Gender (Hoop) Dreams

When 17-year-old University of Tennessee basketball recruit Candace Parke won the McDonald's All-America slam dunk contest a few weeks ago, competing against some of the best of her male peers, it made national news. But Parker, the USA Today high school player of the year, didn't need a hyped-up contest sponsored by a fast food chain to prove herself. Nor, for that matter, does women's basketball need to prove anything next to the men's game.

Apparently, the game's growing legions of fans would agree. The 2004 NCAA Women's Championship match-up between the University of Connecticut and the University of Tennessee was the single most-viewed college basketball game -- men's or women's -- in ESPN's history of televised sports. The entire women's NCAA tournament this year had its highest ratings ever, rising dramatically from last year.

Of course, the level of play is largely extraordinary. To watch the chemistry in motion of the University of Minnesota's two All-Americans, Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville, was to understand why attendance at their games went from a couple hundred four years ago to nearly 10,000 this past season. Witness the staggering talent of Connecticut's Diana Taurasi and you will quickly comprehend why a generation of young girls now want to Be Like Dee.

It might sound strange, but I'm not into the men's games. Mostly, for the mundane reason that I can only afford to focus on so much of any sport. I've also spent most of my adulthood bored silly with televised sports anything! I am just not that interested in professional or college sports, which as a male I accept probably makes me something of a weirdo. But I am drawn to something special in the spirit of the women's game. You could say it's about the comparatively higher quotient of team play, next to a men's game that's evolved too much into a pass and a quick smash down the throat of the basket. The women rely more on passing, cutting, and ball-handling teamwork than the men. The women's games also just seem less egotistical, less a fist-pumping, slam-dunking exercise in brute power and more of a...well, basketball game.

There are voices from the men's game who echo similar sentiments. "'The best basketball being played now is by the higher echelon women's programs,'" remarked legendary UCLA coach John Wooden a few years ago. There's irony in the fact that 100 years ago concerns existed that women might not make good basketball players because of their "selfish" natures.

But you could also say I am drawn to the women's games for what some might consider a more esoteric reason. The accelerated evolution of women's basketball over the last couple of decades says something to all of us about how mired we humans can get in old, useless notions about what men and women, or any one of us, can or cannot-or should or should not-do. Before Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 outlawed discrimination in education on the basis of sex, girls' sports were largely a faint echo of the programs, resources and opportunities that existed for boys. In the Chicago area high school I attended in the early '70s, the pre-Title IX reality for girls was field hockey, "powder puff" football, and the Girls Athletic Association, the latter of which mostly functioned as a ladies auxiliary for the boy's sports. There was a long-standing girls' basketball program then existing in the Iowa schools, but it was largely perceived elsewhere as more an odd fact of rural life than anything significant, or the wave of the future.

There are ghosts hovering now in the air of women's basketball, and you will find them in the smallest grade school gymnasiums to the sports arenas of Division One colleges and the WNBA. They are the spirits of all the young women of previous eras who never had the chance to discover the full possibility and promise of their lives -- on or off the court. How many Diana Taurasi's or Lindsay Whalen's from decades past never even knew what stunning talents they might possess? It's as if all that bottled up, stifled energy from the generations when "proper" women didn't engage in "unladylike" activities like sweat and storm down gymnasium courts has now been let out of the proverbial genie's bottle. The resulting wizardry and spirit and talent of today's game is the result.

Yet invariably the women's game has its modern-day detractors. An ESPN freelance producer named Stacey Pressman wrote a column last year for the conservative journal, The Weekly Standard, complaining that the women's NCAA tournament didn't deserve the extensive television coverage it was receiving. Her point? Forty minutes of underhanded layups is not entertaining. Slam dunks are entertaining. Men make slam dunks.

Does the fact that men are usually bigger and stronger mean the women's game is necessarily inferior? The average college men's team would have a tough time beating any NBA team, but does that mean men's college play is somehow a lesser experience? For that matter, could the major league baseball of 1920, with its racist policy denying entrance to talented minority players, compete against today's integrated modern leagues? Maybe not. But such comparisons could go on endlessly, and they lead us nowhere. The male versus female comparisons are unnecessary, if they will invariably be made by the diehards of convention who want the male quotient to be the gold standard for measuring every damn thing. Shouldn't every sport and category of play be judged by its own standards?

As a fan, I admit I'm a relatively recent convert, my interest being sparked a few years back when a friend's 3rd-grade daughter got involved in a local parks and rec league. The games were fun and wild, if the ability to consistently hit a basket something of a collective weak spot for the girls. But by sixth grade Lillie was off to a four-day skills summer camp in Wisconsin, an experience that involved a few tears (the girls were older, and strangers), but was later lauded as "my mom's best mothering decision yet." The bar was raised a notch the following summer with a trip to the Stanford basketball camp, led by legendary coach Tara VanDerveer. Lillie won the 3-point competition for her age group.

All this was preparation for a tryout on the 7th-grade school team, which led to a starting point guard position. The young girl was on her way, and so was my regular attendance at the games. One thing led to another and I was soon also on my way to true sports fan status. Now it's a couple of years later and I'm getting all choked up watching Whalen and McCarville of the upstart Minnesota Gophers (my mom's home state!) defeat top-seeded Duke on the way to their first ever Final Four appearance. I mention all this only because I suspect it's the story of many of the growing legions of new fans. Somewhere along the way we all knew a young girl who just wanted to play.

Undoubtedly, true equity for women in society remains far from the norm. But compared to the old days the progress is real, and more than thank Title IX we should thank those feminist pioneers of women's equality who began to demand change back in the late '60s and early '70s. It was a small but notable sign of how things have evolved that an eating disorders clinic in the Twin Cities would sponsor a "Minnesota Gophers/Healthy Body Image" party during the Minnesota team's Final Four appearance, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. I thought that said a lot about the healthier, more empowering message the game is now bringing to young girls and adolescents. It is a message of equality and opportunity, of self-respect that isn't dependent on narrow, sexist notions of beauty, and of what people can accomplish if just given a chance. It is also a message that isn't just for the athletically inclined, because not everyone is a great athlete or necessarily interested in sports. The message is actually about all of us, and our great, wondrous human potential.

Of course, in our troubled world progress is not without limitations. A day or two after the Connecticut women won their third consecutive national title, the Hartford Courant reported the first death of a female soldier from Connecticut in Iraq. She was about the same age as the average senior NCAA player. It was another death that in this writer's view should not have happened, in a war that should not be happening. If only the madness of our time were limited to a month in March, in the arenas and on the courts where young men and women discover what they're made of, and thrill us with the results.

Admittedly, watching the recent NCAA Women's tournament offered a momentary distraction from all the grim news, and maybe being human we all occasionally need some of that. But as I watched the championship game last week from that noisy, thundering New Orleans arena, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of hopefulness, thinking that despite the limits of our age there were ghosts smiling up there somewhere in the rafters. And that if you closed your eyes and listened closely, you just might have heard their distant cheer, saluting their sisters in sport who have come of age in ways previous generations might not have imagined.

Mark Harris' latest article, "Furnishing a Healthy Home," appears in the March-April issue of Utne magazine. You can write to him at TheEditorPage@aol.com.

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