Monday, April 18, 2016

The Women of Collins Court: Patriarchy and Racism in UCLA Pick-Up Basketball

I envy those who can so easily put on for their city. I am always hesitant to answer the question, where are you from?, mostly because home has always been about people, not places. Last summer, New Orleans changed this calculus. The warmth, hospitality, and laid back personality of locals; the rich, vibrant music and Mardi Gras Indian culture rooted in solidarity and struggle; the unrestrained freedom to celebrate and express oneself - all felt like home. It was as if the entire city, much like a close friend, embraced me for who I was, replete with imperfections.

As much as I enjoyed improvising my leisure time in the spirit of New Orleans jazz, the thing I miss the most about New Orleans was the one regular activity built into my daily schedule: basketball at Loyola University. Each day, I scrimmaged with the Loyola University Women's Basketball team, which had just ended the 2014-15 season with an impressive 27-4 regular season record and its first ever Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) Championship title. I became acclimated with Loyola's outgoing point guard Janeica Neely, as I was always matched up against her. Unbeknownst to me then, she came off a strong season averaging 19.1 points per game and was named MVP of the SSAC Championships. At 5'5", she is one of the few players I've ever guarded where I have a height advantage, albeit ever so slightly. I'll always remember two things about her game because these were exceptional moments in my life when I felt completely powerless to stop another individual taking advantage of me. First, each time she brought the ball down court, she executed a hesitation move, which momentarily froze me, and then proceeded to cross me over and go straight to the net. Alternatively, if she didn't blow by me after a hesitation move, she broke me down with an impeccable step back jump shot that always went in. Whenever I decided to counter her step back by leaving my feet to block her shot, she would anticipate my anticipation of her, manage to retain her live dribble after stepping back, and explode past me for a floater or lay up while I was still mid-air. I think I developed my habit of saying fuck my life - which I'm told I say quite often now during basketball - from these two maneuvers of Janeica alone.


Collins Court, UCLA's indoor basketball gym, houses only three full courts to service a student population of over 40,000. As such, from mid-afternoon until closing, pick up games tend to get rough, competitive, and occasionally violent, as teams play to win in order to remain on the court. During these busy stretches, losing teams might wait upwards of two hours for an opportunity to play another game. In this climate where victory is the sole measurement of success, gender constructions of women as soft, gentle, weak, slow, unathletic, and unintelligent are deployed to effectively exclude women from participation. Moreover, the rampant misogynistic practice of men verbally demasculating other men further constitutes Collins Court as a male-oriented space. Unsurprisingly, I have gone for days at a time without seeing a single woman playing basketball.  Far from being an exhaustive list, this post, then, begins to recognize and celebrate the handful of UCLA women who choose to live defiantly and fight against the overwhelming gendered and racist mechanisms operating against them at Collins Court.

I am reminded of Janeica's fierce competitive spirit in Rachel, an undergraduate at UCLA who lives on the hardwood floor. Due to the confluence of race (East Asian), sex (woman), height (5'5"), and size (she's tiny), she appears physically unintimidating and seemingly out-of-place. To the extent that I face racist social constructions of unathleticism due to the Model Minority stereotype, she faces additional barriers arising from race and gender (Asian women are docile, subservient, unassertive). When I first started noticing her around the court earlier this year, no one wanted to play with her. That she has since found a way to compete with all levels of competition has been nothing short of her perseverance and sheer will to succeed, despite the external pressures against her. Rachel plays with a genuine intensity that so few players in pick up basketball possess. Even with a shorter wingspan, defensively, she plays with active hands and gets a remarkable number of steals and tips. When she steals the ball, whereas many other amateurs would slow things down in fear of mishandling the ball or getting blocked by a recovering defender, she's fearless in pushing the ball forward and scoring off the break. Over the past few months, she's transformed from being a spot up shooter on the perimeter (she is an assassin from three-point range) to developing confidence in taking the ball into the teeth of the defense for a higher percentage shot, or, when contested, making a smart play for others. Her growth in observable toughness and skill is a personal reminder that there is immense power in resisting a victim mentality.

I can't say enough about Binny, a deadly mid-range jump shooter who has bailed me out so many times whenever I have a rough game. Her basketball instincts developed out of the necessity to make each shot attempt count, lest she be invisiblized or verbally discredited by her male teammates on the basketball court. Thus, her offensive game is very clean and her every movement is calculated. Unlike most players who selfishly dominate the ball and thereby stagnate their team's offense, Binny makes quick swing passes to her open teammate and routinely facilitates scoring for her team. She also moves extremely intelligently without the ball to position herself both within the passing vision of the ballhandler and where her shot is most likely to go in. When I drive north-south into the teeth of the defense, she always rotates to my east-west to an open mid-range spot where she knows - and where I too now know - that her shot will go in. Moreover, like Steph Curry, she has the quickest shot release I've yet seen at UCLA. I can specifically recall a few instances when she proved me wrong by scoring from shots that I thought would have been blocked had she had a split second slower shot release. She is deeply analytical and extremely hard on herself when she has a bad game - two sentiments that have helped her survive and compete in a sport that fails to recognize the worth of South Asian women. Her drive to reflect and train on her weaknesses, both in basketball as in life, inspires me to do the same.

The person who has taught me most about playing ball is Katelyn, a former forward for Occidental College. At 6'1", her ability to shoot beyond the arc allows her to spread the floor well. We've developed a nice pick and roll dynamic, which has expanded my game and made me a more intelligent player because I am forced to make quick decisions based on reading our two defenders. Her versatility in scoring allows her to either pop for a shot or roll to the net with equally high efficiency. She is an incredibly intelligent player and understands positioning very well. When her defender camps in the paint, she'll make him pay by spotting up for an open three-point shot. As the defender adjusts to contest the three-point shot, she'll quickly basket cut, receive the pass, and finish strong at the rim. A former coach herself, she has scrutinized and worked with me on my individual game, from the fundamentals of squaring up to shoot, to looking ahead to pass while starting a break. She has chewed me up for shooting terrible shots, and as a result, I have become a more selfless and balanced offensive player. More than anyone else, because of her attention to detail and her relentless criticism towards me, I have become a more intentional, smarter, and better all-around basketball player.

Finally, there's CarCar, an absolute scoring machine and one of my favorite teammates to have because she plays the full duration of the game on both ends of the floor. She has taught me, through her personal example, that every second on the floor is valuable and that defensive intensity is as significant as offensive possessions. Cara is an efficient jump shooter from any range, and like Katniss, when she catches fire, her shots will be automatic for the game. As great a shooter as she is, she's even deadlier in the post. She epitomizes patience and intelligence when she posts up. She has a brilliant grasp of footwork fundamentals and executes the pump fake to perfection. She'll comfortably play her back to the basket, get her defender to bite on a pump fake, and go under the defender for a finish. She is living proof that intelligence and poise is routinely a deadlier combination than speed and strength. She is one of the few amateur athletes who is an absolute joy to watch play as it is to play with her, because she'll kick ass even if she is ostensibly outmatched.

I am so remarkably inspired by the personal resolve, mental toughness, and training regimen that each of these women undertake to actively challenge internalized and externalized patriarchy and, for a few on this list, patriarchy compounded with racism. Their act of showing up to the gendered and racialized space of Collins Court, let alone demanding to play, is courageous, bold, and trailblazing. That they not only show up to play, but put it all out on the floor when they do, demands utmost respect and commendation, given a setting where most men play haphazardly, unintentionally, brutishly, and selfishly. That is all to say that as these women actively break down the contours of acceptability, they simultaneously elevate the game of basketball.

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