I have loved sports from the moment I learned what a ball was and and what to do with it. I spent hours as a kid playing football with myself — throwing a ball up onto the slanted roof of my childhood home and trying to catch it as it came tumbling down. I played on baseball and basketball teams through the Boys and Girls Club. At recess, I could be found on whatever field or court was available, playing my heart out, competing with kids who were sometimes much older and stronger than me. It never occurred to me to do anything else. I just wanted to play, to be on a team — and I want to take the opportunity now to talk about my experiences with basketball, and specifically as a woman playing basketball, as well as the lessons I’ve learned from playing and why they matter so much to me.
I think I touched a basketball for the first time when I was about four or five years old. I don’t actually remember — my first memories of basketball aren’t particularly complete. I remember my dad used to play in a pickup game, or maybe a league, at the Pro Club near our house, and that he would take me with him. There was an old coach at the club — Gordo — and he would sit on the sidelines with me and dribble. He taught me how to do a crossover by having me straddle a line and hit it with the ball every time I switched hands. I can’t picture his face, or hear his voice, but I feel him and my dad and every coach and teammate I’ve ever had when I hear the squeak of rubber shoes on hardwood, One Shining Moment on the TV every March, and the rhythm of a basketball bouncing, thump-thump, thump-thump, like a heartbeat.
I don’t distinctly remember the first time I was told I wasn’t as good because I was a girl either — I don’t know that anyone ever actually said those words out loud inside my earshot. But I have some moments that stand out. I remember the high school boy who wrote in my senior yearbook that I was “one of the few girls he could bear to watch play basketball “— and thinking that that was a nice compliment, because it meant I “played like a boy” and was therefore good, or at least interesting. I remember being told by a new guy when I tried to join the daily pickup game I usually played in that it was technically “men’s pickup”, and that I should play in the weekly women’s pickup game instead. My body remembers getting crushed by dirty screens set by men (never the regulars, always the new guys) looking to stop me coming back to pickup games and leagues, screens I didn’t get warned about by men who were supposed to be on my team. I remember the frequent ridicule aimed at the idea that the Storm were any good, that any WNBA team was or could be— the enduring belief that the “girls” playing basketball couldn’t be as interesting and as impressive as the men because they couldn’t jump as high or run as fast. I remember being told that it was “not sexist, just the truth,” and that I was too emotionally invested to be rational about it if I disagreed.
I wonder sometimes if those boys, when they grow up to be men, will have daughters — or if they already do. I wonder if they will tell their daughters the same things they told me. I think about the men I played with who told me or showed me in some way that I didn’t belong, and I wonder what their daughters grew up to think of them.
I was (and am!) also very fortunate to have people — including a number of excellent men — in my life who backed my athletic pursuits. My middle school coach, a former University of Washington standout, took coaching a ragtag group of middle school girls seriously. He taught us proper offensive and defensive fundamentals, the way he had been taught, and he taught us to play as a team. My high school coaches put us through NBA style drills, ran us ragged, and never went easy on us when they jumped in the scrimmages. Some of the boys on the high school team — and some of their coaches — invited me to work out with them, to play pickup, took me seriously when I did and stood up for me when others didn’t. My college coach challenged me and my teammates to work harder, to play together, to trust each other and our system and to never give anything less than our best. And, when it was suggested that I join the women’s pickup game, one of the other regulars grinned at me and suggested that the newcomer be responsible for defending me — then laughed as I torched him.
But before there were any of those people, there was my dad. We spent hours in the driveway, in the garage, in empty gyms, just working and talking. He taught me to shoot the same jump shot he was taught to shoot — ball up by my head, elbow cocked, kick hard off the ground, flick of the wrist and hold your follow through. There wasn’t a reason to change it — a jump shot is a jump shot, no matter who is shooting it. He found film of Jackie Stiles to go along with Michael Jordan and Pete Maravich, and we poured over it together. My dad had — and still has — a basketball metaphor for everything. It gives new meaning to the phrase “ball is life”, and I’m only half joking when I say that everything I need to know about life I learned from basketball.
Basketball taught me perseverance and resilience. It taught me that if people say you can’t, if you don’t make the team, if you get injured — you keep coming back for more. It taught me that only I get to say when I’ve had enough, that only I get to say whether I’m enough. It taught me to keep my shoulders back and my head up, no matter what, and to stand tall in the face of adversity.
Basketball taught me excellence. Or, more accurately, it taught me what it takes to be excellent. It taught me about hard work and consistency — the every day grind that backs up every big moment. It taught me that I would only get what I was willing to outwork myself and everyone else for. It taught me how to find the edge of what I thought I was capable of, the end of the energy I thought I had, and then find just a little more every single day.
Basketball taught me sacrifice. It taught me the joy that comes from the pain of putting myself in front of a charging power forward (or a charging client, these days) and being picked up by my teammates. It taught me to sit the bench when that’s what the team needed, to always be ready, that no member of the team mattered more than any other. It showed me my teammates playing through pain, sucking wind and then sucking it up to go another play, another drill, another minute of all of us together.
Basketball taught me compassion. It taught me to embrace my opponent when the game is done, to congratulate them on a game well played regardless of the outcome. It taught me to hold my teammates up when they struggled, and to allow myself to be held up by them in my turn. It taught me that everyone has good days and bad days, and that regardless of what we’re going through individually we are always better when we are there for each other.
Basketball taught me teamwork. It taught me that the first thing you do when something goes wrong is put your hand up and claim your share of the responsibility. It taught me that the most important thing about your personal performance is how it impacts the team. It taught me that if the team is winning, then we are all winning, and if the team is losing, then we are all losing, and that the only way to grow is together.
Basketball taught me leadership. It taught me that the team is only as strong as the bonds that hold them together. It taught me that you can’t make everyone happy all the time, and that not everyone is going to like you all the time, and most importantly that both of those things are ok. It taught me that the most important thing is to do the right thing, and to do the thing right. To put in the work. To hold yourself accountable to the same standards you would hold others.
These lessons, to me, are the true value of basketball — of any sport. I don’t believe that the lessons I learned and that I carry with me to this day are in any way lessened by the fact that I happen to be a woman. I don’t believe that men, through any physical advantage they might possess, have learned these lessons any better than I have, or are any more capable of being leaders or role models or champions than I am.
If you don’t believe the things I do, maybe nothing I’ve said will convince you. But I remain convinced that sports, and women’s sports especially, have value beyond the entertainment they provide. They have the power to shape our lives and our world, to make all of us better — to help us see ourselves as playing for the same team, to teach us how to pick each other up and hold each other accountable and move forward, all of us together.
I’d like to leave you with a story.
I grew up in the suburbs outside Seattle. By the summer after my junior year in high school, the Sonics had left town, become the Oklahoma City Thunder, and broken my heart. My consolation was that the Storm had been saved at the eleventh hour by a group of enterprising female business leaders, and so they remained in Seattle. That summer, I managed to secure an internship with the franchise helping with programming for young Storm fans doing things like running basketball camps and kid friendly game experiences. During one particular game, I was working a sign-up table for the Kid’s Club and keeping a particular eye out for young kids and their parents. I remember very distinctly watching a little boy, maybe 9 years old, walking by with his dad. They were just within my earshot and as they passed I heard him say “Daddy, I want to be like Sue Bird.”
I didn’t hear what his dad said back. I hope he nodded. I hope he smiled. I hope he agreed, that he acknowledged what his son saw. Sue Bird, to his son, was just a basketball player — a great one. He saw a leader, a floor general, a sharpshooter deadly from any range, fired up for her teammates and invested in their success. None of those things had anything to do with her gender. She was just the best, and he wanted to be the best just like her. It made me smile. It gave me hope. It still does.
I wanted to be like Sue Bird too. I still do. And I want to be like Serena Williams, like Melissa Ludtke, like Becky Hammon, like Katie Sowers, like all the trailblazing women whose footsteps I am so proud and thankful to get to walk in. So should we all. We are all made up of our history, of the people who came before us — and it is up to us to say to the girls whose history we will make up that, as Megan Rapinoe said, “you are not lesser just because you are a girl. You are not better just because you are a boy” — and that a jump shot is a jump shot, no matter who shoots it.