Extra Pulp: Friend of the Court

Laura Anders Lee's basketball lessons for life.

David Vallejo

I started dribbling and shooting a basketball at a young age, playing H.O.R.S.E. in the driveway with my dad and my brother. By second grade, I was ready to join a team, but the city rec league was all male at the time. My parents enrolled me anyway, and being tall for my age, I competed well. My dad took me to practices and helped coach, and he and my mom cheered me on at every game from the bleachers. In fourth grade, I earned MVP of my otherwise all-boys team. My dad was especially proud.

He spent his childhood shooting a ball through a metal hoop nailed to a tree. Until the last streaks of daylight drained from the sky, he practiced again and again, perfecting his shot and follow-through. One high school game he made 41 points, but the score would have been higher had the three-point shot been created. (That didn’t happen until 1979 when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were NBA rookies.) Basketball paid my dad’s way through college, and he’s remained a grateful and passionate fan.

By middle school, I was finally able to join a girls team and went on to play high school junior varsity. I had a sweet shot from the baseline that when I hit just right was nothing but net. The sound the ball made was gentler than a kiss.

My most notable shot, however, was off a rebound. Instead of going in the net or off the backboard, the ball bounced 11 times on the back of the rim, momentum waning until it finally stopped completely, perfectly balanced. My teammates and I stared up at the goal in disbelief until the ref called jump ball. I didn’t score, but my dad commented on my soft touch and said in all his years of basketball, he’d never seen that happen.

By eleventh grade, the other girls on the team were 6 feet tall, while I remained the same 5-8 I’d been since middle school. No longer able to compete as a forward, I quit. I dreaded telling my dad. I didn’t want to let him down. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the sport that had brought us together all those years. But we both realized my size and my talent could only take me so far.

This year, my two sons are playing basketball for the first time. My kindergartner, William, plays on a coed league, and my second-grade son, Anders, plays on an all-boys league—not because there aren’t any girls who want to play, but that there are so many, they have a league of their own.

Walking into the gym with my sons, a wave of nostalgia hits me: the smell of fresh varnish on the floor, the buzz of fluorescent lights, the shrill of the whistle, and that sweet swishing sound of the perfect shot sinking through the net. I’m not sure how long my sons will play, but I’m cherishing this time, as I’m sure my dad did with me. I need to dig out the old VCR and VHS tape from high school and show them my famous rebound.

Basketball has taught me so many lessons, and I hope that will be true for my sons. I loved being part of a team, bonding with my teammates at long practices and summer camps. Adolescent woes were forgotten on the court, and we knew exactly what our purpose was. When we had to run suicides, jammed a finger, shot an airball, or lost a game to the annoying team with the smoke machine, my teammates lessened the blow.

My high school coach, Doug Etheridge, dedicated his life to coaching female basketball. He died of kidney cancer at age 56 after coaching at my high school for 27 years. He had many words of wisdom, but my favorite was, “React, don’t think!” Seems like a funny thing to tell teenagers, but it meant that at game time, he’d already taught us what we needed to know. We didn’t need to waste one second thinking or questioning. We already knew the right thing to do.

More than 30 years ago, I walked onto a basketball court with all boys and played the sport I loved. Being female didn’t stop me from playing. My parents didn’t question it, so to me, it was just normal. They instilled in me a confidence I possessed that day in elementary school, and that I’d later carry into job interviews and boardrooms with all men. I learned that if I want something badly enough, I look at the goal, focus, and take my best shot.

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