Two days after my parents dropped me off for my freshman year, I left my Bursley dorm room and walked up the hill to the North Campus Recreational Building. I fumbled my Mcard trying to swipe in and then nervously turned towards the glass doors of the basketball courts. Two games of pickup basketball were being played in tandem, with players cheering as someone hit a deep three. I sat down on a bench to change my shoes and scout the competition.
Two full court games. Twenty people. Not one other girl.
It was almost enough to make me walk out of the basketball courts and head upstairs to the treadmills acting confused, like I’d taken a wrong turn. But one of the guys on the court closest to where I was sitting recognized me.
“Lucy!” he said, jogging over to me after the game finished. “What’s up?” We lived in the same hall, and had introduced ourselves to each other the day before. “Wait, are you trying to play?”
I looked down at my basketball shorts, shoes and ratty T-shirt advertising my high school’s basketball team in confusion, before nodding. What else would I be here to do? He tossed me the ball they were playing with and watched as I took a couple shots.
I don’t really remember what happened in that game, whether I scored or not, or if I even got passed the ball, but I ended up playing for two hours. When we all walked off the court so the NCRB staff could lock up, the guys exchanged names and phone numbers. Not a single one of them approached me.
I didn’t play pickup for another four months.
I was sure that couldn’t be how everyone’s first time playing pickup went, however. The seemingly endless stream of guys that traipsed on and off of the court had familiar faces, if not names to put to them, so I decided to ask around.
Rising senior Jayson Lawson spoke with me about his experience playing pickup basketball at the University of Michigan. He first picked up a basketball during his freshman year of high school and started playing pickup basketball at the University during the first week of his sophomore year, after Recreational Sports buildings began allowing group indoor activities again. He considers playing pickup as an important factor in the formation of his friend group here at the University and plays basketball with a friend of mine frequently, saying that he goes to the Intramural Sports Building “about three times a week.”
Lawson began playing basketball with the intention of making friends.
“I went specifically to go meet people because of COVID,” he said. “I was like ‘this is probably the best option because at least we have something in common.’ ”
After having played for a while, he and a few guys he played with frequently decided to create a group chat, and they now text each other when they go. After two years of playing pickup he says, “I think most of my long-term friends have probably come from playing basketball.”
Alum Rachel Kroll also talked to me about her experience playing pickup basketball at the University. She began playing basketball in elementary school and first went to the Central Campus Recreation Building to play “the day (she) moved in.” Although Kroll graduated a year ago, she still lives in the Ann Arbor area and plays pickup at the IM Building on weekends. She said that she met a lot of individual friends playing basketball but was never a part of any specific friend group until recently.
“I feel like the guys talk to each other more than they talk to us a lot,” Kroll said. “I would love to see more (communication) — we don’t have to have full-blown conversations or whatever, but just being acknowledged.”
Still, Kroll considers her experience playing pickup basketball at the University to be overwhelmingly positive. She stressed how much fun it was to push past the sense of “otherness” in favor of playing a sport that she truly loves.
“If (a girl is) feeling unqualified, or like they’re gonna be the odd one out or underestimated or whatever it is … do it! Because anytime that I’ve gone with those feelings, I’ve left so glad that I went,” Kroll said.
Unlike Lawson, I left my first pickup game feeling demoralized, and unlike Kroll, it didn’t push me to want to go back. For the rest of my first semester, I would look at the courts longingly as I walked upstairs to the treadmills. I had never been a runner, and those four months didn’t change my mind. I got through a couple of mindless TV shows in my hours on the treadmill, but I’d never hated going to the gym more.
During my second semester, spurred by newfound hope due to a New Year’s resolution, and so fed up with speed-walking on the treadmill, I headed back downstairs and onto the court. I didn’t have class on Thursday until 4 p.m., so I decided to go in the mornings when no one was there. On my first Thursday back from Winter Break, I walked up to the desk and asked for a ball and was handed a men’s ball. All of a sudden, I was back at square one, a scared little freshman on day two of college, not someone with a whole semester under her belt.
The next Thursday, I specifically asked for a women’s ball. The guy swiping in Mcards dug around in the closet before producing an old, weathered, outdoor women’s basketball, the grip almost entirely worn off. I was getting frustrated. How many more flashing “you don’t belong here” signs was I going to have to push past?
“Do you have any other ones?” I asked. He looked apologetically up at me. “We’re getting in new balls next week, I think. I’ll write it down.”
The courts closed down shortly after because of the COVID-19 surge and didn’t reopen until late March. I went almost every day that I could in March and April and asked multiple times when the new basketballs were coming in. Each time I got the same answer. “They’re coming soon, but I’ll write down that we need women’s balls in particular.”
When I went back up to the NCRB to shoot around this past fall, the battered outdoor ball was still the only women’s basketball they had to offer. While it was familiarly disappointing, I had learned to bring my own ball or borrow one from friends.
During the spring semester of my freshman year, I would beg all my friends to come play. Most girls, even if they had played for a couple years, didn’t feel comfortable joining a game of pickup. I could sometimes get someone to come shoot around with me, but it was rare for anyone to take me up on an actual game.
Some of the guys introduced themselves to me, after what felt like the 15th pickup game, but we didn’t really keep in touch. There was never any offer of joining a group chat like Lawson’s, and most of them were engineers, so I didn’t see them outside of the NCRB. Still, I had never seen another girl playing pickup that I hadn’t asked to come with me, and I started to wonder why. It wasn’t for a lack of talent — I knew a couple of girls who had played basketball on their high school varsity teams, or even on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit.
It turned out that I just wasn’t going at the right time.
Rising sophomores Natalie Rue and Sohair Holman had also been noticing the lack of women on the basketball courts, so they created a GroupMe, inviting all the girls they knew that played basketball. Girls would text what times they were going to be playing at so they didn’t have to walk in alone, attempting to remove the intimidation factor.
“It’s about letting other women know that this is an okay space, and that (they) can come to the gym,” Rue said.
Rue has been playing basketball since her freshman year of high school, starting off on the “C” team and working her way up to varsity. She first went to the CCRB to play pickup for a Black At UMich event within her first couple months on campus.
“I remember walking in and seeing mostly guys,” Rue said. “But then there was a couple of girls in the corner and I was like, ‘Oh, yay!’ ” Rue went on to say that the guys stuck mostly to themselves, but the girls took over a court and started their own pickup game.
Rue met Holman when a mutual friend connected them to go play basketball. They’ve played a lot of co-ed pickup, but have also done some all-women three vs. three games whenever they can get a half court to themselves.
“The women on campus do feel like there’s a necessity for girls basketball,” Holman said.
Rue and Holman are attempting to form a women’s club basketball team to give girls the opportunity to play in competitive, all-women games. Unlike many other universities, the University of Michigan does not offer club basketball for either women or men.
As Kroll has graduated, she will be unable to participate in the new club, but when asked if she would have been interested in playing on a girls club team, she said, “Definitely, yeah. I never even thought about that because I was always trying to just find even one girl to go with.”
I understand where she’s coming from. To think of a court with multiple girls on it, playing a competitive game, felt like a fantasy. At least, up until a couple of months ago.
During the second semester of my sophomore year, I joined the Sports section of The Michigan Daily. Although it took me a couple months (and multiple other girls on the section encouraging me) to actually go to one of the planned pickup games, I showed up on a Friday afternoon and was immediately welcomed into the group. No one slacked off me when I had the ball, and they kept encouraging me to shoot, even though my shot could not have been more off.
Even better, while it didn’t happen every time, there were a couple days where there were multiple girls playing at once, sometimes even the majority of a team. I wasn’t the odd one out anymore, nor was I ever treated like it, and it made my favorite sport that much more enjoyable to play.
Even so, I missed playing with other girls. Pickup games were never played with a women’s ball, so I was constantly adjusting my shot for the different weights. And in all honesty, I missed the parts of the game that had led me to fall in love with it in the first place.
“It’s a little bit of a different game when you’re able to play with girls,” Kroll said. “You’re able to do more, even just with the height difference, or things like that.”
Playing co-ed basketball as a girl definitely forces you to adjust your skill set. At 6-foot-2-inches, I have played center, the tallest position on the floor, for about as long as I can remember and was almost always the tallest on my teams. My younger brother, conversely, is 6-foot-3-inches and plays shooting guard, one of the shorter positions. Up against a guy in the post, or while trying to rebound, I was significantly less effective than I had been against girls, as everyone was now my height or taller. While I could still guard guys in the post, it was hard to actually post up, and I found myself taking more 3-pointers and pull-up jump shots than ever before.
The guys that play at the IM are often faster, stronger and bigger than the girls I was used to playing with, and it showed in my style of play. While all five guys that I interviewed for this piece agreed that the girls that come to play pickup are just as skilled as the average boy, if not more, they tend to struggle in terms of pure athleticism. Because of this, some of the guys have trouble knowing how hard to guard a girl.
Rising junior Josh Pomerantz, a member of Lawson’s group chat, said that he “wouldn’t want to initiate as much contact as (he) would with a guy guarding (him)” because he was afraid of hurting them.
Another member of the group chat, rising junior Atish Gupta, conversely said, “Whenever I play against (someone), I’m going to go as hard as I can. Some people lay back a little bit, which I think is stupid.” Gupta did acknowledge that he, as a smaller player himself, was not as worried about hurting the girls that he ends up playing with. “I don’t think I can do much,” he joked.
All four girls that I interviewed agreed that the level of defense that they face varies on a daily basis. “Some of the guys … tend to back off because I’m a girl, which I don’t know how I feel about it, like you can just play regularly.” Rue said. “Normally they just play defense, you know, no big deal, but I have definitely come across some guys that are very aggressive.”
Additionally, many of the girls I talked to were concerned about getting injured when playing with guys, but found that the guys at the University have been really cognizant of their physicality.
“All the guys I’ve played with have been really respectful and conscious of the fact that I am a girl,” Kroll said. “Watching out for my health and just making sure I’m comfortable … that sort of thing.”
As I had always been tall, that had never been a real concern for me. The guys that I was playing with were bigger than me, sure, but not significantly. For many of my friends though, they were almost half a foot taller and would come barreling down the lane. It was interesting to hear this perspective, and it made me even more excited about Rue and Holman’s club and the space it would provide.
However,I couldn’t help but wonder if there was yet another reason that girls weren’t showing up. Under a recent Instagram post from ESPN highlighting Brittney Griner’s first home game since being released from Russia, the comments were full of vitriol for not only Griner herself, but women’s basketball as a whole, with many advocating for her to be “sent back to Russia.” Yet another post featuring Breanna Stewart’s record breaking 45-point game showcased comments such as, “This is equivalent to 0 points in the nba” and “Idc tell me what Lebron ate for lunch today.” Meanwhile, similar posts highlighting softball or female pool players received significantly less hate comments and actual interaction.
This past semester, I went to every home game for the Michigan women’s basketball team. While a small group of dedicated fans showed up, the many members of the Maize Rage that came out in droves for the men’s team were noticeably absent. When one of their members on leadership finally deigned to join some of the women from the organization at the all-important clash with Ohio State, he loudly proclaimed multiple times that he doesn’t care about women’s basketball. Considering the two drastically different seasons that the men’s and women’s teams had, with the men missing the NCAA playoffs and the women being a six seed and consistently ranked as a top 25 team for most of the season, it seemed an odd position to take.
The general amount of hate that women’s basketball seems to get both online and in person feels drastically different than many other sports to me. It could be that I just interact with basketball content most frequently, and that’s definitely true, but even under posts about women’s soccer or tennis, there are often a good number of positive comments mixed in with the sexist ones. It’s hard to find a positive comment about women’s basketball that doesn’t have to do with a player’s looks. I’m not sure why women’s basketball evokes such hatred in people, especially for a game they claim to love, but I can only imagine that it keeps girls away from the courts of the IM or NCRB. I know it definitely contributes to the intimidation that I still feel walking onto the court.
All in all, my experience playing pickup basketball at the University has been a positive one. At the end of the day, I’m there because I love to play, and my passion for the game of basketball far outweighs my concern of who I’m playing with. At the same time, however, I’d love to see more girls around. Additional girls playing pickup will make guys more comfortable playing with girls and hopefully have an impact on the way men view female basketball players and women’s basketball as a whole. What Rue and Holman are doing is important, but so is having women’s balls available, and implementing a women’s intramural league, not just a co-ed one. In getting rid of some of those institutional barriers, as well as the interpersonal ones, we can make it more evident to girls that pickup basketball at the University is for them too.
Statement Columnist Lucy Del Deo can be reached at email@example.com