I saw my first WNBA game in the summer of 1997 at The Forum in Inglewood. My family drove from Bakersfield to see the Los Angeles Sparks in our Dodge Caravan with dual sliding doors and a trademarked color only a seventh grader could remember: teal-island-satin glow. It was the WNBA’s first season, and I had just quit my club soccer team to play ball for my junior high, where I was starting on the eighth grade team. Basketball, as they say, was now life. I had spent the summer prior watching the US Women’s Basketball Dream Team go undefeated to take gold in Atlanta, led by Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, and Sheryl Swoopes—all of whom were now leading respective teams in the newly minted WNBA. Leslie was the Sparks’ biggest draw that inaugural season, and would later go on to became the first woman to dunk in WNBA history.
Leslie’s first official WNBA dunk happened in 2002, although she’d been dunking in practice years before it happened in league play. And while I didn’t get to witness Leslie dunk that first game at The Forum, I’ve seen it so many times since that sometimes my mind wants to remember that day differently. Leslie’s dunks are straightforward, clean. Not showy, or even aggressive, compared to the league’s current star, Brittney Griner. When Griner drunks, she pulls so hard the rim snaps back. You hear it, you feel it. It’s visceral. She doesn’t just grip the rim, she yanks, and with two hands—she’s still the only woman in the league to do so. Maybe she’ll swing from the hoop for a second, twisting a little in the air before hopping back to play. Maybe she’ll just slam it and move on. But what’s really beautiful about Griner’s dunks is how, even with all that show, all that power, you know there’s more where it came from. I don’t want to call it effortless, but maybe “buoyant” gets us there.
Leslie’s dunks, on the other hand, are unassuming but precise—and one-handed. There’s nothing better than Leslie’s first WNBA dunk against the Miami Sol: A quick rebound then outlet pass from teammate Latasha Byears, and Leslie’s jamming on a breakaway; she dribbles, glides, and dunks—the fans go wild. It’s electric. “Nobody nowhere nohow has ever done it in a WNBA game!” the announcer roars over the half-empty crowd.
In the spring of 2016, the artist Sara Hotchkiss emailed me an article she had written and designed outlining the WNBA/NBA wage gap. I took an embarrassingly long time to read it—about a year—its headline waiting like a time capsule of my last six years of tanking small talk at parties. It read: “If you want to play a cool feminist party trick that’s sure to kill the mood, start rattling off statistics about the wage disparity between the WNBA and NBA.”
The article begins,
We had high hopes back in 1996 when the National Basketball Association’s Board of Governors announced it would remove one of its ribs and make from the flesh of its flesh the Women’s National Basketball Association. And the Board of Governors said, ‘This is now basketball of my basketball, and game of my game: she shall be called the WNBA.’
Sara goes on to describe her first WNBA game, seeing the Los Angeles Sparks play at The Forum, the same year as me. Like Sara, I, too, had high hopes for the league. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe this is what I would do with my life. If I would actually have the chance to play professional basketball when I grew up, and not in Europe or Russia like I’d always been told—like some off-screen fairytale where all dogs go to heaven.
“At the time, I didn’t notice that the stadium was fairly empty,” Sara continues in her article. “I was in eighth grade and I had just reached six feet zero inches. I still had an inch and three quarters to go. But here were others. And it was good.”
Unlike Sara, however, upon entering The Forum, I was very aware at how empty the stadium was, and how close our seats were to the court. Even when my family bought tickets for NBA off-season exhibition games, we were always in the nosebleeds. But here, we walked down to our seats—not up. I remember feeling special that we could be so close to the action, but still suspicious of it. Like Sara, I was excited to see women taller than me (I wasn’t six feet tall yet, but I soon would be), but also to witness this thing that I had spent my whole life never quite imagining: women competing at the highest possible level of their talent. Women getting paid to play ball. Women with their own names on the backs of their own jerseys.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling of that half-empty stadium. It was a weird feeling, having been in the same stadium before, filled and buzzing for the city’s male counterparts, the Lakers. The crowd size for the Sparks, on the other hand, didn’t leave much to the imagination, even for a thirteen-year-old: Women’s sports aren’t important. Or maybe the message was even simpler: Women aren’t important.
A few years ago, drunk at a friend’s birthday, and true to Sara’s “cool feminist party trick” headline, I was on a rant about men’s sports. “What I always think about,” I said to a group of strangers in the kitchen, “is what aliens or historians are gonna think about us when they look back at 2015 and the center of civic life is still a cis man’s sport. Like, civilization as we know it has advanced this far and an entire city’s sense of self still revolves around the success or failure of the athletic male form? You get in a cab, you talk about the weather or you talk about the Giants, or the Warriors. And I like those teams! I like those sports! But how does every city in America still revolve around this form? When we win, money comes in, people burn cars in the streets. When we lose, money goes out, people burn cars in the streets. Like, sometimes I wonder how much has actually changed since Ancient Greece, you know?”
I looked expectantly at my group as they shuffled their feet. A three-tiered champagne fountain bubbled with something blue behind us. Some peeled off for lighter company or more drinks, as a girl with big eyes looked at me, shaking her head and said, “That must be very hard for you.”
I didn’t know what to say. In all my ranting about the hierarchy of gender in sports, it hadn’t occurred to me that this was only my problem. What surprised me then, and what continues to surprise me, is how male sports teams are so ubiquitous, how their presence feels so inherent and foundational to the social fabric of the cities they represent, despite not actually representing most of the humans living in those cities. And how we just don’t care.
Meanwhile, if you walk into just about any bar on any street in the entire Bay Area—or the entire United States of America—you can join any handful of people watching TV as men stretch and flex and either run with, or pass off, a ball to another man—and when that man scores, someone at the bar will either clap or high five someone else, while others grimace and shake their heads because both the victory and the failure on the TV is their victory, and their failure. And this is the standard for our collective imaginations.
I want to say it’s always been the standard for our imaginations. The cis male form: its power, its potential. Any form outside of this form is other, and to see another form perform the same feats is other, even subversive. We can’t imagine it. And because we can’t imagine it, we don’t trust it. You might even say we despise it.
A big part of thirteen-year-old me had hoped that the official seal of the WNBA—“W” suffix and all—would automatically grant legitimacy to women’s basketball, to my sport, to me. I hoped it would sustain my imagination for myself. At that point, I was already used to defending the league—but Lisa Leslie can dunk!—to my neighbors and friends who insisted that women’s basketball was boring. That women just didn’t have the same strength as men, that they weren’t as fast. I was already aware that I had to downplay my enthusiasm for the WNBA, lest somebody see that I saw myself in it. Here is where I learned how to be publically skeptical about something that I actually, secretly wanted for myself. Here is where my imagination shifted.
I think my reaction to that Sparks game says as much about me as it does about the league, which even now in its twenty-second year hosts less than half of an NBA crowd at any given game. I don’t want to boil it down to a “stadium half full” kind of thing, but it’s curious how I let public approval make such an impact on my ambition, even at that age. Or, maybe it’s not curious. Maybe that’s just what happens to most people who don’t see themselves positively reflected in this world.
That day, that crowd confirmed all the doubts accumulated in my years of sports’ competition and consumption. How my basketball games were always slated before, never after, boys’. How I was almost always picked second to my male peers. How my coaches were always men. How I had never seen anyone besides men do any of this on TV before now. Even the WNBA’s catch phrase—”We Got Next”—fed into this inferiority, of being second and never first. Here I was supposed to be with my people—people who believed in women as athletes, people who paid to see something new. But instead, I was stuck on all these empty seats, folded into themselves as if reserved for something else.
My athletic ambition suddenly felt small, even foolish. It’s not just that I couldn’t imagine myself in that space, playing for the WNBA, but I didn’t know if I wanted to anymore. Whereas other girls grew up to pursue a professional career, to play in the league regardless of its lack of popularity—I continued to wrestle with my competitive drive for years, even after quitting the basketball team as a junior in high school.
It was hard for me in high school, where I chose to remain on the frosh-soph and then JV teams as an underclassman instead of sitting bench on varsity. I never played for varsity, something that consumed my dreams for about ten years after. I always preferred to be a big fish in a small pond, to be important. To be on the court with my peers—to be the best, yes, but to not be lonely. I had seen the pinnacle of this thing I loved, and it was lonely. Why give up camaraderie just to push myself one step closer to that forlorn pinnacle? In a lot of ways, this kind of fear would become a road map for how I moved through many of the thresholds faced later in life: which college to attend, what jobs to pursue, what journals to publish in—even my sexuality. It took me until my late twenties to embrace my queerness, to share that love with my family and friends. I was afraid of rejection, of being the other, of being outside of their imaginations.
That tension still exists within me now, more often than I’d like to admit. It’s been hard for me to go after what I really want in life, to push myself to that lonesome place where strength is tested, doubts suffered. And while it’s not quite like being in a stadium half-empty, I wonder if it’s any different.