Local girls’ basketball club brings friendly competition to NELA

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Parents and children pose at a fundraiser for The North East Los Angeles Evolution basketball team at The Habit Burger Grill in Los Angeles. Monday, Mar. 4, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/The Occidental

The Habit Burger Grill bustled with activity on the night of March 4 as players, parents and coaches of North East Los Angeles (NELA) Evolution Basketball gathered for their first fundraiser. The team was formed in 2017 by several families in the Eagle Rock area who saw a need in the community for an accessible girls’ basketball team.

Head coach Nick Chavez describes Evolution as a “community team” that he was inspired to create after seeing his daughter Arizona’s experience playing on club teams when she was in fourth grade.

“It didn’t work for her. It wasn’t quite a good fit, so I told her, ‘Well, let’s start our own team. Let’s get our own thing going, we’ll have our own philosophy and values,’” Chavez said.

They wanted to create a team with an emphasis on building community and friendship in addition to playing basketball.

This idea appealed to several other families in the community, according to parents Martha Marquez, Sean Jernigan and Armando Fernandez, whose daughters were among the first to join the Evolution team.

“I remember the very first practice,” Fernandez said. “It was actually at Yosemite [Recreation Center], six girls showed up and it was like, oh man, so cool. It went from six girls to now over 25 girls.”

According to Chavez, the team has expanded to now include three different levels of teams, with girls ranging from third to seventh grade. As the club has grown, Chavez and the other parents have put an emphasis on maintaining the core values and strong sense of community around which the team was founded.

One of the ways they do this, according to parent Virginia Escamilla, is by not charging any fees to play as most club sports teams do.

“None of our coaches get paid — this is all volunteers, dads, parents that come together, and when sometimes the coach of the team isn’t there, another coach steps in because life happens,” Escamilla said.

Signage demarks the North East Los Angeles Evolution basketball team’s fundraiser at The Habit in Los Angeles. Monday, Mar. 4, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/The Occidental

In addition, all of the players on Evolution are from the local community around Eagle Rock, which Jernigan feels is something that sets their program apart.

“Most clubs we play against, folk are from all over the place,” Jernigan said. “I mean like different cities, sometimes different counties. All of these girls, they all play at the same rec, see each other in the same neighborhoods.”

This creates an environment that many of the girls on the team say feels like a family.

“We always hang out with each other, try to create chemistry outside of the basketball court. It’s a lot of fun because it’s like another family,” player Jocelyn Pascual said.

Even newer members to the team notice this about Evolution, according to Ritchie Arce, whose daughter just joined the team.

“It has this community presence and family feel to it, and I feel very fortunate being a part of this group,” said Arce.

Although the aim of the team goes beyond just playing basketball, the Evolution teams have done well in recent tournaments. According to Escamilla, Evolution took first place in the U10 and U12 divisions at a tournament in Seal Beach and finished as runner-ups in the Pasadena Winter Basketball League.

As the program continues to develop, the club hopes to further increase their competitive success. Allison Guerrero recently joined Evolution as a coach to help them in accomplishing this goal. Guerrero played basketball in high school and college and has experience coaching at many different levels. She lives in Eagle Rock and works as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Lab in neighboring Pasadena. She plans to work with the girls to help them develop skills that will not just be useful in basketball, but also throughout their lives in general, something that playing the sport did for her. Among these skills are teamwork, leadership and performing under pressure.

“That was a huge thing,” Guerrero said. “I think back to high school, and I mean we were competitive, with some of the situations we were in, with championships on the line. I think about what I do now, and when I’m under pressure at work and I don’t think I could do any of that if I wasn’t used to stuff like that from [playing basketball] when I was 16 and 17 years old.”

The recent fundraiser was another step towards the club’s future. According to Escamilla, they recently became a non-profit organization and hope to raise money in order to cover more tournament fees, uniforms and other expenses.