The arc of my basketball career began rooted in one Abrahamic faith and over the years, in a cosmic curveball found itself inextricably linked with another. It was a Hail Mary-to-hijabs experience that went Midwest to Mideast.
My first layups were practiced in the St. Dominic School café-gym-atorium under the watchful eye of God, the Communion of Saints and Mr. Sweeney, a gruff middle-aged dad who sounded like he’d swallowed gravel and Mae West. He called 8-year-old-girls “schmucks” and favored suicides over pep talks. As a result, we were unstoppable. For five glorious years we reigned as Catholic Youth Organization champs for the East Side of Cleveland, no small feat; along with the Kennedy family and novelty boxing nun dolls, American Catholics are most proud of the fierce athleticism of their youth leagues. By the time I dropped basketball in eighth grade for what would become other serious athletic pursuits, I was hardwired for competition.
Armed with this belief in the liberating power of athletics, I marched into coachdom when I moved to Doha, Qatar, after college to work for an American university. Despite the prevailing local notion that women should confine themselves to the domestic sphere, the university had women’s basketball—part of the American college experience we were serving up for our predominantly Middle Eastern students. I volunteered to coach in September, and was excited to find a little bit of home in sports. To be part of a team again. To wear really slick suits to games, Rick Pitino-style. After years of furtive competition with fellow gym-goers on adjacent treadmills, I would regain a valid competitive outlet. In short, I was in it to win it.
What struck me about my first open practice in Doha was the sheer amount of hair. During school hours, when they were surrounded by men, many of the girls, practicing Muslims, wore hijabs, abayas, and stylish combinations of turtlenecks and flowing fabrics. Here, they’d literally let their hair down. All our practices were conducted with the door barred and a sign proclaiming “ladies only,” so that the privacy of girls whose religiosity prohibited men to see their bare head, legs, or arms would be protected. There was a lot of giddiness that first practice, partially due to the shorts and ponytail freedom, but also because, much to my alarm, a good number of them appeared to have never dribbled a ball. Nor had many ever run a lap. For many women in the region, exercise—let alone athletic competition—just isn’t a part of everyday life. Most of these waifish girls had the cardiovascular capabilities of hard-living 65-year-old teamsters. Whipping them into shape was going to be more difficult than I’d imagined.
My first dictum as coach was to initiate conditioning practices. I began the first session with the proclamation that we were going to go on a jog around campus, but some of the girls who wore hijab either didn’t have the proper clothing or were uncomfortable with the idea of an outdoor trot—I had only to think back to the catcalls of suburban lawn crews ogling hordes of high school field hockey players to understand this instinct. I learned to draw up an alternative indoor workout plan. Those willing to brave the desert heat and bewildered stares from passers-by I led on Indian runs and agilities, tearing up the sole green space on campus, a meticulously watered patch of grass in a sea of beige buildings and sand.
For the first couple of weeks, I tried to play elementary school gym teacher—I was there to push them, but gently. I had to demonstrate what high-knees running and the grapevine looked like. I tried to make them stretch as a team, counting in unison, the way American youth athletes do almost by instinct, but often ended up as the only voice by the time we reached “five.”
I tired of the Montessori act after the second week and got tough. The girls would feel real pain, dammit, and that pain would be suicides. I had a whistle and everything. Their first time up and down the court there was laughter and jogging, slight amusement at coach’s newest practice element. (I was only a couple years older than many of my charges, and a favorite topic of conversation between drills were their plans to set me up with a nice Muslim boy.) But by the end of the third round, the doubled-over panting of my players brought joy to my cold, cold heart. Now we were getting somewhere.
It was an uphill slog throughout the fall and early winter. They would tell me that they couldn’t run because they had their periods, and that they couldn’t make practice because of an impending paper. As someone who had both menstruated and been assigned homework while also playing a college sport, I was less than amused. There were also the family-imposed curfews to contend with, which prevented certain girls from making late practices, or weekend obligations with aunts and uncles that they just couldn’t get out of.
I sometimes wished that my girls had the discipline and experience of the players we came up against at the American expat high schools in the region, the freakishly tall, blonde Anabaptist beasts, offspring of Texas oil elite and pathologically wholesome Canadians who played with assurance and panache. I‘m certain that their coaches never had to explain that using your derriere to box someone out underneath the basket is not immodest or in the least way sexual. But I came to realize that it was the sheltered lifestyle of so many women in the region that kept some of the girls from pushing themselves. Sure, there’s the overt stuff that we see all over the news in the West—women covered head-to-toe in stifling black fabric and their supposed inability to operate motor vehicles. But in Qatar, people were constantly getting upset over the more subtle corrosion of “traditional values.” These usually have something to do with women and the things they’re allowed to do—like, say, play sports seriously. It’s as if traditionalists fear the entire country is going to erupt into one big ladies’ night if they’re not careful—all short skirts and tippling cosmos and marrying for love.
Cultural circumstances weren’t the only thing holding my players back either. Their personal travails were often quite serious. My big recruiting campaign was to convince a girl, who was worried about schoolwork and her husband who was stuck in Yemen, to join the team. And unlike typical American college students, she faced the additional pressure of keeping up with day-to-day family obligations in Qatar. Basketball ended up serving as an outlet of sorts for her, an hour or two of relief from the stresses that crowded the rest of her life.
The basketball league was open to a co-ed audience, thanks to a principled stand taken by coaches at the inception of the enterprise. I’m not sure whether of not it was the novelty of seeing girls play or just something to do on a Tuesday night, but our games were wildly popular with students of both sexes. They served as pep rallies, the Qatari equivalent of high school football, except instead of a marching band and majorettes, our team got encouragement from a tablah drum played with traditional beats and accompanied by frenzied ululating.
By the end of that year the social dynamic was like that of almost any women’s team I’d been on, in certain familiar ways: They were sometimes tough, sometimes wimpy. They could baby themselves and each other; they talked trash by calling other players sluts, and other female coaches took wins and losses a little too personally for my taste. But there were the good things, too—they started a Facebook group after a particularly difficult loss and used it to send out encouraging messages before and after games. They got me a cake at practice on the day of my birthday and were frequent visitors to my office for aimless chats and homework procrastination.
In Doha, women are commonly spoken of as “pearls,”—that frailest of gemstones that begs for constant protection. But hoop it up long enough and that pearl is bound to jam a few fingers, scab some knees, and develop a bit of an unconventional swagger. They dove and wrestled for loose balls as if they were in the nastiest of rugby scrums. They may not have had the most finesse, or the best ball-handling skills —hey, their coach retired in the eighth grade—but the squad actually had a bit of a reputation in the league for being tough cookies. The same girls who glided through the university halls with demure grace and expertly applied liquid liner were suddenly amped to the juiced-up level of a Jersey Shore evening out, an endorphin-fueled vortex of competition and estrogen.
The sports narrative is big on lessons learned, ideally along the lines of ending racial tensions in a small Southern town. What I got out of Doha hoops were the little things; Patino-esque suits don’t hold up well to desert heat; once your guard starts calling plays in Arabic, she’s gone rogue; and at the end of the day, on some level, wind sprints are good for the soul. But it wasn’t until I was the coach that I saw for myself what Sweeney must have seen on those schmuck-y little faces all those years ago. Midwest, Mideast, no matter. A baller is a baller.