For the last six months, I’ve been living in Bloomington, Indiana, a quaint midwestern city dwarfed by the massive campus of Indiana University. Like many college towns, Bloomington is a hotbed for community activism. Just this month, I went to a meeting for immigrants’ rights, volunteered at a domestic violence shelter, served pizza to the local homeless population at an Episcopal church, and sang in a choir to combat climate change.
I love being part of this energetic and compassionate community—I’m from New York City where the closest thing we have to a community is a co-op in Brooklyn that has security guards to make sure no non-members get their hands on organic squash.
Last month, my family decided to go to an Indiana University women’s basketball game. We had met their star coach, Teri Moren, at an event for the domestic violence shelter and wanted to support our sister-in-arms. I’m a lifelong NBA fan, but I have never watched a WNBA game, nor a women’s college game. I’ll admit, I harbored the kind of naive assumption that this game couldn’t possibly be played by anyone other than Lebron James and his 500 friends in the NBA. When we entered the quarter-filled the arena, I thought I’d be proven right.
Just before tip-off, the lights dimmed and Kanye West’s pump-up anthem “Power” blasted from the sound system. The massive screens suspended above the court introduced the players in a pulsing montage. Jenn Anderson—IU’s fierce center—stared down the lens. The team’s Swiss Army Knife of a forward Amanda Cahill flexed her biceps. Shooting guard Alexis Gassion took a power stance. Three-point ace Karlee McBride nodded to the bass. And MVP point guard Tyra Buss tore off her breakaway pants.
As exciting as the pre-game show was, the real game blew me away. Their style of play is team-oriented, not superstar driven like the NBA. They pass first, set complicated plays, shoot only when open; for a basketball fan, it was like traveling back in time to a pure, graceful, fundamental game. The team is led by Buss, IU’s exhilarating point guard, who plays like a kamikaze pilot. She dives for loose balls, takes hard fouls and somehow, miraculously, gets back up every time, like an inflatable punching bag or a trick birthday candle.
Watching Coach Moren on the sidelines is almost as riveting as watching the game. Wearing four-inch heels, she stalks the sidelines, the team’s Sixth Woman, involved in every play like a bowler who just threw their ball down the lane and is telepathically trying to steer it toward the pins.
Much has been written about the disparity between men’s and women’s basketball, but being in that arena, it felt personal. Why does the male version of this game have a monopoly on the inventory of footlocker while the women’s game barely has a foothold on ESPN 3?
With a mix of curiosity and a feeling of injustice, I asked coach Moren and Buss what their experience was playing a game so dominated by men. They both discussed the strange dichotomy they felt. “Some of the things that guys don’t have to do in order to succeed, we have to do,”Moren explained. “They’re taller, more athletic, anticipate better, are quicker laterally. For us to be successful and to make the big things happen, we have to do the little things really, really well.”
But Moren and Buss have found an empowering silver lining: Because they can’t rely on the individual prowess of a single player as men’s teams often do, they collaborate in a way that transcends ego.
I was surprised that they never lamented the difference in popularity between their team and the Men’s team. Instead, they just focused on “growing” their game and inspiring the next generation of young athletic women; after each home game, Buss and her teammates spend a half hour on the court to meet their fans. This community engagement has not only had an effect on their attendance but on the community’s young women, who now have direct access to real players, not just their endorsed shoes.
After we spoke, I asked if I could play one-on-one with Buss. I knew she’d kick my ass, but I wasn’t sure how badly. I suspected it might feel like playing my dad when I was a kid: that I’d be totally dominated. And, for the most part, I was. Even though I was able score a couple points and even muscle in for a rebound, she ran circles around me, shot like an archer, and even threw herself on the floor to hit a layup.
She did what her team does every game: whatever it takes to win. And that’s why necessity is the mother—not the father—of invention.