How a beginning basketball class gave me the confidence I needed

I grew up gawking and envious of the omnipresent pick up games surrounding the city’s playgrounds. I loved the sound of the ball smashing on the pavement. The camaraderie. This was quintessential New York, and I desperately wanted to be part of the action. The problem was, the players were all men.

When I found the pamphlet, for an all women’s basketball class, I thought I would finally have my chance to play. The course was called, “It’s Never Too Late,” though in my thirties, I wondered if it was.

I actually didn’t like playing team sports, but basketball was different. I could somehow almost always get that red ball into the hoop. I remember being asked to demonstrate my skills for gym class in high school. “This girl has a great concept of the backboard,” my gym teacher said. I got up in front of all those teenagers and focused. Dribble. Step. Swish. “Great job,” the teacher said, and I returned to my seat. While I’d had great potential, I was also a natural rebel. Instead of harnessing my skills, I often cut gym class. I was different now. More experienced. I could enter that gym and show that class who was Miss Backboard. I knew I could.

On the day of the class, I put on my gray sweat pants and matching t-shirt, smearing my lips with pink lip-gloss before leaving my apartment. I walked the few blocks to the school where my Saturday class was being held. Most of the women had a strong, intimidating look. A few had taken the class before, as the teacher already knew their names and joked with them. I was starting to feel intimidated. My hands sweat and my heart raced. I quickly rubbed off my make up.

The coach was a short man, with a wide stance and a whistle around his neck. He reminded me of my high school gym teacher. We did a series of drills that seemed to go on for an eternity.

Dribble with the right. Dribble with the left. Walk. Switch. Bounce. Pass.

I got dizzy and lost my place. While the returning students had a better grasp, myself and the other newbies were a beat or two off. Yet the coach seemed to focus on only me. He kept calling my name, “Elana, no that’s not it. Stop. Get it right. The other hand!” he yelled. My face turned beat red.

I was livid. Why was he singling me out?  It was a beginning class. The more he yelled, the worse I got. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get it right. My dreams of killing it during a pick-up game were quickly shattering.

Finally, we broke into teams and I got to let loose a little. I let the old-timers go first and listened as they hooted and hollered each other’s names. Then, something changed. I just got into it. You know when that happens? When you are reading a good book, or playing a game, and you are suddenly somewhere else? I raised my right hand, and with supersonic strength, I smacked the ball out of one of the other player’s hands. A few girls tried to block me, but I pushed them away and kept going. I then dribbled like I was breaking cement on the floor and made it to the other end of the court in seconds. I didn’t look back.

Then, I did the only thing I could. I shot the ball into the hoop — and I made the shot. It was a three-pointer, and it felt so damn good. I noticed a girl was covering her face with her hand, and it looked like she was going to cry. Apparently, I’d pushed her so hard to make the shot she went flying. “Are you ok?” I asked and she scowled at me. Then there was coach. He was still screaming my name. “Elana, Elana!” he yelled from the bleachers. “What?” I asked, annoyed. “That was amazing, amazing!” he screamed. This time, I didn’t mind the coach yelling at me. I did it!  I really did it. I could play after all. It wasn’t too late.

A few weeks later I finally got in on a pick-up game. So maybe it was with a bunch of teenage boys, but I had the courage to step onto the pavement and play a real match. “Pass it to the tall girl,” one boy said.  “She’s good.” I made the shot, but more importantly, these kids would grow up knowing that women had a place on the court too.

Elana Rabinowitz is a writer and teacher of English as a second language. She’s a born and bred New Yorker, world traveler and lover of anything Brooklyn. Follow her onTwitter and check out her website.

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