FREMONT, Calif. – Beneath the foggy mirror in a makeshift locker room no bigger than a storage closet sit 11 women, their wide eyes affixed to an overdressed basketball coach who is delivering a pregame speech that is equal parts inspiration and four-letter words.
When the focus of the 12-minute pep talk pivots to this topic, the eyes of 10 18- to 20-year-old women – including one deaf player and another woman a few inches shy of 5-feet – focus on the one Mission College player who has yet to play this season. There near the door sits the oldest (50 years old), tallest (6-feet-6, 230 pounds) and most muscular person in the room: Gabrielle Ludwig.
"Come out and be Gabrielle the player," head coach Corey Cafferata tells her. "You worked hard to get here. This damn team in here, everyone has your back!"
Ludwig nervously runs her hand over the sock approaching the tattoo on her leg. She has long been eager yet apprehensive about this moment. Can she still play? What will she hear from adults in the stands? What will her opponents on the court whisper? And can she keep her emotions in check? Glancing up from the dirty rug, she says she is calm. She didn't know if this day could ever arrive: Tonight, before spectators who will cheer and curse her, she hits the reset button on her life.
"Your name will be called," Cafferata assures her about playing time. "Your name will be called."
Few outside this room know it all comes back to that name. They don't know she is 50 and last played a college basketball game in 1980 – as a man. They don't know the odyssey: one failed suicide attempt, two failed marriages; one 19-year-old daughter who insists on calling her dad, two girls who insist on calling her Momma Gabbi.
And they have little sense of reactions Ludwig has encountered – the gawking, the whispers and the female referee in Barstow who looked her in the eye and refused to shake her hand. All of this prompted by the tension between a person's desire to play organized basketball and a community still trying to comprehend that person's half-century life journey.
"Last time I played college ball, I was 20 years old," Ludwig tells her team. "Walking out here 30 years later … "
The story was listed under the heading of "Men's College Basketball". Heads will roll.