This morning my wife was featured in Morning Edition, NPR’s comprehensive and wide-sweeping news show. She was quoted twice, the second being the piece’s final words. Below is the link to the excerpt and below that her full email to NPR re: Women’s Basketball.
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It took 44 minutes for my dad to drive me from practice at my high school in Rowan to Huntersville Elementary for AAU basketball practice. I would fill that time reading the books and solving the math problems assigned to me for homework. Though my dad’s red jeep and his talkative nature weren’t ideal for any kind of productive studying, to me, it was worth it. I wanted everything I could get out of basketball…I wanted every moment to propel me forward in getting better.
I spent my weekends with my team, the Carolina Angels (an intimidating mascot, I know) playing up to 3 games a day. Honestly, we were just okay. We won some, loss some…probably coming out with a mostly winning record. But having the team on my shoulders, having to be the one to box out for the rebound while also getting the ball down the court forced me into improving out of desperation to win. My dad loves telling a story about spending the weekend in Asheville, NC and me being so upset about how I played I didn’t even say a word all night. He guessed a decent order for me from McDonalds and threw it in my direction, accepting my dramatic somber attitude that was probably uncalled for. What an angel, my dad. Driving me twice a week to practices, giving up his weekends to go to tournaments, dropping who knows how much on hotel rooms, and all without a complaint and filled with pride at his daughter delighting in the sport she loved.
I filled every summer with all the camps I wanted. I went to Duke so I could play on Coach K’s court, and went to High Point University as 1 of the 50 people invited and accepted to the “Focused 50” boot camp. There was not one opportunity to play hard that I neglected. Summer optional workouts? Went all out. Pick-up games in PE when really no one important was watching? “Broke the ankles” of Bradon Wherrit as a resounding “Ooohhhhh” came from watchers. Saturdays? Played pick up for HOURS at the YMCA, the only girl. Basketball was everything to me.
I made Varsity Freshman year, had to really work for playing time both mentally and physically. I had every intention on playing in college. I went to organized shoot-outs where you got a number, was thrown on a random team, and college recruiters watched for their next player. I began receiving letters and “questionnaires” for small colleges in my state who were interested in me as a player. By my junior year, I was starting. At the time, my county’s competition for girls basketball was tough. It was not only acceptable, but an honor to play…some of the most popular and desirable girls played basketball. There was even a rumor when we played our rival high school that they wanted to switch the girls and guys games as the girls game would be the climax of the evening.
Clearly, “Ball was Life.” During the first game my junior year, we played Oak Hill Academy (a nationally recognized private school who sends people to play D-1 or professionally). The first quarter I dropped 8 points, and I remember thinking FINALLY I HAVE ARRIVED. Barely a minute into the first quarter, i collide with my teammates forehead as we were both hustling for a rebound and break my nose. Needless to say, sitting out for a month following that put a damper on my season. I didn’t truly recover and hit the same stride I began my year with. By the end of the season, I started feeling like maybe playing in college wasn’t the right thing for me. I did happen to make pretty good grades and started thinking going to the best college possible was probably more important. I started tossing the letters from the small local colleges, which was hard-but felt right in my gut.
Here’s the thing- despite giving up dreams of playing in college, my love for the game never diminished. My pure enjoyment of playing didn’t waiver, and the part of me that identified myself as a basketball player did not shift whatsoever. I never let up on effort, and never let up on extracurricular playing.
I headed on to UNC-Chapel Hill to subsequently get body-slammed in academics for the first time. I missed playing. I showed up to play on the club team, but eventually decided that for the first time in my life, I should explore new things. I volunteered with a non-profit that works with high school kids…and guess where I ended up. Coaching JV basketball. While some of my old teammates were playing at smaller colleges and living out what I thought I dreamed of…I was still involved in the game- coaching and playing occasionally with the varsity team. I also began playing pick up with some guys I became friends with every Thursday night at Woolen gym, a historic gym with about 10 courts that have pick up games almost constantly. Again, playing pick-up…I was the only girl.
And this trend has continued. I ending up working for this same non-profit full time…again, ended up coaching. This time, I was an assistant to the state champion team, and was part of the team of guys that they played against to heighten their competition. Again, the only girl. I played pick up as often as I could with friends…again, the only girl. I now play pick up with my husband and friends…again, the only girl.
There’s been ONE situation where I became aware of a legitimate women’s league. I joined a terrible team, but loved every second of getting whooped by 30 points. Joining a game of pick up doesn’t hold a candle to playing fundamentally sound, competitive, organized basketball. I think that’s why most women don’t play anymore. It’s just not the same game when we play with men who mostly are not fundamentally trained. The selfishness in a pick up game, the suppressed sexist decisions, and the sloppy fundamentals can borderline ruin it. I’m so desperate to keep basketball in my life, I’ve grown a thick skin and put up with it. But it sucks when you are constantly paired with the super-unathletic spaz who plays defense with zero body control, making you susceptible to being clothes-lined or injured. Who is the worst player on the team? Oh- you get “the girl.” As if I have nothing to contribute and as if I don’t have a name. Word to the wise, if a girl has the gall to show up and play pick up, chances are she can shoot, so DEAR LORD set her a screen!!!!
All this is to say, my two best friends who actually played college basketball NEVER play anymore. I think I am an anomaly. They enjoyed 4 more years of this beautiful, graceful game full of rhythm, smart decisions, and passion. But they never play anymore. Why? I can’t really figure out. This game captured my heart long ago…and maybe that’s why it didn’t really matter if I played college or not. I love playing. I’m willing to put up with arrogant men, playing with a ball sized for men’s hands, and being matched with hazard in order to feel what its like to drive and connect to the basket, to feel what its like to hit a 3 in transition, and to RUN- to run without abandon, with hope and desire to be a part of the next play.
Ladies, where have you gone? There’s CERTAINLY more than just me- there HAS to be women who love the sport…who probably gave significant parts of their lives to the sport that have a desire to keep playing. Can’t we all band together and make it happen? Can’t we bring women’s basketball to a place where it’s not only the elite who continue play? Can’t we make room for us on the court, who spent hours sprinting, sliding, and lifting? Can’t we peel ourselves away from what our futures have brought us-motherhood or careers- to play the sport we once did everything in our power to play?
I hope so. Until then, I guess I’ll keep guarding the 12 year old.
Julia Hartsell Chisholm