Not Only a Man’s Game

NCAA

My words today are devoted to Women’s Basketball, particularly college women’s ball, as tonight [April 9th, 2013, when this reflection was broadcasted] is the battle between Louisville and UConn for the NCAA championship.

It’s amazing what a genuine star brings to a game. Having heard our children mention the name “Skylar Diggins” far too many times to mention, my wife and I decided to check out last Sunday’s match between Notre Dame and UConn.

To our good fortune, we saw an amazing—perhaps historic—game. While Notre Dame was favored to win, with Skylar Diggins doing some spectacular blocks and shots and even being the subject of most of the television commercials, an extraordinary freshman (odd description of a female athlete, no?) Breana Stewart rose to the occasion for UConn, hitting point after point, from downtown, uptown, and, well—anytown.

Along the way I began to think about the many disparaging things I’ve heard about women’s basketball.  They amount to the notion that “real basketball” is a man’s game.  This prejudice has always struck my wife and me as odd since our youngest daughter playing basketball has been for us an activity requiring doses of Tylenol for her and for us as we watched her, a center, get battered each week.

Skylar

Middle school girls’ basketball sometimes resembles rugby, and from what I saw the other night in the Notre Dame versus UConn game, college women’s basketball is pretty fast moving and very rough.

What is unsaid, however, is that what many people want from women’s basketball is for it to be men’s basketball with women players. The problem with that view is that it affords no room for women to be women, and that may mean playing the game in their own way. Without that, the game would eventually lead simply to women who are, basically, men.

The face-off of Diggjns and Stewart revealed two different kinds of women. We could think about one being a beautiful woman of color and the other being, as a critic who will remain nameless described her, an aesthetically challenged white girl. The stage is set for all the trappings of gender and race.

Stewart

The glory of the two women at the end of the day was not, however, proverbially skin-deep.  It’s simply beautiful to watch such talented athletes perform at the best of their abilities. And although around them were all the contradictions of how gender works itself out in our society—with women of a variety of ages trying so hard to be pretty and sexy (for example, coaches and advisors in six- to eight-inch heels and black leather skirts), something not often seen in their male counterparts and an effort for which we cannot blame them—there were unexpected dynamics of race and realizations about the game. It is a real change, for instance, problematic as it may be with regard to gender, that the exemplar of beauty and talent was Diggins, the woman of color. Stewart was left to talent and other factors. But there was even more: the game itself was going through a transformation before our eyes.

Women (of any racial or ethnic background) playing basketball compels us to think about the game in new ways—just as when the Harlem Globetrotters inaugurated a revolution in the racial visual field of the sport.  Last Sunday, as the television panned out across the stadium, there were pregnant women on the sidelines, tall women, short women, light women, dark women, sexually ambiguous women, feminine women, masculine women, and the male coaches and assistants were there adjusting themselves to a circumstance of a female-focused court.

Basketball is changing, and I am very hopeful for the future of women's basketball. I say basketball is changing because there was a time when the only place to get game, as it were, was on asphalt, often littered with broken glass, in courts outside elementary and middle schools, often in the roughest areas of inner cities.  That’s, sadly, not the most welcoming environment for girls.

In the past, if one were to drive through lower middle-class neighborhoods and suburbs, one would see evidence of mostly baseball and football, and many of us are still recovering from the emergence of “soccer moms.”  Today, it is rare to see a driveway in those same neighborhoods without a basketball hoop.

Young players are learning the game in their driveways and on school and community teams. I cannot imagine this shift not affecting the way the game is played and who plays it.

If I’m correct, it will become mundane in the future to hear the venerable expression, especially at those crucial moments of leaping out of our seats right after a game-winning swoosh through the basket, not only, “Go on, girl!” but also:

She’s got game!”   

***

Postscript: These NPR and UConn links offer a report on the historic performance of the UConn Women’s Basketball Team that followed my Redding News Review broadcast that evening:

http://www.npr.org/2013/04/09/176740213/uconn-women-rout-louisville-93-60-for-8th-national-championship

http://today.uconn.edu/blog/2013/04/eight-is-great-huskies-rout-louisville-for-8th-ncaa-title/

© Lewis R. Gordon