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The Women's Team

Sport has always played an important role in my life. As a child, I was intensely competitive with my brother, Brendan, who is two years younger. Athletics gave us a forum for this competitiveness and developed in us a passion that we share. I also competed United States Gymnastics Federation and YMCA gymnastics for eight years. During that time, training and competing meant everything to me. Gymnastics rarely left time for anything else but homework, and in my house, television viewing was considered a privilege. My family rarely watched anything other than public television, but sports were the exception to that rule. The rules and strategies of the games intrigued me because I felt if I could master them, I could become an expert. Most of my memories of television therefore involve sports, a passion that I still carry with me.

When I was eight or nine, my brother used to get horrible earaches. In order to calm him down, my mother or father would hold him and rock back in forth in the rocking chair in our living room. One night, my father and I were watching a Philadelphia 76ers basketball game, and when it came time for my bedtime I was banished from the living room. However, I insisted, as I usually did, that my door be left open so I could listen to the game from my bedroom.

Shortly thereafter, Brendan woke up crying because of his ears and my father came into the room to take him to the rocking chair. I could hear my father talking softly to my brother about Moses Malone and Dr. J; about Maurice Cheeks and the rubber band he wore on his wrist. I was so angry at my father for letting Brendan watch the game and for telling him all the things I thought he should have been telling me.

I crept out of my room and sat in the back of our living room with my father and brother in the rocking chair, backs to me. I could see the television flickering in front of them, mostly with the red and blue colors of the Sixers and their arena. I promised myself then that I would learn everything I could about basketball so I could talk to my father about the players, the rules, and the strategies. I did, and since then, basketball has become my favorite sport to watch and has provided with me with many memories.

Because gymnastics was such an important part of my life, I rarely missed an opportunity to watch an event on television. When I was eleven, my teammates and I all crowded around Julie Miller's big television set to watch the 1988 Olympics gymnastics team competition. What I remember most was not who won or who did which new move. I remember someone from the United States named Kathy, who was 22 and the captain of the team. She did not look like the other girls on the team because she wasn't under five feet and she didn't weigh less than 100 pounds. And maybe she couldn't do all the moves that the other gymnasts did. Kathy was, however, the most consistent member of the team and set an example for six other girls, who must have been sick with nervousness.

She did not receive much recognition, but for a team full of eleven and twelve year-olds who knew they would never make it to the Olympics by age sixteen, Kathy offered us all a little glimmer of hope. I remember watching her balance beam routine with my friends. While the exercise did not have the difficulty of the best gymnasts, she performed flawlessly on an event that is known to either make or break a gymnast. We talked about how maybe if we could make a good college team, we could still go to the Olympics someday. That was the dream we shared, and Kathy seemed like us, not the best of the best, but someone who worked hard and was rewarded for it.

By the time I turned fifteen, I had stopped competing in gymnastics because of a knee injury. I was a sophomore in high school, and I was a little dissatisfied with the small town where I lived. I wanted to explore new things and meet different people, not the same kids I had been sitting next to in class since kindergarten. Unfortunately, there was not much opportunity to explore new places and relationships while I was still in school. My family traveled a lot, but mostly during the summer. As winter approached, I was searching for something new to hold my attention. The winter months had always been devoted to gymnastics, but now I found myself with little to occupy my free time.

I began watching college basketball because I enjoyed professional basketball so much, and because learning about all the players, teams, and different rules presented a challenge that would be both time-consuming and enjoyable. I fell in love with one team in particular, the University of Michigan Wolverines men's team. Michigan had started five freshmen the year before; they are considered to be the best recruiting class ever, for any team. These freshmen, who became known as the Fab Five, changed the look and the attitude of college basketball. They were five black kids from the city who wore long baggy shorts, had bald heads, and talked trash incessantly. The Fab Five represented something that I could never understand but completely fascinated me. They were absolutely nothing like me and that was precisely why I liked them so much. Throughout their lives, these kids had dealt with issues of race, money, and fame; things I had rarely had any type of experience.

When they went to the NCAA championship game as freshmen, the Fab Five totally shocked the sports world. However, when it happened again during their sophomore year -- and mine -- it was expected. I remember that entire championship game against North Carolina so clearly. But the final moments are what I, and probably most people, will never forget. Chris Webber, the team's biggest star, called a time-out when Michigan didn't have any left. By this time, my father had gone to bed, and my mother, brother, and I were glued to the television. I was kneeling on the floor with my hands over my mouth, staring at the television. My mother was rubbing my back and telling me how sorry she felt. Brendan kept saying how stupid Chris Webber was. His mistake cost them the game, but I did not want to believe it.

When the game ended, the television cameras focused on the Michigan players sitting stunned on the bench, heads down and sobbing, while the North Carolina players rejoiced. As I watched, my heart broke for these players, whom I had never met and with whom I had virtually nothing in common. Though, in that moment, I felt so connected to them for some reason. I had seen them go through so many emotions that night, and I realized that maybe we had more in common than I'd thought. They were so passionate and devoted to each other and to their sport; that was the way I felt about gymnastics and my teammates.

For someone so involved with sports and the personalities that give color to each game, the O.J. Simpson trial was disillusioning. Athletes had always been people I admired or looked to for inspiration. I had always thought television had the ability to bring us closer to those athletes I loved, but now I began to question that ability. O.J. Simpson seemed so likable and friendly, but now it seemed television had deceived us.

I skipped my statistics class during my first year at Syracuse University to watch the announcement of the verdict with two of my friends. We sat in my dorm room, anxiously, but I don't think any of us knew how we would react, no matter what the verdict was. We watched O.J. Simpson sigh with relief and thank the jury, his lawyers congratulate each other, the victims' families cry, and the reaction from others around the country. None of this helped me as I sat there because I felt totally unqualified to judge this man's character. All I knew of him I had learned from television and I had no way of knowing if any of it was accurate. I felt really naive for believing that I could somehow identify with the people, especially athletes, whom I only saw on television. The three of us stared in silence as the verdict was read, neither cheering nor crying. We weren't in disbelief, but I think we expected the announcement to settle everything. However, the verdict didn't change anything for me. I still felt foolish for allowing myself to be so deceived.

After my experience with the O.J. Simpson incident, the athletes I saw on television did not affect me as personally as they had before. I started to critically assess and question what the media told me. I began to see how television glamorized and hyped sports and sports personalities, rarely concentrating on the quality of the game and athletes. This disparity was clearly apparent to me in the coverage of men's and women's basketball in the 1996 Olympics. Dream Team III, as the men were nicknamed, was lauded for annihilating teams by forty points and playing as twelve individuals. Meanwhile, the women's team quietly played basketball the way the game is supposed to be played. Instead of trying to impress each other, or the other team, with flashy moves and excessive force, they played as a team, dedicated to one goal.. The women played fundamentally good basketball that was incredibly enjoyable to watch. Their efforts seemed so pure, untainted by media attention and pressure.

When the team won the gold, and I saw the looks on their faces and the faces of the little girls in the crowd, it brought tears to my eyes. I sat in my living room, by myself, so proud of what these women had done. Finally, it seemed, women's basketball was getting the recognition the sport deserved. Millions of little girls could watch these women and see someone they wanted to emulate. Unlike me, these little girls didn't have to look to a men's team for inspiration. As a woman for whom sports is such a passion, this moment reminded me how far women have come, but how far we still have to go. Such an accomplishment was almost lost among the more "glamorous" Olympic events.

Sports are so very often reflective of the rest of society, and television both contributes to and echoes this phenomenon. Television bridges the gap between the athlete and the fan, but it also reminds us of how deceptively wide that gap can be. Television gives us a window into the lives of our favorite sports personalities, and provides us with a hope that we can someday achieve what our heroes have. Sports and television have done all of these for me, by fostering a passion in me that has made me who I am today.

September 24, 1997

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