By Clay Kallam
"Who is this guy?"
The words were unspoken, but the question was clear. The 12 young women at Arrillaga Center on the Stanford campus wanted to know who this grey-haired guy was, and why I looked like I was going to try and play basketball with them.
There were several possible answers to the questions:
The game at Stanford was not low-level. Christy Hedgpeth and Kate Paye are both ABL-bound (with the Seattle franchise), and Jamilla Wideman, Kate Starbird, Vanessa Nygaard and Charmin Smith are all stalwarts on the Stanford team that went to the Final Four. Also in attendance were Nailah Thompson from San Diego State, Renee Demirdjian from USF plus a host of other talented and definitely in-shape female athletes.
Actually, the in-shape part worked to my advantage on this warm Thursday afternoon. Most of the players had just spent an hour or so in the weight room and were still feeling the effects. They also were here for a summer workout, and so the pace and intensity hardly matched that of an NCAA game, much less an ABL game.
But the three full-court games I played (to nine, if you're counting) were a serious workout. Since there weren't many posts, there was a lot of fast-breaking going on, which turned the workout into a series of sprints -- most of which I lost.
In fact, my team lost every game I played in, though I will say that I wasn't horrible. I was the worst player out there, to be sure, but not by so much that my presence automatically guaranteed a loss. What did lead to our defeats was the talent on the other team -- which included Paye, Nygaard, Wideman and Starbird.
In the last game, in fact, I guarded Paye, who is a little shorter than I am and considerably lighter. And even though I had scrimmaged against Division I talent before (though not at Stanford's level), Paye was a revelation.
No motion was wasted. No mistakes went unpunished. No challenge went unanswered.
She also is not above the occasional well-placed shove -- one of which deserves a fuller recapitulation. I was inside of Paye, positioned for an offensive rebound. As the ball came off, I started to jump but discovered that elevation was impossible with Paye's elbow stuck firmly in my back. Paye, in fact, gave me a nice little push, got the rebound and then using the momentum from her well-placed 'bow, beat me down the floor and wound up hitting an open 15-footer.
I am relatively familiar with Paye's maneuver, having perpetrated it many times myself, so I can appreciate the artistry with which it was performed. The shove was perfectly timed, quick and almost invisible to an official. She did it with such finesse that it accomplished three things at once: It denied me the rebound; it gave her the rebound; and it set up the fast break. I could only silently applaud Paye's mastery of the subtle but necessary skill of bending the rules as I plodded downcourt screaming "Help."
Of course, she also made every open jumper, cut to the basket like a bullet after every pass and found Hedgpeth wherever she was on the floor. In short, she schooled me -- but I comfort myself with the fact that that's what I was there for.
I also guarded Tara Harrington of Stanford and Thompson, less than impressively. I did score off Thompson (on a particularly ugly layup), but she also stole a rebound from me with pure muscle and blocked one of my shots. (The latter feat gives me an interesting double: I have played with her father as well, who also returned my shots to sender, so I have been the recipient of a father-daughter blocked shot combo, a feat rare enough that I felt it worth mentioning even though it hardly adds to the luster of my reputation.)
At various moments I tried to guard Starbird, Wideman and Amy Wustefeld of Stanford, all with limited success. It's not like they came down and scored at will, but it wasn't like I was controlling their game either.
I wasn't uncomfortable on the floor, and the players were friendly once they had an idea who I was and how I played. I didn't turn the ball over and didn't embarrass myself, but it was pretty clear where I stood in the pecking order -- which is to say that if they were choosing teams, I was going to be Mr. Irrelevant. (Non-NFL fans may not realize that the last pick in each NFL draft is known as Mr. Irrelevant, who is feted by various groups and gets lots of publicity.)
So how good were they? Very good indeed, especially in terms of skills and understanding of the game. Everyone went to the right place at the right time, took the right shots and made the right passes. The defense was lacking in intensity at times, as this was a pickup game, but players knew when they hadn't offered weakside help -- and there were a few scrambles on the floor for loose balls.
How much better are they than good female high school players? Miles above. They are stronger, faster, smarter, tougher and smoother. They would eat the starting guard on an average team for lunch, and they would digest the second-team all-leaguer for dessert. Maybe the top two guards in a good league could compete, but most would fare no better than I did.
The biggest difference is that they have the basketball intelligence to immediately recognize the slightest mistake, and the physical skills to take advantage of it. Honed at practice and in games, there's no way to match that experience without having it yourself -- unless you have the talent level of a high school All-American.
And, to ask the question that many (including the editor of this publication) don't even want to ask, what's the biggest difference between male and female players? One word: strength. Strength translates not only into getting position, but also into jumping ability, and to some extent, quickness. Stronger muscles can accelerate hands and legs faster, and as a result, men have a natural advantage that is tough for even the very best women to overcome.
Yes, Nailah Thompson is strong, and so is Kate Paye, but I was stronger (though I was too unsure of my status to show it). And good male players are stronger still, and jump much better -- two skills crucial in basketball. One man did play with us, a former Stanford swimmer named J.J. Freitag, and he dominated the boards, even though he was not much over six feet. I'm sure Lisa Leslie or Venus Lacey would have kept him away from those rebounds, but inch-for-inch, he's just much stronger and a quicker jumper.
So I can't go along with Sheryl Swoopes, who said the women's OIympic team would make the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men's tournament. The women I played against are superb athletes, highly trained and very skilled -- but a similar group of men would have too much of a genetic advantage. An average group of men, though, would have their game very politely handed back to them, and be sent on their way, egos somewhat the worse for the wear.
To me, however, the most important thing is not relative ability but how the game is played. These women understand basketball at a higher level than 99 percent of all players, male or female. They know what they want to do, and how to get it done.
And they definitely did it to me.