Under the Lights: Hoops by Night Is No Longer a Boys' Game

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By CHRIS BURRELL

They call themselves the Bad Boys, but it's truly a misnomer for this undefeated basketball squad that plays two nights a week under the darkening sky of Oak Bluffs.

For one thing, they are the only team in the summer league with a woman on their roster. As for the rest of the team - well, most of them don't look anything close to boyish.

In a league dominated by 20-somethings, most of the Bad Boys have already gone gray. One player is in his 50s. Another one is in his mid-40s, and a third will turn the odometer over to the 40-year mark in six months.

But if you ask team captain Asil Cash - who's 24 - about the gender and age factor on the Bad Boys, he'll tell you it's something of a secret weapon: not too intimidating on paper, but accomplished and potentially deadly out on the court.

"The experience of our players, they know the game, when to make the cuts, when to give it back," he says.

Take Emily Liskow, for example. The only female playing in what's been a men's basketball league since it started almost three decades ago, she is a wiry, 5 feet 9 inches tall, topped with blonde hair.

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She might look more like a fashion model than a player willing to muscle the men for a rebound down in the paint, but Miss Liskow, 24, was a stand-out guard at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire.

When she walked onto the court last summer at Niantic Park and announced she wanted to play hoops, they told her to check out the women's league.

"It's always funny when I first ask to play. They look at me a little funny," she says.

Miss Liskow loves to play basketball, even if it means putting herself in a more challenging context. "I'm used to being the fastest one, jumping the highest. Here it's exactly the opposite," she says.

But make no mistake, this bad boy named Emily wearing a tight red tank top and pair of baggy Bearcats shorts is causing quite a stir both on the court and out in the stands.

Last week, spectators sitting on the wooden bleachers numbered more than 25, and all you had to do was eavesdrop to catch the buzz.

"She's got a shot," says one young man wearing high-tops and clutching a basketball.

"She plays some D, too," his friend chimes in.

"She can cut, too."

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By the end of the third quarter, when the Bad Boys cut the opponent's lead from 12 points down to one, another fan says, "They need to put the ball in the girl's hands more."

Out on the court last Tuesday night, Miss Liskow didn't have to beg any teammates to pass her the ball. There's good reason for that: Within the first quarter, she goes three-for-four, swishing a trio of outside shots.

Even when she misses one, you can hear teammate Dale Rogers, running alongside her down court, say encouragingly, "Good shot, Em."

On defense, Miss Liskow may be outweighed by some serious pounds, but she's right in the mix, taking the hits as she lifts forearms to set picks or boxes out for a rebound.

One of the great things about the night games at Niantic Park is the chatter and the energy level that builds up as the lights go on and a cool breeze blows away the day's heavy air.

By the second half of last week's game, it's clear that the Bad Boys have shifted the momentum back to their side of the court. Spectators are applauding and hooting as the red-jerseyed Bad Boys stage their comeback, pulling ahead by seven, on their way to their third win.

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"Let's go Red, yeah, Red," hollers one man.

Mr. Rogers, 44, sinks both free throws. Mr. Cash's dribbling skills and footwork enable him to dance past two or three defenders and execute beautiful lay-ups. But he also knows when to pass, teaming up frequently with 39-year-old teammate Eric Adams.

The performance is clearly starting to frustrate the opponents, Contemporary Landscapes, clothed in matching green shorts.

"Who's got the girl?" yells Stephen Duarte, backpedaling as his green team shifts gears to defense.

In the half-time huddle, having watched their 13-point lead evaporate to just four points, they are exhorting each other to play better ball.

"Crash the boards then, let's go," says one guy.

"We gotta move on offense, set some picks," adds another.

There are just five teams in the league - most of them sponsored by various Island businesses - and they play Tuesday and Thursday nights at Niantic Park, beginning at 6:30.

As action-packed as the scene looks, oldtimers say it's just a shadow of what it used to be here on a summer evening.

"I remember sitting on those benches, and there were probably 100 kids. We had eight teams or more," says Mr. Rogers, who grew up playing in the highly-regarded youth basketball program here. "I was one of the original kids. This is a great tradition."

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Players kick in $100 each to join the league, helping cover the cost of uniforms and referees; some of the money funnels back into the youth program which runs in the mornings.

"We're trying to get a new court," says Carlos Pena, who stepped up three years ago to run the evening league. The scoreboard could use some upgrading as well.

But the focus is on the game, balancing fun with competitiveness. Ryan Gibbons, a 26-year-old playing for the Vineyard Golf Club team, takes a breather during the first game Tuesday night.

He and teammate Butch Ellis, 32, are grousing a bit as they watch the game.

"They're getting the rebounds. Look at this, it's disgusting," says Mr. Gibbons.

"Pray for rain, only the rain could save us," says Mr. Ellis, starting to laugh.

"It's too fast, they're too young," laments Mr. Gibbons.

"That's why we gotta slow the ball, man."

Underneath it all, they like the game, the exercise, the chance to run under the halogen lights. "It keeps me out of the bars, just something extra to do," says Mr. Gibbons.

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As Mr. Gibbons's game winds down, Miss Liskow and Mr. Cash are waiting outside the fence for their turn on the court.

For Mr. Cash, who moved to the Vineyard in 1996, quickly plugged himself in to the basketball circuit and now works with youngsters teaching them skills in the morning, these games symbolize a close-knit community.

"This feels like your league, your hometown," he says.

Looking at some of the younger players on the court and the sidelines, he points out: "I've coached a lot of these kids. I know their names."

That connection extends to Miss Liskow, who may have had to elbow her way into the men's league, but once there, feels welcomed.

"If anybody gave me a hard time," she says of her teammates, "they got my back."