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FIRST PERSON

Changing the CULTURE

When women join a pickup basketball game, the transition can be tough to make for men

June 15, 2008|Melissa Rohlin | Special to The Times

She enters the dimly lighted gym at UCLA and adjusts her red knee-high sock, making a point. It screams out this message: I am a good player. It is part of the culture of pickup basketball games, a culture dominated by guys.

And the guys do as expected -- their heads turn as one.

She walks up to one, easily a foot taller. "Hey, who has next?" she asks. He studies her, gazes at her sock. OK, she's in. But when her turn comes, heated words are exchanged over who will guard "the girl."

The guy stuck with the task starts a Buick's length away, desperately wanting to avoid contact. She shoots. Two points. She shoots again. Two more points. He is two Buicks away by then.

One of his teammates takes over, blocks her next two shots, then crashes into her on a fastbreak, sending her crashing to the court.

I know, because I am that girl (age 14 at the time), and have played organized basketball since I was 5.

Of course, knocking a woman down is bad behavior -- unless she is on a basketball court. Then the rules change. Some guys don't get near. Other guys are all hands, unwelcome hands. And still others treat her as an equal.

It is, in effect, a male moral dilemma. How do you play hoops against a woman?

Perhaps no woman has seen this dilemma more up close than Ann Meyers Drysdale, the only woman to sign a contract with an NBA team, the Indiana Pacers, in 1979.

"Playing with the Pacers was tougher mentally for them than it was for me, " said Drysdale, who starred at UCLA and is now the general manager of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. "They were raised to open doors for women."

Brian Shaw, a Lakers assistant coach, knows the problem only too well after scrimmaging with the Sparks last summer.

The former Lakers guard, who retired in 2003, said he was looking to stay in shape by hitting a few baskets. Instead, he hit the dilemma.

"When playing against females you have to get over the initial holding back," he said. "After they hit you a few times and do some of the same stuff that guys do, you forget you're playing against girls.

"The first night we played them, we lost. The second night, we played harder and we won. When it comes down to it, it's just basketball."

More and more women are turning to pickup games to sharpen their basketball skills, and men are slowly learning to deal with it.

The reason I play in pickup games was born in kindergarten. I liked to steal erasers, colorful ones that were my sister's. I stole four before she cried foul and demanded my parents sign me up for a sport to keep me busy. Any sport.

AYSO soccer? I lasted two days. Basketball? I was hooked, for here was a game where stealing was admired.

Lauren Rode, 5 feet 5, shares my passion for the game. She played varsity basketball in high school and plays in pickup games four to five times a week in Hollywood.

"When I step onto the court and call 'next' most of the time guys will be really cool about it," said Rode, 23. "But sometimes you'll go up to them and ask for next and they'll be silent and look away."

She takes this in stride. Guys who are good at basketball, she said, are inclusive and encourage women to join. Guys who are insecure about their basketball skills, well, they are insecure, period.

Besides, Rode said, "Basketball is my life. No one can stop me from playing."

Consuelo Lezcano, who played for UCLA from 2003 to 2007, never gets the silent treatment. Because she's 6 feet 4, both sides want her and neither side wants to guard her -- "terrified of being embarrassed," she said.

For Jake Guernsey, guarding a woman is a lose-lose situation.

"If she scores on me, it's humiliating," said Guernsey, a UCLA sophomore who often plays pickup games and dreads having to guard a woman. "If I score on her, I'm a jerk."

Humiliating? A jerk? Basketball is such a mind game. It can be something else too, as some guys get flustered by being so close to a woman who may be placing her butt on them (boxing out) and touching their hip (hand-checking). It can throw a guy's game off.

Then there are the guys who are all hands, if you get my drift. One grab too many. My quickness on the court has saved me. Simply put, I don't mind getting hit during a game, but hate getting hit on.

Rode laughs about guys who turn on the sweetness, trying to hit on her.

"When I get on the court, some guys will be like, 'Oh, you smell so good,' " Rode said. "That's always before my first game, though," before she has broken a sweat. But then she acknowledged, "I like being the only girl out there. It's kind of fun. Everyone notices me."

Pickup games can do one other thing: Let a woman become one of the guys. Off the court, if a guy tries to pick me up, I get defensive. If a guy approaches me while I am clad in baggy shorts, holding a basketball and drenched in sweat, well, friendships can be formed.

Ironic that on the basketball court I play defense but never feel defensive.

Bottom line? Guys need to ditch the dilemma and follow the advice of Emma Tautolo, Lezcano's former teammate.

"Guard me like a woman would," she said.

Yes. Instead of man-up, the optimal phrase is woman-up.

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