The column | Who says real girlscant play ball with the boys

I was about 10, leaving the house to play basketball. My father, trying to be supportive, called out: “Make many touchdowns!” That’s life as the child of an immigrant. If my parents’ cluelessness about American culture meant basketball mystified them, it also meant they didn’t know how wrong it was for a girl to play boys’ sports.

Basketball was an escape from the European Jewish academic expectations of my family, but it was also a way to collide hard up against a small town’s notions of gender. The Greek chorus of my childhood was the teachers, principals and school busybodies singing, “Real girls don’t play basketball.”

Imagine the thrill, a half-century later, to find that not only do real girls play basketball, but real women work courtside for ESPN as the Golden State Warriors play in the NBA Finals. The NCAA women’s tournament is a legitimate sporting event. And athletic girls are not freaks of nature; they’re just girls who play sports.

I’ve been playing pick-up basketball since I was about 7, with the boys on a packed-dirt backyard court in Pueblo, a steel mill town in southern Colorado.

As my family moved around the country, I played in Denver with longhairs from the “free school.” In rural California, I shot around by myself at the court across from a migrant labor camp. In San Francisco, I ran in games with high school boys at North Beach Playground who kept score in Canto-nese. I’ve played at night in the rain in the Western Addition, and I’ve played in the undersized gym in Bernal Heights.

Pick-up basketball, my game, is different from league play. In leagues, you commit to a team, you show up for practice and games in uniforms, in a gym on a schedule with refs and coaches.

In pick-up, you go to a court during the “open gym” hours and play with whoever’s there. Most gyms have their habitués, but there’s no commitment. You come if you want to play. You call your own fouls. You wear your own threads. You might play with the same people every week for years and know nothing more about them than their first names. Norms vary a bit from place to place, but the rules are consistent enough that a good player can walk onto most any court. It’s an open door to America, a front door if you’re a boy.

I’ve been playing basketball for 50 years, through a time when athletic girls were called “tomboys,” through the early years of Title IX, when federal law required schools to offer varsity sports for girls and women. So few qualified coaches were interested in women’s sports that my varsity basketball coach in college was a brilliant teacher whose training was in Zen archery.

After college, I had a brief stint in southern France, where I was the point guard on a team with two breathtakingly tall and willowy Senegalese women.

Back in San Francisco, the courtship with the guy who eventually became my husband started with a weekly outdoor Saturday afternoon game. Later, as our relationship became more of a one-on-one drill, we took to driving around on weekends in his convertible, scouting courts for a game. We were a package deal: He set the wide-body screens, and I took the sweet midrange jump shot.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I played until I was so big that a path cleared when I drove to the hoop. No one wanted to be the guy who hit the pregnant lady. That daughter has grown up in a completely new, post–Title IX, basketball world. She had coaches and athletic encouragement from the get-go, varsity opportunities and a culture that accepts female athletic brilliance.

Her father, the wide-body screen, can’t play anymore. But we’re connected at the hip, on the couch, cheering (and suffering) this year through every televised minute of the Warriors’ amazing run.

I’m closer now to 60, a white-haired lady weighing about 140, more prone to injury than I once was. I play in a weekly women’s pick-up game, a den mother to players 30 years younger. But the fact that a women’s pick-up game even exists means the world has improved dramatically since my father called out in his heavily accented English, “Make many touchdowns!”

Margo Freistadt, self-described basketball freak, is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. Send messages to [email protected]

Margo Freistadt
Margo Freistadt

Margo Freistadt owns a small business in San Francisco.