Dreaming Below the Rim

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, March 24, 2000

It’s March. In North Carolina, that can mean only one thing.

When I moved to Durham eight years ago, people spoke about Atlantic Coast Conference basketball — particularly Duke basketball — like it was a virus: You come here, you catch it. For seven years, I was immune. I embraced my basketball antipathy. I reveled in my resistance.

Then last year I, too, became infected. The vector was Trajan Langdon, captain of Duke’s team. I met him, liked him, began to watch him play. I stopped turning away the prized Duke basketball tickets that I was occasionally offered. I started screaming at the television, complaining about the announcers, cursing the referees. I became a fan.

Many of my friends are basketball fans, and a number are devoted followers of the Duke women’s team. So I started going to women’s games this year. In so doing, I’ve found a rich diversity. Part of the reason I’m still such an ignorant spectator is that my focus is often elsewhere, like on who else is watching. At a women’s game, I take my seat in the most mixed crowd I am ever in. I am thrilled to be hanging with a critical mass of lesbians. I like being in a place where interracial couples feel comfortable. I enjoy watching fathers bring packs of daughters and their friends.

The team’s hard-core following includes students, faculty members, and administrators. The president and her husband are at almost every home game with their grandkids. And, for less than the price of a movie ticket, families from the wider Durham community show up as well. The Gee Whiz program buses in middle-school girls. Sitting in this diverse crowd, I get chills.

In some ways, I think, collegiate women’s basketball — both its athletes and its fans — represents an imagined future.

I do also watch the game (though I still never seem to know why the refs are blowing the whistle). The women’s ball is slightly smaller than the men’s, and the women’s game is different. It’s slower. You don’t get those outrageous bursts of athletic power, players flying through the air. What you do see is five people working together. There’s less showboating, more passing. A friend who coaches a girl’s middle-school team says girls are afraid of being seen as “ball hogs” and will go out of their way to avoid such an accusation. That means less aggressive but more cohesive play. All that feminist-theory stuff about the differences in women’s ways of being — nonhierarchical, seeking connection — in full-court action.

You see it in the coaching as well. When I took a friend to a women’s game, he was astounded by the fact that, during a time-out, the women’s coach huddled with her assistant coaches before speaking to the players. You don’t see that very often with the men’s teams. I recently asked the coach why she did it. She looked surprised at the question, saying simply that she wanted the opinions of her assistants. She liked hearing what others had to say before she made her decisions. Besides, she said, she wanted the players to have time to take care of themselves before listening to her, to get their drinks, to settle down; she wanted to talk to them when they were ready to listen.

If you ask people why they go to the women’s games, they say it’s about the fundamentals of basketball. It’s pure, it’s essential, it’s the way the game was meant to be played, the way it was played by men 20 years ago. The women shoot as well as the men, and do better, percentage-wise, on free throws. I can’t help believing that the next generation, the little girls who are being bused in, will think it’s cool to spend time practicing their shooting and passing, and that the women’s game will become even more about finesse, about precision.

The Duke men’s players show up for many of the women’s home games. I love that they come, though it also troubles me that their appearance automatically takes attention away from the women’s game. When the men show up, tiny autograph-seekers mob them. Seeing those tall men surrounded by swarms of kids is a hoot. It is also troubling. The young boys engage the players, chat. But the girls seem only to want proximity: They sit near the players in passive, silent, benevolent adoration. While the girls do mob the women players for autographs after the game, it’s the men they see on TV. They admire the women; they revere the men.

Before one game, I trotted over to ask one of the male players what he liked about the women’s games. He said women’s basketball was still “unclouded by commercialism.” Ironic, I thought, from someone who is likely, in the near future, to profit enormously from the commercialism of the sport. While I don’t think he meant to be disingenuous or condescending, his sentiment bothers me. We like the women’s game for its purity. We respect the fact that women never play to packed arenas, rarely appear on television. We admire them for playing for love of the game, not filthy lucre. Isn’t that sweet?

My own hope is that, in time, women’s basketball will become more commercial. I want to see women’s games sell out; I’d like to see women players on TV commercials and cereal boxes; I’d love to see even more young girls grow up with hoop dreams.

It will take some time to get there. Some players still make a strange attempt to appear “feminine,” and have been known to wear bows in their hair. Some of the very tall players do not seem quite at home in their bodies. Even the lankiest, gawkiest of men, will, on the court, move with a surprising fluidity. But the tall women often hunch over, masking, as they no doubt do in the rest of their daily lives, their height. They move awkwardly, not using their long, strong arms to full advantage when they run down the court. It’s still not cool to be taller — or stronger — than the average guy. Once women’s sports is a big deal, perhaps these tall young women will rise to their full height.

But still, we’ve gone from teasing sports-minded girls about being “tomboys” and “jocks” to calling them athletes, to the point where women’s bodies are viewed as attractively muscular, where sweat is sexy. So it drives me nuts that, at Duke, we have cheerleaders: old-fashioned cheerleaders, complete with skimpy skirts, midriff-bearing tops, pom-poms, and beribboned ponytails. Pom-poms?

Most of the teams we play, male and female, have coed cheerleading squads. All of the students on those squads are athletic; they tumble and do circus-like stunts. But the men perform the major feats of strength; they toss the women about like weightless objects. I’m not saying that it doesn’t take real strength and control to be tossed about. (Ann Richards’s remark about Ginger Rogers dancing backwards and in high heels comes to mind. …) But while you can find plenty of dance companies that have women doing lifts, you don’t see that in college cheerleading. Men lift, women are lifted (in their short little skirts).

At Duke, we have only female cheerleaders. The irony of having them at the women’s basketball games — where, for the most part, they don’t do anything but shake their pom-poms — is striking. Haven’t we moved beyond this yet? When I mentioned my discomfort to a woman who had been the student manager of the Duke women’s team in the early 80’s (and whose business is now a corporate sponsor of the team), she pointed out that it’s an equity issue. The presence of cheerleaders represents recent respect and institutional support for women’s sports. She’s happy to have them and the pep band there. When I think about it, I have to agree: Women cheering for other women strikes me as not such a bad message after all. But it still gives me the creeps.

The response to the U.S. women’s soccer victory in the World Cup last summer was a harbinger of things to come in women’s sports (though, personally, I’d have liked to see the media’s focus shift away from who was taking off her shirt). I’m talking not just about the fact that an unprecedented crowd showed up for the game (a female administrator in Duke’s athletics department said that, when she had heard that 70,000 fans turned out, she had assumed that a men’s game had been played first), or that the women received adulation for their victory. I’m talking about the fact that they got it for a team sport.

While our most popular men’s sports are all about big teams — football, basketball, baseball, hockey — until recently, women’s athletics has focused on individuals — think of gymnastics, figure skating, tennis, golf. At this point, the women athletes we know best, we know as individuals, not as members of a team. We are used to having the cameras focus on one female body, in a tennis skirt or skin-tight costume. We want feminized, personal relationships with our female athletes. We want them to be both/and — both athletes and women who fill traditional roles as girlfriends (of men), wives, and mothers. We don’t want them to be tough, or crude, or brazen off the playing field. With the men, as long as they’re not committing murder or saying racist things in public, we don’t hear that much — at least during the games, in the “color commentary” — about what they do in private.

As I sit in Cameron Indoor Stadium watching the Duke women’s basketball games, I find myself thinking that this is an important historical moment, that the world is changing right in front of me. Afterward, the little girls rush the players and ask for autographs. They lean over to slap hands as the women run off the court. They can grow up seeing sports as something to aspire to, to reach for, to grow toward. These youngsters don’t know that women have been allowed to play basketball in this arena for only the past 25 years; they don’t know about life before Title IX, and they can’t imagine how different things were for their own mothers and, more, for their grandmothers. Yes, the world sure is changing. At this moment, I’m glad to be a spectator.