In the front-hall closet of my childhood home, there were always two basketballs. One was NBA-regulation size, worn and faded; my dad took it to his pickup games, and we used it when playing one-on-one in the driveway. The other was a women's ball, in more pristine shape, that I used when I went to the gym alone, or when my dad helped me with drills.
And when I did enter a gym with my women's ball, looking to do some shooting and maybe get in a pickup game, the ball under my arm always received a few sideways glances. At least once a week, especially when I was playing in college, some guy would say, "Is that one of those little baby balls?" as if it were an alien life form he had never seen up close. Then he would inevitably remind me that my "little baby ball" would not be used during the pickup game.
I've always had a chip on my shoulder that women are forced to play with a smaller ball. Believe it or not, the smaller ball is not easier to shoot or dribble. In fact, I find it more difficult. Have you ever tried shooting a volleyball into a basketball hoop? You feel like you're guiding it instead of just letting it fly.
Yes, the smaller ball was adopted because women's hands are generally smaller. But I've always thought the change ended up hurting women, because when people (usually men) say the women's game is inferior, they can point to the smaller ball as a tangible piece of evidence: "See, women can't even play with the same size ball!"
So maybe that's why I was astonished to read the comments Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma made to the Hartford Courant, suggesting that women's basketball lower the height of the rim to help improve overall offense. It sounded like an off-hand quip, a headline grab.
I mean, what's next? Maybe when we're done lowering the rims, we should also move the foul line closer. And shorten the court because women don't sprint as fast as men. And definitely make the game shorter, so fatigue and stamina won't come into play. Maybe we should also remove some of the players from the court -- because fewer players means less contact, and we all know that women aren't as physical.
When we're done making all those changes to "improve" women's basketball, we'll end up with a product that looks a lot like it did in the 1950s, when women played a half-court game in skirts inside empty gyms, trying desperately not to sweat.
Anyway, back to reality. Now that Pat Summitt has stepped down as the head coach at Tennessee, Auriemma has become the de facto face of women's college basketball. That doesn't mean he needs to be a perpetual cheerleader for the game, but it does mean when he speaks on a topic as crucial as this, it should never come across as cheeky, or irresponsible, which his recent comments do on both counts. For example, he suggested that to honor Title IX (this year is the 40th anniversary of the law, passed in 1972), we could lower the rims exactly 7.2 inches. So to summarize: We would "honor" a law that sought to level the playing field for women by separating women onto a different court.
Make no mistake, lowering the rims would further ostracize young girls who are trying to learn the game on courts across the country, often right alongside boys. Where would these girls play? Would we build a new infrastructure of hoops, set at this lower height, so that girls could take their smaller basketballs and go learn on their shorter hoops? Maybe we could make retractable hoops the norm -- at least in posh, suburban parks, where people have the money for that kind of thing. Maybe we could also boost the economy by employing folks at those parks to help kids raise and lower the rims, like a new-age crossing guard.
The larger takeaway from Auriemma's comments is there is something wrong with the women's game. And it's true -- there is. The problem is people insist on comparing it to the men's game, suggesting women would attract more fans if they dunked and played above the rim, like men. This obsession with comparing women's basketball to men's doesn't exist in other sports like soccer and tennis, at least not at this loud, "the women stink" volume. I've always thought the selling point of women's basketball was the emphasis on player and ball movement, rather than high-flying athleticism. Also, if the argument is that people don't watch women's basketball because it's slower and less explosive, then lowering the rim -- all the rims, for girls and women everywhere -- does nothing to change that.
In his comments, Auriemma also noted that attendance at the 2011 women's Final Four was lower than in 2002, saying interest in the women's game "hasn't grown as much as it should [have]." I can buy that. But lowering the rims? That's like deciding to bulldoze your house when all it needs is a fresh coat of paint. Auriemma is correct in suggesting the implementation of a 24-second shot clock in the NCAA (instead of the current 30), and an eight-second backcourt count. The women's game could use these tweaks and changes to speed up play. But more than anything, it could use a smart marketing approach, one that doesn't seem preoccupied with dunking and 40-inch vertical leaps.
Just take a look at the online comments on Auriemma's remarks, where you'll find a playground for juvenile jokes -- the exact opposite of the thoughtful dialogue women's basketball needs to be creating.
A generation of female players has grown up bouncing two different basketballs. We don't need two different hoops, too.