When a woman plays basketball with the men

Alyssa Nelson made all-state as a California high school player, which opened the door to Princeton University.


I sat down with Alyssa Nelson the other day. I was curious what it must be like for her to be the only woman playing basketball regularly with the guys at the Capital Athletic Club in Sacramento. She’s been playing league and pickup ball for a year and half now. She’s a sharp 3-point  shooter and aggressive defender. She knows the pick-and-roll and moves well without the ball. She recently scored  18 points in a league game. The regulars take her seriously.     

Still, no matter how liberated guys think they are, the presence of a woman changes the dynamics. The thought processes get rattled. Certain curse words are censored. You think twice about whether to guard her. No guy wants to be shown up by a “girl” or have his shooting shut down by one. If you’re a post-up player, how hard do you press up against her? How much hands-on stuff is all right?     

In addition, Nelson has had to deal with the CAC’s  social dynamics. It’s considered the upscale athletic club in the city, with more emphasis on athletics than clubbiness. It attracts well-known politicians, lobbyists, state executives, businessmen and lawyers as well as upwardly mobile younger folks. It’s pricey for a workout place, but nothing like a country club. Basketball is taken seriously at the club, with two leagues running year-round and daily full-court pickup games. Among the regulars, there’s kind of a fraternity-boy atmosphere of testing, subtle hazing and distancing of newcomers.       

 Nelson, who is single,  was 33 when she joined the club. She was working at a job she didn’t like, eating too much and exercising too little. She was overweight and getting down on herself. She said she wanted to reclaim her life as an athlete. She wanted to get back to playing basketball,  a game she loved. She had been an all-state player at small Rosamond High School in Southern California, averaging 21 points a game her senior year. Her achievements opened the door to college ball at Princeton University and a world of opportunity. She served in the Peace Corps in Mali, earned a master’s degree, played semipro ball with the Mobile, Ala., Majesty in the National Women’s Basketball League, got a doctorate in geography and helped direct  a nonprofit youth services agency.     

Despite this background, the stocky, nearly 6-foot-tall Nelson felt a cold shoulder from the basketball crowd. She got frozen out on the court and ignored between pickup games. She was particularly frustrated by the regulars’  lack of interest in her as a person. “It was a long time before more than one or two people would ask me about myself.”     

 Nelson admits she contributed to her problems. She knew she was a good ballplayer and wanted the serious competition that men provided. But years of inactivity had rusted her skills and left her way out of shape. Instead of easing her way back into shape by playing pickup games, she signed up for the highly competitive league action.     

“If I could do it over again, I probably wouldn’t have played in the league,” she said. “I was in way over my head, and I did not feel welcome. … My reaction was to fight for acceptance, and it was pretty emotional. I’m a pretty emotional person.”     

 Nelson’s second round of league play was better, but she said she needed constant reassurance from her teammates. “I was just mad I couldn’t play like I knew I could.”     

 Nelson started coming into the gym to play pickup games three to five times a week in addition to the weekly league games. By the third round of league play, having lost considerable weight, she felt she was getting into top shape and feeling more welcome. The captain of her third team “swore to me that he didn’t get stuck with me and that he actually wanted me on his team.”     

 She also came to see that new male players at the club also felt the cold shoulder. “I had conversations with guys who were new who didn’t feel as welcome as they wanted to. That helped me have some empathy and feel it was a newcomer thing. It wasn’t just about me or just about being a woman.”     

  One area, however, was definitely different: body contact. Nelson plays a strong, physical game. She is a tough defender and is quick to post up and muscle for position.” I love the physicality of basketball.” She said she is comfortable with the touching that comes with the game. But the men at the club weren’t.  “I was naïve about that,” she said. “Because I was comfortable, I assumed men were too. From day  one, I could tell the men had to feel me out, no pun intended. People were really gentle and standoffish. Is it OK to touch? That went away quickly once I posted them up or took a full body charge.”       

 Did she think that some men ever crossed the line from hands-on defense to something more?       

 “There have been times where men have taken a bit of advantage and were enjoying the fact they could be close to a woman, but nothing I felt offended by or threatened by,” she said. “There have been some specific comments that made me cringe or laugh or just  left me in disbelief.” Nelson has never heard anyone suggest that she play elsewhere, but she still wonders. “It’s probably better that I don’t know,” she said. “We’re in California and there’s this culture of political correctness. That would probably trump people’s individual or natural instincts toward discrimination. They keep it to themselves or have it come out in more passive-aggressive ways.”       

 Hanging out in the world of men has been a learning experience for Nelson. She has learned to accept guys’ talking about her weight issues without feeling put down. She realizes men aren’t going to process their emotions and experiences the way her female friends do.  “I don’t think men really sit down much and talk about each other and their lives and their feelings,” she said. “The conversations are usually about sports or the Capitol or the game.  There aren’t a whole lot of intimate conversations like there would be with certain types of women.”       

 But all that is secondary. Playing ball is the primary thing for Nelson. She has become enough of a club regular that she is the captain of her team, Fierce Red,  in the Winter B League. That means she selected her six male teammates and serves as the coach.  “I love the game, and it’s like nothing else I have in my life,” she said. “There are a lot of benefits to playing with men, benefits to my game. I’ve grown a lot as a player here because the game is faster and  more physical. And  I think I bring a lot of the good things about the women’s game in terms of team work, strategy and passing instead of solo play all the time.”

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