I was in the third grade when I first became aware of women’s basketball. I was living in the Connecticut suburbs and I was feeling very troubled by the sudden onset of elementary school sexism.
I know, I know.
“The sudden onset of elementary school sexism” sounds like a melodramatic reach, but I swear that’s exactly what it was, even if I didn’t have the language for it at the time. You don’t need to be schooled on the complex nuances of sexism in a gender-studies class at a bougie liberal arts college in order to understand sexism. The only way to truly understand anything is to feel it.
And I was feeling it.
See, in the second grade, my classmates and I hadn’t divided ourselves by gender yet. We all enjoyed a good, healthy game of capture the flag. And then, out of nowhere, on the first day of gym class in the third grade, the school dynamic became an alarmingly divisive “boys against girls.”
“Girls can’t run as fast as boys,” challenged good ol’ Steve Rhodes, my best friend from the year before. Steve had never, ever even acknowledged a difference between boys and girls, and now he was disparaging my gender’s athletic abilities? I felt betrayed.
“Girls like PINK. Boys don’t,” spat my neighbor Max Feldman one afternoon while we were jumping on the trampoline in my backyard. I’d simply asked him if he wanted the much-cooler looking pink cup of orange juice my mom was serving instead of the basic glass one. I was trying to be nice. What in “Toy Story”s name was his problem? I felt confused.
“Girls are afraid of bugs! Give that thing to me!” taunted Clyde Greenblatt during recess. I had just rescued some sort of giant moth-like creature who appeared to have a broken wing. It was fluttering and flailing and falling inside the safe palms of my dutifully cupped hands. I was determined to nurse this baby bug back to health.
“THE BUG BELONGS TO ME,” roared the little bastard.
And that’s when I stopped feeling anything. I saw something: the color red. I lost it on Clyde Greenblatt, who I’d never really liked anyway.
“OVER MY DEAD BODY! I FOUND THE BUG; THE BUG IS MINE!” My voice boomed so loudly through the schoolyard that a wildly competitive game of four square came to screeching halt. I felt a collective of saucer-sized eyes studying me quizzically. This is no math quiz. This is real life! I’ll show these ignorant twerps what’s up.
I took a bold step toward Clyde Greenblatt. If my hands hadn’t been protecting my precious injured bug, I probably would’ve socked him.
“Girls. Are. Scared. Of. Bugs. Because. They’re. Prissy,” the little bastard crooned slowly, making each word a sentence of its own. He crossed his scrawny arms defiantly, looking up into my eyes. I towered above him a good six inches.
“There will be NO bugs brought into my classroom,” a low-pitched, authoritative voice vibrated against the back of my head. It was our homeroom teacher, Ms. Monnell, who had once famously said the word “shit” in front of our entire class. Everyone told their parents and she was forced to apologize to a room full of third-grade brats for her “inappropriate” behavior. I found her apology to be demeaning. We were out of control third-graders; we deserved to be slugged with the occasional swear word.
Ms. Monnell snatched the bug away from me. She released it into a big, green bush. I cried.
“Girls are crybabies,” whispered an artsy boy who was usually gentle and kind in demeanor. Him too? Jesus, I thought to myself as I scowled through hot, wet tears.
That afternoon, I emerged from the school bus in a lousy mood. I felt enraged by the way my girl classmates and I were being treated by the boys. Anything boys can do, girls can do —better. Hadn’t I seen that spelled out on a t-shirt in the mall, recently?
I walked over to our driveway-style basketball “court” where my older cousin Danny was shooting hoops.
“Wanna play a basketball game called ’round the world? It’s fun; I’ll teach you,” Danny, a stellar athlete – and even more stellar cousin – asked me. He was home on spring break from Penn State and was hanging around our house a lot. (I later found out he was dating my babysitter.)
I almost said no. I’d never really engaged in anything basketball-related in the long, arduous eight years of life I’d experienced so far. I thought of all the freshly smug boys in my class, cockily rocking their basketball jerseys to school, thinking they were the hottest shit. Girls can’t run fast. Girls are afraid of bugs. Girls are crybabies.
And while I didn’t exactly exhibit an ounce of athletic promise, I had the time of my life shooting hoops with my cousin.
“You should play for the UCONN Huskies!” Cousin Danny encouraged with great enthusiasm.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Cousin Danny carefully explained to me that it was a women’s college basketball team (this was a year before the Women’s National Basketball Association was founded).
Hell yes. (I might’ve been eight, but I never dreamed of using the term “heck.” I came out of the womb with the intrinsic understanding that “heck” was a lame and embarrassing curse word for the weak. It lacked passion.)
That was the moment I became besotted with my home state’s very own UCONN Huskies. It wasn’t so much that I loved the sport. I loved the players. I was particularly intrigued by two specific athletes: Rebecca Lobo, who at a sky-scraping 6-foot-4 stood taller than any man in my petite, Jewish, family; and Jamelle Elliot, who had emitted fiery confidence and badass swagger I’d never seen anyone possess — male or female.
If any little bastard called her prissy, I’d bet she’d slug his lights out.
The women who played on the UCONN Huskies team began to get some national press that season. After all, it was the 1995 Connecticut Huskies, the very team many would later claim “made women’s basketball.” Anytime they were on TV, my dad and brother (both basketball fanatics) would holler from the living room and I’d rush in, bursting with excitement, eager to soak in every second of my favorite team’s presence. I was never overly interested in who did what or what the exact rules of the game were; it was the overall energy that intoxicated me. The energy of women slam-dunking away stereotypes. I wanted to drink in their unapologetic strength and awesomely competitive spirit and store it inside of me for the same reason a camel stores water. I knew I would be thirsty for it later. Like the next day in school, I could access the prowess of the female basketball player when the boys tried to rip my confidence out of me, when the boys tried to dim my flame with their “girls are prissy” rhetoric.
When the boys tried me — period.
The women of the UCONN Huskies showed me, for the first time in my life, a different kind of woman. The culture in the mid-’90s was constantly telling women that their physical beauty was to be held in the highest regard. It was the era of the super-model. And while deep down *I knew* I was no athlete, I also knew I wasn’t like the glamour girls in the glossy pages. I was loud. I liked bugs. I was aggressive in my opinions. I wasn’t made to be a model just like I wasn’t made to play college basketball. I wasn’t sure what I was made to be. But watching women play basketball made me realize I could be anything. Seeing women sweat and play and strategize on the court with more intensity than any man I’d ever known opened up a Pandora’s Box of possibilities for me.
And then, when the WNBA was founded the next year in 1996 and started its first season in 1997, I felt even more empowered. The contents of Pandora’s Box weren’t just sitting still anymore. They were flying around my head, like a mini-tornado of opportunities. If there was now a woman’s professional basketball team, then why couldn’t a woman be the CEO of a major company? If there were women whose tall and strong statures were a key part of their superpower, why the hell would I bend these (rhetorically) long limbs of mine in attempts fit into a box I knew I didn’t belong in — a box I didn’t *want* to belong in? I mean, why contort yourself into a stifling little space when you could harness your extra-large moxie into your most winning attribute? If there were women who cared less about looking “pretty” for society and more about kicking ass in sports, why the hell would I waste my time trying to be pretty — precious time I could spend kicking ass in my life? Aspirations of being deemed attractive became very boring to me. I wanted something big for my life.
Something WNBA big.
As I came of age, it quickly became apparent that my passions and talents were clearly in the arts. But, to this day, the driving force behind my fearlessness in the art I produce is rooted in watching women’s basketball as a young kid. Women’s basketball was my lifeline back then, but not because I was a sports fanatic. Women’s basketball showed me, at the most impressionable moment in my life, that the boys in school were wrong.
And now, as a confident adult, whenever I feel myself shrinking into myself during a male-led meeting, I watch some woman’s basketball to remind me that the men are wrong. Women can do fucking anything.
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