BY SIERRA BERKEL | JUNIOR EDITOR

“Does she want to play, too?”

This question largely defined my childhood and who I am today. I grew up as that girl. That girl who played basketball, who loved to wear sweats, and who only entered her happy place when she watched ESPN. Because I was that girl among all the guys who showed up ready to play pick-up, it meant that this question was asked in my direction and not directly addressed at me. My reaction has always been the same. As I have grown up, the only difference is that my insides do not churn at the anticipation of my voice crackling out an inaudible response. As I stand with my basketball on my hip, ready to jump in on the action, I take a deep breath and hold my head high.

“Yeah, I’m playing.”

I vividly remember the first time I encountered this question. I had been around six years old, ringing my hands in the middle of crowded gym full of boys my age, on the verge of a breakdown as the repetitive sound of bouncing basketballs threatened to overwhelm me. My mother had been speaking to the director of the instructional basketball program in order to register, whom upon hearing my brother and I were twins had titled his head and asked, “Does she want to play, too?” He offered the first session for free and discounted the price for the general program if I wanted to continue. Pressing my body against my mother’s waist, I had adamantly declined, trying to get my mother’s attention by whispering a reminder: “It’s Jai who wants to play basketball, I want to be a tennis player”. Looking around at all the boys running around the gym, full of energy and enthusiasm startled me, as I was much more quiet and reserved. I had bitten my tongue, shrinking into myself while not stating the evident gender disparity. My brother was a boy, all these boys were too, and I feared that if I played the distinction between us would slowly disappear. My mother, unaware of all my thoughts, ultimately decided that I was at least going to give basketball a try. As a huge lump formed in my throat, I had let go of her and focused my gaze on the court before being led away in a mystified daze.

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I emerged grinning from ear to ear at the end of what had turned out to be the most exciting few hours of my life. My perception had shifted; the bouncing basketballs were no longer induced the uncomfortable crawling of beads of sweat down my back. Instead the soothing methodical rhythm made my heart beat fast, in a good way. This was the turning point, after this I fell headfirst in love with the game and the confidence it gave me. When I played, I had the opportunity to be strong, to compete, to be myself and free of what was happening off the court. Nothing mattered but what was happening right at that moment. In the car on the way home my mother had peeked back at me with a smile, asking why I had such a pensive look on my face. My response had been: “I’m going to be a basketball player.” And that is what I became. I have never looked back.

The boys always assumed that I was there to watch and cheer, often exclaiming “This your girl?” or “This your sister?”

Soon after I was introduced to basketball, the court across the street from home transcended its status as a plot of pavement and became my favorite place in the world. When I was there, shooting hoops by myself, no limitations existed. The black diamond patterned fence, in conjunction with the vastness of the clouds in the sky, served as place of refuge from the bustling New York City streets just a few steps away. On that court, the persistent sound of cars honking, people shouting, and dogs barking faded into the background.  I would practice posting up like vintage David Lee of the New York Knicks, working to perfect the art of the spin. I would dribble the ball at the top of the key in my best impersonation of Miami Heat’s Dwayne Wade as the shot clock wound down and the crowd grew unsettled. When I wasn’t consumed by my imagination, my brother, Jai, often accompanied me on the court. My fondest memories are of us engaged in constant one-on-one battles. I developed grit on those days we went back and forth, our bodies glistening with sweat and our mouths set in hard lines as we played for both bragging rights and pride.

“Does she want to play, too?” the boys who lived in the neighborhood would ask when we showed up to the park together.

As we descended down the ramp to reach the court, I would observe the boys shooting around in my peripheral vision. I knew what was coming and dread filled each step. The boys always assumed that I was there to watch and cheer, often exclaiming “This your girl?” or “This your sister?” before catching sight of the ball on my hip, and entertaining the possibility that I was a separate entity than Jai. Their misinterpretations of my game were fueled by the image of my braids and my chest, which prohibited them from realizing that I was there to play too.

“Yeah, I’m playing”.

“Yo, we both play,” Jai would reaffirm assertively as he greeted them.

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We played for the court, us versus them. As the boys warmed up, I often stood off to the side nervously dribbling or sitting on the bench, extensively stretching, until my brother motioned me over. Although we were each other’s toughest opponents, he had the utmost confidence in me, and was frustrated at my timidity. The start of the game was always awkward. The other team would make the weakest player guard me, like it was a chore. “C’mon, Sierra”, my brother would shout when I didn’t take a shot he knew I could make, frustrated that I could beat up on him but not these boys. Eventually I would get out of my head and play the way I knew how. As a result, midway through the game they would switch who guarded me, and actually body up and play defense instead of letting me drive in fear of making contact. At that point it wouldn’t matter. My brother and I crushed it, knowing each other’s comfortable spots on the court and delivering unbelievable passes because we knew where the other would cut. I would begin to forget how the boys never even remembered my name, how they solely referred to me as that girl, because despite all this they developed respect for my game. However, my confidence always waned when I had to start over the next day. The question, “Does she want to play, too?” stripped the credibility I had previously worked hard to establish. I had to constantly prove myself, and shift their perception of a girl playing basketball.

“I’m going to be a basketball player.” And that is what I became. I have never looked back.

I didn’t always want to be that girl, but rather, just a girl that plays basketball, plain and simple. Regardless, I am appreciative of all the time people asked that question. Now as a collegiate athlete, it reminds me to continue to work hard to not let what people ask or say or think affect me.

I am a girl. And yeah, I play basketball.