When Khadijah Sessions graduated from USC in 2016, she was in a common position for many women’s basketball players — undrafted by the WNBA, which has just 144 roster spots to the NBA’s 450, but still eager to play basketball at a high level, especially in her home state.
And so the South Carolina Women’s Pro-Am was born. The men had had a Pro-Am throughout Sessions’ undergrad career with the Gamecocks and she saw no reason the women shouldn’t have the same.
“When I was in college, I always wondered why we didn’t have a women’s Pro-Am,” Sessions said. “We were always going to support the men and I mean, there was enough of us to run a women’s Pro-Am, but nobody took the time because they didn’t believe it was going to happen.”
The 2016 edition was a success, with active South Carolina players, alums and other high school, collegiate and professional players competing over the course of several weeks in the summer.
The next year, however, only about nine people signed up, forcing Sessions to cancel the event. She had been hoping for 40 players.
“It saddened me that nobody really signed up last year. I think we needed to do more social media, more contact, more trying to get out there, seeing where these girls are playing at,” she said.
That renewed focus paid off in 2018, with roughly 35 players competing each weekend at Sonny’s Sportsplex in Columbia.
“It was easy once I contacted one or two people. They knew so many people, they brought me six, seven people individually, and once they start going and people start seeing stuff, then everybody wants to come,” Sessions said. “Things happen, things come up, but this year, I was fortunate enough to have this league and to have people sign up and come from Florence, from North Carolina, from different areas just to play on Sundays.”
In addition to Sessions, former USC players Tina Roy, Sarah Imovbioh, Markeisha Grant, Ashley Bruner and Shaun Gortman are all in the 2018 Pro-Am, as well as current Gamecock Doniyah Cliney. Other current Carolina players also have shown up to cheer from the sidelines.
Unlike the men’s Pro-Am, which features NBA players like Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier, the women’s event is missing South Carolina’s most famous recent alums, as A’ja Wilson, Alaina Coates and others play in the WNBA. But Sessions said she hopes to have Coates stop by the event this Sunday, while the league is on its All-Star break.
For the players that are there, however, the Pro-Am isn’t just old friends reconnecting for pickup games. It’s a chance to compete and hopefully earn more opportunities in the future.
“Just having these girls that are still playing overseas and trying to get jobs overseas, and giving them a platform to get video is a great thing,” Sessions said. “After my first year, we had three people get college offers and three people get contracts for overseas, so that’s my goal, to get these girls where they want to be in basketball.”
Bruner, who spends her winters in France playing professionally, said the event is important even for those who do have contracts but can’t afford to get rusty in the offseason.
“Especially going overseas, you can’t go over there and not take advantage of your off break and trying to work on things you think you need to get better at,” Bruner said. “I love the Pro-Am, because I think this is the seventh year for men, (and now we) finally have something for women, where we can come and get a sweat going and get better in the women’s basketball community.”
Still, Bruner said, the players’ familiarity with each other means the games never get too heated, even as everyone competes hard.
“It’s fun because we all know each other, so when we come in here, we want to be competitive, we want to be able to talk junk to each other and improve ourselves a little bit. There’s no bad blood — people just want to come in here and show their skill and also get better,” Bruner said.
“It’s super competitive. ... It’s still like, ‘Oh, I’m going to give you buckets, I’m going to play super hard defense on you, I’m going to make you work. It’s fun. I enjoy it.”
The goal now, Sessions said, is to ensure the event keeps going. She is also starting a women’s league for the fall for post-graduate players and hopes to build up Columbia as a women’s basketball destination, a process helped by USC coach Dawn Staley bringing Team USA to the city to train and play.
“It was a rocky start, but I managed to get (the Pro-Am) going. ... When I graduated college, I made it my business to do so,” Sessions said.
SOUTH CAROLINA WOMEN’S PRO-AM
Remaining dates: July 29, Aug. 5
When: 5:30 p.m.
Where: Sonny’s Sportsplex