“Wanna play one-on-one?”

Her name is Janine, but the first time I saw her, I might have guessed it would be something closer to “John.” Constructed of all wiry muscle, in a loose white t, dark mesh shorts and a closely shaven head, it was only the pitch of her voice which gave her gender away.

“Alright,” I reply, quickly realizing that this is the suss-out game. As I do with everyone else I’ve played at Kennedy Rec individually, I start with the same line:

“So where you from?”
“Around here…you?”
“I’m from Australia.”

Immediately distancing myself from any frame of reference, I set the sheet as clean as I can. ‘Tabula rasa’, ‘take it from the top’…whatever euphemism you want to use, I shove my background as far outwards as I possibly can in order to let my game speak for me as wholly as it can. This is the way I played when I was nine in a friday night school league at the leisure centre in Australia; when I was 16, trading baskets after school with the juniors in Maryland; and now, at 22 and a suit (but still rockin’ the Jordans), I’m still trading the shakes and step-back Js, only with a different crew.

Janine moves fluidly, smoothly, displaying a solid handle and great first step. Like some of the other Black girls I’ve balled with, it’s her pure athleticism which stands out most clearly. The White girls at College Park had solid fundamentals, but physically, they had trouble keeping up or playing strong with the guys. Now Janine may not be able to wrestle on the boards, but she’s lightning to the basket, and I found her draining floaters on me every time I gave her the right. But even beyond the speed, her game has a flash and style that speaks playground-ball all over those seasoned shakes. Alas, she’s too in love with her fall-back jumper – shot with a gorgeous (if oft-inaccurate) behind-the-back release—but being a sucker for style I’m too busy admiring her moves to really notice. She’s friendly, and cracks a wide smile during our playful trash talk exchanges, letting her guard down much more quickly than many of the others I’ve run with on this court.

After about 20 minutes of waiting, my ‘next’ is up and I form my team, selecting Janine. It’s the first time that I’ve seen a girl run with the guys, and she holds her own. What impresses me most is the way the men don’t even hesitate to defend her as they would anyone else; likewise, Janine expects nothing less than the regular, full-bodied treatment. Our team is under-sized on the whole, but I feel rewarded for putting my faith in her, as she bumps and struggles in the paint alongside these powerful young men, some of whom must be over three times her weight.

This is pick-up ball, raw and furious, where squabbling over calls is never far away and something far bigger than simply a ‘good workout’ is on the line. I’ve still got a ways to go before I fully adjust to the style they play here, compared to the tighter rules and pace of rec ball in college. But I’m willing to make the adjustments, and am buoyed with optimism that the more times I show up on these sweaty, humid summer nights, the more sparks such as Janine I’ll discover.