players to form six more teams.

The league would live.

***

L.A.'s Open Women's Division -- so-named because unlike the more populated men's leagues, it isn't divided by skill or location -- plays on Tuesday nights. In the Pistol Shrimps' first season, the spring of 2014, they compiled a 3-9 record at the Lake Street Community Center, with two of those victories forged against the winless Lucille Ballers. The Shrimps' losses were frequently double-digit affairs, due in large part to their lack of experience.

With just a few months off between seasons, the women returned for the fall schedule in September and compiled another 3-9 record, including a playoff appearance. Their celebrity status grew along with their game, thanks in large part to Plaza's involvement and frequent posts about the team on its Twitter and Instagram accounts.

In a league that once seemed bound for extinction, Pistol Shrimps games became something of a scene, with actual fans. Team member Angela Trimbur started a dance team to provide halftime entertainment. A feature in GQ and a cover story in the LA Weekly soon followed, as did a sponsorship with Southern California-based water company Aquahydrate. The team also produced a series of videos -- including a fake Burger King commercial from 1996 -- that quickly went viral.

The league grew, too. The spring 2015 season kicked off in April with 24 teams.

"It kind of seems like everyone had the same idea and has wanted to be a team for a long time, but no one was able to pull the trigger and get it started before," said team member and Starbucks manager Tara Brydle. "Then Maria did and everything just fell into place."

The restoration of the league has definitely had an effect on the women who play in it.

"It's been such a confidence builder," said Hawkey. "It's so great for self-esteem. When I first started I was so concerned with what my butt looked like and how the spandex made me look, but then one day I looked around and was like, 'We all look like s--- and it feels great.' We're all beautiful women.

"This just makes me feel so strong and confident. More than I ever have before. My body hasn't changed, I still have cellulite, but I still feel more beautiful and I just walk so much taller."

***

The Shrimps' first practice of 2015 is on a warm, perfect Saturday morning in Los Angeles -- like most mornings in Los Angeles. Eight members of the team are practicing layups at Poinsettia Park. The Hollywood sign beams in the hills, situated like a postcard in the background. The women's cut-off shirts and sweatbands seem like a stark contrast to the area's well-documented glamour.

Coach Vanger has laid out a goal for the upcoming season: no missed layups in games. The mood is light, but the women listen intently. They take the goal and the ensuing drill seriously. While there are several missed layups during the exercise, they stay focused and frequently insist the ball would have gone in the hoop if they were indoors. "It's just those pesky double rims!" someone shouts. The others nod in agreement.

After the layup lines, the women come together to learn a new play. "This is definitely not directly taken from 'NBA 2K15,'" Vanger jokes. He then proceeds to show the women a pick-and-roll play that may or may not have come from a video game.

As they practice their fundamentals and offensive strategy, the two neighboring courts begin to fill up. It's a strange scene for anyone who ever spent any time on the basketball courts of a public park -- it's almost all women. Two other teams from the league are holding practices on one court, and the only court with any male players has a fairly even mix of women and men.

The team members joke about talking trash with the other teams, but when Blasucci and teammate Amanda Lund have to leave early for a baby shower, they instead good-naturedly wave and smile at their rivals as they walk by.

The women practice for two hours on the concrete. Many of them discuss returning to the park the next day for their usual Sunday pickup game, which features about 60 women from the league. The loosely organized event has become so popular, it's even started to attract young girls in the area who come and stand on the sidelines to watch.

"We've created an imbalance in such a positive way," said Brydle. "On Sundays, the men have trouble getting a court. We are at every court."

"And for the 7-year-old girls who are here -- the future ballers of the world -- they get to turn around and see something like 60 kick-ass women out here playing hard," said teammate and musician Jesse Thomas. "How does that happen? When I was a kid, I would have loved to have seen that. It's such a cool, powerful thing."

***

Three days after their practice in the park, the Pistol Shrimps open their 2015 spring campaign against the Ballin Broads. They're playing for the first time at the North Weddington Recreation Center in North Hollywood, a gym that has an elementary-school feel to it, with a stage behind one basket and a one-row bench on each sideline. While it's bare-boned, it's enough to hold many of the women's significant others and Blasucci's mom. She's a regular at their games.

Blasucci can't actually play in the opener, as she and Lund are working on a pilot presentation, but since the studio is conveniently across the street, they are both able to attend as spectators during a break.

Blasucci's absence from the actual game doesn't stop her mom from loudly cheering, and Blasucci sits on the sideline across from the team in semi-embarrassment. The Shrimps officially have 12 players, the league maximum, but due to scheduling conflicts, only eight are able to suit up against the Ballin Broads on this night.

Plaza, who is on a film shoot, is the most notable absence, and a few whispered questions about her whereabouts are overheard in the small crowd. Despite being perhaps the biggest draw for the league, Plaza won't actually make it to many games this season.

"I try to make as many of them as I can," she said. "Unfortunately, I've been shooting in Georgia the past few months and have another job that will take me away in June and July. So I'll be missing a lot this season. But any time I'm in L.A., I am there."

When 7 p.m. tipoff rolls around, about 15 fans sit on the wooden bench. If they're hoping to see Los Angeles Sparks-level talent, they're in the wrong gym. There are no Candace Parkers here, although the intensity and passion for the game might just rival hers. But none of that keeps the Pistol Shrimps from an early 10-0 deficit. They just can't defend the scrappy Ballers, and their shots aren't falling. Even Thomas, the squad's best player making her debut with the team, can't find her groove. Blasucci and Lund yell support from the sidelines.

Finally, with 2:05 left in the 20-minute first half, the Shrimps get on the scoreboard with their first points of the season. Stetten hits a jumper from the top of the key. It's 17-2, but it suddenly feels as if the Pistol Shrimps are right back in it.

The score holds through the end of the half, but the end of the scoreless drought gives new life to the Shrimps. During the two-minute halftime break, the women seem energized and ready for their comeback.

"As soon as the score wasn't zero, we got a lot more optimistic," explained Stetten after the game. "We got organized at the break and managed to get things together and make some baskets. It just felt a lot better in the second half."

The second half is chippy and a little on the sloppy side, and the two officials are not afraid to use their whistles. Fouls, double dribbles, traveling -- you name it, it's called. When a player from the Ballin Broads flops to the floor for what seems like her hundredth time, Blasucci exclaims from the bench, "Looks like someone is trying to get their Oscar!" The Shrimps get called for the foul.

Thomas does manage to hit her stride, scoring nine points in the second half. However, as promising as that sounds, it would be all but two of the team's points in the half. The Pistol Shrimps lose 35-13.

The season-opening defeat does not deter their spirits, or their appetites. "We got our asses kicked but we played a lot better in the second half and had a lot of fun out there," Hawkey said after the game. "And sure, we lost, but we're still going out for pizza."

On their way out of the gym, the Pistol Shrimps stop to watch the start of the second game, between The Controversy and first-year team The Brick Layers. There isn't enough room in the cramped gymnasium to stay and watch it all, although The Brick Layers' obviously superior talent is captivating. Instead, the Pistol Shrimps head out into the night, converging in the parking lot with Yelp apps in hand to find a new pizza place for the new season.