Tuesday, March 13, 2007

BORN TOO SOON


This week, more than 10,000 basketball fans jammed into the Cox Center in Oklahoma City to watch the OU women take their 4th Big XII Conference title. Well-fed young men in the crowd puffed out their naked bellies (painted Sooner crimson for the occasion) and old men lowered their bald heads to show cameras the initials of their favorite players, shellacked on their pates. ("CP" was the favorite, for Courtney Paris, currently breaking American college basketball records right, left, and down the middle.) The huge audience was wild with delight just to be there.

Mesmerized, I watched every minute on TV, tears streaming down my face. No, not tears of joy for the win.(Though there was that.) No, I wept to realize that I had been born thirty years too soon to know basketball as today's women played it. The OU Sooner women raced from rim to rim, leaped and blocked, battered and were battered. They shot three-pointers, lay-ups, and fade-away jump shots. Their breath-taking center is 6'4" and their incredible point guard is 5'3". Their sport was fierce, brilliant, run-and-gun. It bore no resemblance to the game I remember. That game had been designed for an imaginary species, the Delicate Female.

Picture it: Arizona, a lovely Fall day in the Fifties. A dozen girls shuffle out onto a cement court between the high school classroom building and the gymnasium-auditorium (where the boys’ team is playing on the wood-floor court.). A dozen, because Back Then, girls’ teams had six on a side. Don’t ask; I don’t know why. They never explained why. And in those days, students didn't ask why very often. Perhaps the Rulemakers thought five mere girls weren’t enough to cover a court without straining something.

Did I say "cover a court"? Correction: half a court. We weren’t allowed to cross the center line–except for one designated shooter. Too much running, you see, for delicate females in the process of developing their female organs. Irrelevant that many classmates lived on Arizona ranches and had already spent years sprinting after stray calves and skittish horses over acres of mesquite. No matter: the Rulebook ordained half-court only.

The Book proclaimed another bit of insane Victorian flummery: two dribbles. Yup. A player was allowed only two dribbles; then she was required to pass the ball. "What was the logic there?" I hear you ask. Got me again. Maybe more than two dribbles would tax our delicate arm muscles. (Those would be the same arm muscles that hauled hefty baby brothers all over the house, lugged bushel baskets of garden produce to market and back, wrestled with huge loads of laundry, and performed other appropriately delicate chores.)

Or perhaps some Rulemaker had decided that the rhythmic bouncing of the ball (more than twice) would ignite the passions of the nubile ladies-in-waiting. I don’t know, though: side-saddles had vanished two generations earlier, despite warnings about what straddling would do to American Womanhood.

Between the half-court rule and the two dribble restriction, our game was so slow we groaned with boredom. Fae Jones, our best natural athlete, more than once paused in the middle of a game to light up a Lucky Strike, continuing to receive passes and dribble one-handed as she puffed. There would have been hell to pay had a teacher seen her, but our P.E. instructors, Miss Van Latte and Ms. Calzone, were safely occupied in their converted-barracks office, "working on the grade-book" and blowing their cigarette smoke out the back window.


During our daintified game, no one ever worked up a sweat. That was just as well, because we hated Rule #19, which demanded a shower after each P.E. class. We solved that one easily: sweat-free and cool, we would turn on the showers full steam, bang on the sides of the stalls and shriek as though leaping about in the cold water, then write S on the honor-system roll chart, affirming our allegiance to #19. Those girls hesitant to go on record with such a bald-faced lie (two Baptists, a Catholic, and the lone Mormon) would mark down MP, for menstrual period, during which times we weren’t required to shower. (Talk about logic.) Some girls swore to three periods a month.

The rules of the game in that era, possibly by design but certainly by result, made girls feel inadequate to a serious contest. The diluted rules were the equivalent of training wheels on your first, and only, bike. (Few of us dreamed of a day when girls and women would insist on and get a real bike.) And just in case we didn’t get the message, Rule #20 decreed truly amazing uniforms. We called them Fruit Suits: bright blue, one-piece bloomer outfits with elastic around the knee-length legs. (Let’s skip right over the darker significance of the elastic leg closings. Suffice it to say the boys did not have elastic around the bottoms of their gym shorts.) In the Fruit Suits, we clearly didn’t look or feel like athletes ; nor did we look or feel very female. Perhaps that was the desired effect: either end of the scale was considered dangerous in the society of the Fifties.


But hey, we all survived, most of us in fine style. Some of us became P.E. teachers ourselves, and coached teams in a changing version of the sport that would have left Ms. Van Latte and Ms. Calzone in the dusty desert caliche. A few of my classmates still compete in senior division sports; (do the math on that.) Others of us, fearing imminent death by ennui, turned against women’s sports for years, only to be blown out of the tranquil waters and onto an altogether new continent when we finally thrilled to the second-generation basketball of Pat Summit, Nancy Leiberman, Lisa Leslie, and, yes, of Courtney Paris. But that’s a story for another day.

6 comments:

fastice said...

I can’t resist offering a comment or two in response to "Born Too Soon". I was born in the sixties, and entered the world of sports in the seventies, a full twenty years after the two-dribble half-court travesty once called women’s basketball (or did it go by a different name then?…perhaps “Maypole” or some other long-lost bizarre but expected female pastime?). The seventies, you say? 1978 brought us the first Women’s Professional Basketball League…surely things must have been so different by then! Well, change is always relative. The seventies, being most notable for following the sixties, should have afforded us fem-jocks more options than those of poor Bellabell’s fifties. Despite its timing – in the throes of the women’s liberation movement - we jocks remember that disco-burdened decade more as “pre-Title Nine” than as “post-revolutionary”. Our nifty two-toned (light blue and lighter blue) gym-suits had perhaps lost the elastic knees of those oppressive days on the outdoor cement court, but they were still one-piece in nature, and made of the new un-breathable polyester, the pinnacle of seventies ingenuity. This seemingly small fabric improvement simultaneously increased our body heat and also allowed for sweat to roll freely down our skin without the inconvenient underarm and v-shaped sweat marks that only cotton can absorb and properly display. But at least it wasn’t a skirt. In the Midwest in the seventies, girl’s sports were limited to those in which one wore a skirt - and basketball (polyester un-skirt). The feminine so blatantly disallowed in women’s athletics in the fifties served to define our options in the seventies: we could choose from field hockey, tennis, and softball (yes, they wore skirts too). On the east coast they could also play lacrosse, but we had never heard of that skirt-clad sport. As young tom-boys, we had no bras to burn, so instead we turned our pre-adolescent-feminist anger toward that other article of clothing that bound us metaphorically by male oppression: the hated, the dreaded, the un-jock-like skirt. I finally refused to wear a skirt and played right out in public in boy’s gym shorts in my final match at state tennis championships (don’t be too impressed…it was "my" final match not "the" final match). Surprisingly, I was not disqualified, and claimed a resounding triumph for female athletes everywhere. The effects were admittedly localized. My perceived ripple effect through the sports world may have actually been confined to a one-block radius of my high school, but it was a triumph nonetheless. That bold display of civil disobedience was followed by my refusal to dissect a frog, but that, as Bellabell says, is a story for another day. But alas, even post-Title Nine, we are struggling for athletic equality. Perhaps we sweat more and enjoy more comfortable uniforms and wow the crowds with slam dunks and three-point shots, but the powers that be still conspire to keep us in our place. Thirty years after my skirt-burning, I found myself standing on a podium with a bronze medal around my neck, at the 2002 Olympic Trials (for a winter sledding sport you’ve never heard of). Five other athletes stood with me: the Gold, Silver and Bronze medalists for the men, and the Gold and Silver medalists for the women. As the cameras flashed, my emotions reeled from the blatant display of gender inequality in sports. Out of the corner of my eye, I could just make out the ghost of the 1950’s Delicate Female, standing beside me on the podium that day, her eyes averted, her shoulders drooping. The top three men from trials were going to Salt Lake City, you see, to compete for the USA in the Olympics, but only the top two women were going. In 2002, those were the rules. As Bellabell says, “don’t ask; I don’t know why”. Wait, yes I do: he had a y-chromosome and I did not (no need to be crude and use other means to paint that picture, you get the point). My male bronze-medalist Olympic Trials counter-part was going to parade his y-chromosome into Rice-Eccles Stadium that February for opening ceremonies and then have a shot at Olympic Gold, while I was to watch those ceremonies with the rest of the world and then “forerun” the women’s race, a form of humiliation so scarring that I might as well have been wearing my light blue 1975 polyester gym suit, or even (spit-when-you-say-it) a skirt. Perhaps every girl jock is simply destined to echo those words at some point in her life, despite her version of a near-perfect fade-away jump-shot: “I was born too soon.”

Emily said...

Ok, ok, as a post-Title Niner I promise no more self-pity that I'm only just now getting to play full-contact tackle football on a women's team at the age of 34, which in male NFL football years is about like 64.

C. Carico said...

Greetings,

Excellent post, thank you. One of my favorite stories is beating two men in a row arm wrestling at the 'Metro' bar in San Francisco. I would have probably beat the third, but I didn't change arms. The first guy I beat had wagered that I would have to go on a date with him if he won. A reward for me in case I won was not discussed (such was his overweaning pride and assurance that he would best me). He was so ashamed for losing he slunk away from the bar. Note, this is a gay bar. I struck up a friendly conversation with him and his cronies while a friend of mine left me alone to make a phone call. I asked him if he was gay (since he and his friends did not look it). He said, "You'll have to arm wrestle me to find out." I suppose he meant because he was straight he would beat me. Obviously he is not familiar with the buffed and beefy "Castro Clone"--gay men who spend all day at the gym.

Whatever. Where's my prize?

Legato7963 said...

Cara thank you for reminding us to resist the status quo!

irene said...

ahhhh, bella. was there anything quite as stultifying as the rules which governed basketball for "ladies" back in the days of our youth? and ohhhh those costumes of the absurd.

is it not refreshing to see that the wicked witch of women's basketball has finally resigned after 27 years of overt homophobia?

more words of wisdom and truthspeak, s'il vous plait.

irene said...

uhhhhhh (to quote cb) ... you first knew me as alto ... and i remain, altoredux