Photo by Ryan Fung.
Photo by Ryan Fung.

My dad always joked that he encouraged me to play sports because I was supposed to be born a boy (I am the youngest of three girls—his final, failed attempt at contributing a Y chromosome to the world). After trying out a wide variety of athletic pursuits in the sixth grade (fencing, softball, and circus camp), I found basketball to be the most fulfilling. I ended up taking basketball pretty seriously and played all the way through high school and became a captain of the varsity team.

But then there’s the tragedy of being a 5’5’ female on a not-super-athletic campus—since I wasn’t willing to commit myself to the club basketball practice schedule, there weren’t many opportunities for me to play casual basketball. Whenever I would enter Dillon Gym on my way to the workout room, I’d pass the ongoing pick-up basketball games, which consisted of many tall, aggressive-looking men. I always wondered how they organized these games—did they just form organically, or is there some association of casual basketball players that I don’t know about? Either way, I never had the nerve to approach them and ask to join.

Last week, my hall-mate Max stuck his head into my room and asked if I was interested in walking over to Dillon Gym with him. I wasn’t doing anything interesting, so I changed, grabbed a book of poetry to read on a stationary-bike, and headed over. As we entered the gym, I heard the familiar heavy thumps, grunts and screeches coming from the various pick-up games. Just as I was about to retreat to the workout room, one of the players screamed over to Max:

“Yo, you wanna play?”

“Yeah I’ll go in for the next game,” Max responded casually. He then turned to me. “Lil, you want in?”

I instinctively said “oh, no. That wouldn’t end well.” I knew that he was just asking me out of courtesy.

“You sure?” he asked absently, as if he had already accepted my response.

In that moment, something came over me. My frolicsome sixth-grade self erupted through my apathetic college-sophomore exterior. “Actually, yeah. Yeah! I’ll play. If you don’t think they’d mind.” And that’s how I found myself playing in an all-male pick-up game.

At the start of the next game, everyone started matching up with the person they would guard. When I played with girls, I usually matched up with one of the shooting guards (or anyone who wasn’t really tall). However, my former strategy was useless in this context since everyone was four standard deviations taller than me.

So I stood there awkwardly and waited for a guy from the other team to drift over to me. A grad student whose name I did not catch (but I’ll refer to him as Phil for no particular reason) was the only one of the opposing team who wasn’t yet matched up with someone. After exchanging smirks with his fellow teammates, Phil leisurely approached me, swinging his arms heavily at his sides. I have never seen a sarcastic expression of “LOL” executed so brilliantly with body language alone.

As soon as he was within earshot of me, he said the following: “I’ll guard the female. I’m good with the ladies.”

My immediate reaction to this was amusement. I gave a honk-like sarcastic laugh. I had expected that there’d be sexism, and I was kind of glad it was palpable instead of under the surface. In the few moments I had between this statement and the start of the game, I decided that I needed to come up with some sort of comical response.

I responded, “Oh good! Same here.”

I wasn’t really sure what I meant by that— it’s really a cop out in terms of come backs because you could pretty much follow any jab with that line. I guess it implied that I was “good with the ladies” as well.

The game was exhausting. I knew that my only valuable asset was my speed, so I sprinted everywhere, even when I didn’t need to. Even worse, whenever one of the guys would accidentally fling his moist, hairy limbs into my face, he would stop and sincerely apologize. In these moments I felt that I had to offer a little girlish giggle or smirk to assure them that I wasn’t hurt.

My least favorite part was ‘boxing-out.’ If you’ve played basketball before, you know how awkward inter-sex boxing out is. It’s essentially the process of aggressively wedging yourself between your opponent and the basket, so you’ll be able to rebound the ball. If you’re having trouble envisioning this, perhaps the best analogy I can offer is the basement of T.I. on a Saturday night. Whenever a shot was thrown up, I shamelessly maneuvered my butt into Phil’s groins. Despite this act of heroism, I did not get many rebounds.

Throughout the game, Phil proceeded to roll his eyes at me when I guarded him. He was obscenely lazy and hardly moved around but, unfortunately for me, he was a really good shooter.

Eventually, one of my teammates gave me some tips— “don’t be afraid to shove the fuck out of Phil” and “you’re not going to get the ball unless you look like you want the ball.” I was unsure of whether to take these as more unsolicited sexist innuendo or actual advice, but I decided to listen to him. I both “shoved the fuck” out of Phil and clapped when I wanted the ball. They ended up passing to me twice. In both cases, I was wide open, and in both cases, I made the shot. Everyone on my team high fived me shortly after I scored. Although I know they meant well, it came across as patronizing.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole experience. I left the gym drenched in sweat, and lay on my bed, paralyzed with exhaustion for a few hours (note that this is distinct from ‘sleep’). I’m not sure if I was angry with Phil for being an overtly sexist jerk, or if that anger just make me a hypocrite. Maybe his behavior—defending his masculinity by acting like a dude—isn’t so far off from what I was doing; I giggled if someone apologized to me, I felt awkward about being aggressive, and initially I didn’t think I deserved to have the ball passed to me. My insecurity was purely because of my gender; I was acting like a stereotypical girl, which maybe gives Phil every right to treat me like one. Despite this, I’m glad that I played. My height-to-scoring ratio was definitely impressive, confirming my hypothesis that you don’t need testicles to play basketball.