The Shared Language of the Game: Marisa Crane on Trying Out for Pro Basketball
When I’m Not Writing, a Series About Writers and Their Hobbies
A pre-battle quiet fills the locker room. The only occasional sounds are those of tape ripping or lockers slamming shut. I stare at my name at the top of my locker, proof that I belong here. I take a seat on the bench and slip on my ACL brace, adjusting it until I’m satisfied.
“What about you? When did you graduate?”
I turn to find a pale, blonde player nodding at me. The only wrinkles on her face are the beginning whispers of crow’s feet.
“See, I knew I liked you. You’re an oldhead. No drama.”
I laugh. “I’m 31, I’m not dead.”
“Well, we better get out there, oldhead,” she says.
I take a deep breath then follow her out the door and into the gym, where WNBA players and famous coaches sit with clipboards, ready to evaluate us, ready to choose which of us will become pro ballers.
Eight months ago, I was sitting on my living room glider, my baby on my lap, watching the final seconds of the CAA women’s basketball championship game: Drexel 63, Delaware 52. Drexel won their first conference championship in twelve years, since my freshman year playing there. The coaching staff embraced in a small huddle, their foreheads pressed together in communion. They broke apart and ran onto the court, joining the team in a mess of sweaty, blissful bodies.
My team, my team, my team. How long has it been since I’ve been able to say that? How long since I’ve basked in the attention, the glory of all eyes on us, the camaraderie of a team acting as a family?
As I watched Drexel flood the court, I felt like crying. I wanted to be out there on the court with them. I was heartbroken, still, ten years after having graduated, after losing the game as I knew it.
To say that basketball meant everything to me would be inaccurate. For so long, it was the only thing. If someone were to ask me who I was, I would respond without hesitation: a basketball player. Now, no one asks me this question, but if they did, I’m not sure how I would respond—maybe a writer. But I have spent far more time as a basketball player than not. “I am still new at this,” I want to say. If I trip up, if I seem lost, that is why.My team, my team, my team. How long has it been since I’ve been able to say that?
And why wouldn’t basketball have been my entire life? Growing up, it was the only thing that kept me alive. I was good, really fucking good, and from a young age, adults told me I had a future in the game. Maybe that was why I hung around: because my basketball future felt like it existed outside of more difficult things like gender and attraction. The game lived as an art form, where the only relationships that mattered were between me and my teammates, me and my coaches.
On the court, I was safe, and as the point guard, I was in control. On the court, in front of all the screaming, heckling, throat-raw fans, I could hide. And how irresistible it was to be celebrated without being seen at all, not one bit. Time and time again, I find myself craving that space, the complicated escapism it provides.
When I saw the announcement for the tryouts, I couldn’t help but indulge in dreaming: I still got it. Right away, I filled out the form so that I would be considered for an invitation. Name, height, college, graduation year. And then I waited an excruciating month: Who am I kidding? Why do I think I can still play after all this time?
Finally, I received the highly anticipated email inviting me to tryouts. I hadn’t played organized basketball in three years, but when fate, or something dressed like fate, came knocking, I had no choice but to answer in my Kyrie 7s.
I threw on a hoodie and headed outside to run sprints in the street. The cold air bit then numbed my face. I paced out the estimated length of a basketball court then ran suicide after suicide. “Do you even fucking want it?” I said, smacking myself in the face.
Now, as I step onto the court, I watch the time on the clock trickle down. While I warm-up, I can’t help but feel a separation from the other players. My body is edgy and unsettled; I miss my wife and kid back home. But I do my routine anyway: I head to the baseline and begin to dribble two balls, one in each hand, pounding them hard beside me, getting the feel for the bounce and grip of each one—a holy reunion. Then, I move them forward and backward and side to side. I cross both balls in front of me then behind my back, eyes up the entire time. It’s just like the old days, I’ve got the ball on a string. Let’s go, let’s fucking go, I tell myself.
Finally, the whistle blows, indicating the start of a scrimmage, and for the first time, my mind doesn’t go blank when I step on the court like it once did. I don’t know what it means, but I know I don’t like it.
Day one, I play well—I make hustle plays, I save balls out of bounds, and I talk my ass off to my teammates. I hit a few difficult shots and make some nice passes, setting my teammates up for easy baskets. I set solid screens and even take a few charges. I feel hopeful that the evaluators will notice. Day two, my teammate hogs the ball. I grow frustrated but try not to show it, though every time she doesn’t pass to me, that’s one less time I don’t get to show my stuff. Already, I can feel my opportunity slipping away.And how irresistible it was to be celebrated without being seen at all, not one bit. Time and time again, I find myself craving that space, the complicated escapism it provides.
And oddly, I feel at peace. All weekend, I joke around with the other players and catch up with an old rival. The parts that I love the most are the shared language of the game: the high-fives, the chest bumps, the head nods. Giving props, fingers pointing and acknowledging the efforts of one another. The shoving a teammate through a screen, the backing each other up if someone gets beat off the dribble. The shake-it-offs and get-it-backs after a turnover. The knowledge that two hands will always be there to pick us back up when we fall. The intimacy and connection of a team. Something I realize that I have back home now, just in a different form. My wife and child, my team. My writing friends and editors, another loving team.
Once tryouts come to an end, my old rival and I sit on the side of the court and ice our bodies. She turns to me: “This sealed the deal for me. I’m really done this time.”
I find myself nodding: “Yeah, me too,” and once I say it, I realize that, at least in some growing part of me, it’s true. I don’t need basketball anymore the way I once did. And maybe it took coming to these tryouts to realize that.
Basketball was where I met my first love. Basketball was where I fostered community, where I found a second family, where I learned to express and embrace my queerness. Basketball taught me how to give myself permission to desire and hope. For so much of my life, the magic of the game lay in its ability to help me escape. It used to be a refuge from my life, but now, there is so much goodness, so much joy in parenting and finding love, that I no longer want to escape. I want to stand rooted firmly in my life. Maybe what I’m grieving isn’t the loss of basketball itself, but the fact that I don’t need it the way I once did—a different sort of loss.
A week after try-outs, I find out I wasn’t selected. I don’t pick up a ball again for six months. Then one sunny day, my wife, toddler, and I go to the park to shoot hoops. My toddler chases us around the court, yelling “ball” until we give it up. At one point, with him by my side, I shoot a jumper and it falls through the net, a perfect swish. I watch him study the hoop with wonder and awe, like he can’t believe something so beautiful exists.