Practicing Women

Maybe female athletes will never play like the men. But imagine what they could do.

Downstairs in the blue-walled basketball court of Target Center's Arena Club, the men's team and the women's team are tied with four seconds left. The men's team, a.k.a. the Generals--a randomly costumed squad of Timberwolves front-office employees and their friends--has just pulled even with an insouciant, if perhaps too hasty, three-point basket.

The black-jersey-clad women conferencing in a time-out are professional players from Minnesota's new WNBA team, the Lynx, which debuts this Saturday against the Detroit Shock. Their huddle breaks with a "Lynx!"; the ball is flung in. Guard Annie Lafleur passes to her right and glides toward the basket, where she receives the ball and lays it in sweetly--a perfect give-and-go. An instant later the buzzer sounds.

The men, who could've been bollards for all the trouble they gave the five-foot-seven Lafleur, slink away quietly. The women whoop and group-hug. At the sidelines a male referee jokes to the stat-keeper: "I think the guys were outcoached right there." Very true, especially since the Generals appeared to lack a chief officer during this preseason scrimmage.

Not the aggressive type?: The Lynx's Brandy Reed (left) and Trisha Fallon
David Kern
Not the aggressive type?: The Lynx's Brandy Reed (left) and Trisha Fallon

Nevertheless, Lynx coach Brian Agler did not himself launch the winning shot. Some credit must be given for execution, and one could just as accurately claim that the men's team was outpracticed. It is practice--years of it--that has enabled top women athletes to accomplish this kind of simultaneously thrilling and humbling victory, over amateur male players whose skill level can be judged by the presence among them of perennial Gopher benchwarmer Hosea Crittenden.

Just three decades ago--a year after Lynx guard Tonya Edwards was born--American female basketball players were finally allowed to run the full length of the court. Up until 1966 they could not dribble more than three times before passing. For much of its lifetime, women's basketball was conceived as a "no contact" game--although, as Joanna Davenport's article on rules in Joan S. Hult and Marianna Trekell's 1991 book A Century of Women's Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four shows, officials admitted that "personal contact cannot be avoided entirely...[and] should not be penalized unless roughness has resulted." Guarding vertically was at one point restricted, as was "snatching" the ball from an opposing player. These guidelines, devised mostly by women for women, represented well-meaning attempts to protect players' health and promote teamwork.

To watch Lynx forward Kristin Folkl lunge up toward the basket against two men (and get mugged), or to see training-camp invitee Charmin Smith shove her skinny five-foot-ten frame against a stockier, taller player (and foul him), is to know that those early basketball officials were both right and terribly wrong. This is an extremely fast, physical game, and more than a few Lynx players shine the floor with their butts in the scrimmage. I find myself wincing as one male guard with a rack of shoulder musculature drives full-speed into his female defenders. But bruises aside, the Lynx are standing up to the charges. Their bodies are stronger, bigger, more exercised than women players in 1969 could have imagined. And, darting quickly around the floor setting each other up, they are becoming a team, fashioning a teamwork, more cohesive and intricate than any that existed before women players could run the court.

How did women progress from the constricted grace of the old women's game to the athleticism of today's WNBA? Fifteen hours after facing the Generals, the Lynx are back on the court, running a drill under Agler's exacting supervision. Split into two teams, they line up at a baseline; when Agler tosses the ball toward one team, they all race to the far basket, striving either to score or to defend. Agler's focus is on the defense. When one player gets an open three-point shot, he yells at the slacking defender, "Are you a quitter? BRANDY REED, ARE YOU A QUITTER?" Reed, a six-one forward, shakes her head.

"SO DON'T QUIT. WE DON'T QUIT!" Ten minutes of this, and former Australia Olympian Trisha Fallon ventures: "When are we stopping?" Agler snaps: "When I say so." They continue the drill for ten more minutes, until each squad's defense more consistently prevents a basket--which is difficult when Sonja Tate, from Agler's former Columbus Quest team, keeps beating the field down the court and making easy lay-ups.

After the Tuesday scrimmage, Tate sat slumped on a bench, exhausted. As practice winds down the next day, the 27-year-old, five-eight guard is up for some spontaneous R&B song and dance with Charmin Smith. "I was so tired when I came in today," she spouts brightly, before sprinting off after a stray ball.

Training, writes Australian social biologist Ken Dyer in his 1982 book Challenging the Men: Women in Sport, increases the size of the heart and the arteries serving it, expands lung volume, and can almost double the amount of the oxygen-binding pigment myoglobin in the muscles. These changes help an athlete take in more oxygen and transport it around her body more efficiently; they also act to stave off the buildup of lactic acid, which causes muscle fatigue. Systematic practice, Dyer observes, even helps the nerves transmit electrochemical impulses more efficiently, so that movement becomes more reflexive, more relaxed, and less draining. As women ask more from their bodies, their bodies give more. It ain't rocket science.

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