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.