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Part 2: She goes hard in the paint
How my friend, Martha, is changing the world, one pick-up basketball game at a time.
Basketball was never my favorite sport, but it was a big part of my life as a kid.
Part of this is because the Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) Lady Bears were a top NCAA basketball team in the 1990s, so we went to overnight basketball camps and could name all the players on the team, including Jackie Stiles, a record-setting star who continues to draw crowds wherever she goes.
But a bigger part of this is my grandfather, who played basketball at that school and later coached in Aurora. In 1983, they renamed the basketball tournament in his honor, and in the early 2000s, they named the local armory gymnasium after him.
That’s the same gym where I played countless parks and recreation basketball games, high top sneakers laced up tight and curly hair on point. My dad coached many of my softball and basketball teams during elementary school, and it was one of my favorite ways to interact with him.
He was also so patient and dished out good advice and stories from his own experience. (Some of them weren’t so great, like the time some kids in Branson gave him a swirly when he moved there from Denver and wanted to play basketball. He was short and the team didn’t think he could play. He survived the swirly and played anyway.)
Like my dad, I played point guard, even though I never felt very good at it. I was an OK shooter and scrappy defensive player, but I didn’t quite feel at home on the basketball court in the same way I did on a softball field.
As an adult, playing basketball was never on my wish list.
But this year, I saw my friend Martha Pincoffs posting about a pick-up basketball game she’s been hosting on Sundays at a park in East Austin. The Texas Fury, she’s calling it. A nod to the frustration that builds up when you’re living in a state with a political climate toward women like this one.
To blow off that steam, Martha and her crew, a range of women in their late 30s to their late 50s, all badass creative professionals, some I know through the food world and many whom I’m just now getting to know, show up ready to P-L-A-Y.
It’s a high level of muscle, hustle and camaraderie. If you sink a basket, you’re getting high-fives from both teams. When you substitute out to take a breather, you might be coming back on the court playing for the “other” team.
When we’re trying to catch our breath on the court and stalling the next drive with a little bit of chatter, none of us can believe we’re playing at the level we’re playing. Screens, jump balls, steals, cross-court passes. After one particularly exuberant player, my fellow player and I shared a look that said, “I can’t believe I just ran after that ball with you like that, and I promise I am not that savage off this court.”
I’d never played a serious pick-up basketball game until a month ago, and now I can’t imagine missing it.
After the game, we’re always on such a high that the conversations seem hard to track or contain. We’re all ready to go home and rest our weary legs, but we’re also feeling activated in a way that feels better than feeling angry or anxious about what’s going on out in the world.
Like my experience in the softball dugout, this basketball game feels like a way for me to engage with people in the world, outside my little laptop work bubble. I interact with people all day long, it seems, but not in this visceral and highly physical way that’s been difficult to do thanks to the pandemic.
I stopped playing basketball after junior high school, so my brain had to dig deep into its archives to tell my muscles what to do with this ball bouncing on the floor next to my shoe.
But muscle memory is an amazing thing.
All those years spent on the court as a kid left an imprint on my mind, and after 25 years, the grooves are still there.
In some ways, my brain turns off. Put a ball in my hand and invite me to a court with women who haven’t drifted so far from the game, and the needle falls right back into place.
With my family history with basketball, there’s ancestral memory at play, too. And ancestral pain. My mom and her brothers don’t remember my grandpa being at home much because he was so busy on the road as a coach and an athletic director.
In some ways, he chose sports over his family, which is a wound that we’re all still tending.
But on the other hand, playing ball again reminds me that there’s a fundamental shift in your psyche when you’re on a court, where you have to read a room, adjust your level of play according to those around you and create a little bit of separation between your brain and your body.
We can’t think our way into playing a good game.
We can’t wish our way into building a better society.
We can’t hope for someone else to create these spaces for us to be in our bodies and to be together, away from our identities in the home and in the workplace.
Martha knows the power of play (and imagination and hard work), and so do all the other women who have been giving up their Sunday mornings to get real sweaty and real tired real quick.
But if I’m going to be doing this every Sunday, it might be time to buy some new sneakers.
Part: 3, coming on Friday: “I’m no Ted Lasso, but I know a thing or two about herding cats.”
I’m gearing up for a trip to Missouri next week for Thanksgiving, so keep your eyes peeled for pictures of fall foliage and scenes from my little corner of the Midwest.
Speaking of the Ozarks, I published my final episode of “Class Reunion: The Podcast” last week!
My classmate (and Substack subscriber!), Debbie Howard, graciously and generously agreed to come on the show to tell her story of growing up in a home with addiction before moving into a foster home at age 12. She had a baby the week after we graduated and has spent the last 20 years building a life for herself that she couldn’t have imagined when she was a 14-year-old working at Sonic after school.
Debbie and I reconnected at the in-person reunion in September, and by the end of the night, both of us agreed that it was a classic example of why reunions can be so special. The truth is that even though we have this shared experience of going to the same high school together, that doesn’t mean we had the same high school experience. And just because we weren’t friends in high school doesn’t mean we can’t start a friendship now.
If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, go check it out! It’s a perfect show for a long road trip perhaps while you, too, are thinking about what it means to “go home.”
As always, thank you for your Substack support. I’ve got a couple of pieces in the works for Texas Monthly and the Texas Association of Counties, but writing for The Feminist Kitchen remains at the heart of my post-Statesman journalism work. Thanks for coming along for the ride!