Earlier this month it was announced that Carrie Graf, an icon of Australian women’s basketball, was retiring from her role as coach of the Canberra Capitals at the end of the current season.
The news felt very much like the end of an era in a sport I grew to love as a kid.
It got me thinking about the early days of Graf’s coaching career, my love of the Sydney Flames, and how being exposed to women’s basketball showed me that there was more than one way to be a girl.
I’ve always been a huge fan of women’s sport, and some of my friends have been quick to point out that I claim anything currently being televised to be my absolute favourite…until the next one comes up.
As a kid, my Saturday afternoons were spent watching WNBL matches on the ABC, and enjoying that the game had a completely different pace and feel to the men’s matches my parents would often take us to see on a Friday night.
Graf began her coaching career with the Flames in 1993, the same year the sport began being televised.
Immediately, I fell in love with her attitude and her suits, and enjoyed watching her coach as much as I enjoyed watching the games.
With mathematical and scientific precision, I chose which team I supported based entirely on the colour of their uniforms. Two exceptional players who donned the navy and orange back then were Robyn Maher and Shelley Gorman (Sandie), players at different points in their careers who were both forces to be reckoned with.
I found myself drawn to them every game, and when they were joined by Michele Timms, after her time with the Breakers, I enjoyed watching her power like a terroir through the opposition’s defence.
I loved that it wasn’t ladylike. These women had shit to do.
They moved with the ball, pounding it against the court as they went, and they didn’t pause one hundred times to hot potato that thing up the court like I did in my netball skirt on Saturday mornings.
That was a sport I played because it was compulsory for all the girls in my year, much like all of the other expectations about being a girl and, just like netball, none of those rules ever seemed to sit well with me either.
Watching women like Maher, Gorman, and Timms succeed in a male dominated sport, one which didn’t involve skirts (although those bodysuits were something else), was thrilling. It was an interest I didn’t have to justify when so many others at school enjoyed basketball too.
As a gay kid who was acutely aware that I didn’t fit the mould, I found myself craving, and then clinging to, any images of women which existed outside the rigid gender roles enforced by my strict Catholic upbringing. Even seemingly insignificant details, for every player with a ponytail there was another with a short haircut, added up one by one and helped give me the confidence to start looking at myself differently.
I’d always felt being a tomboy made me less of a girl somehow, as though my need to get out and play sport with the boys at recess and lunchtimes meant that I was wired wrong.
In netball, every time I bumped into someone or stepped too close a whistle blew. In basketball, every time someone stood too close to Timms they risked being knocked to the ground.
The first time I went to a Flames game I was in awe. Timms and a couple of the other Opals were right in front of me, and I watched them rather than keeping up with the game. My disappointment at Timms not making eye contact with me as she walked past the stands was quickly overshadowed by the choreography of the play.
"If netball was ballet, basketball was break dancing."
It felt faster and grittier, and suddenly the pounding of the ball and the squeaking of shoes on the hardwood court weren’t just background noise, they were a part of the game, and like watching a live band I could feel the sound through the soles of my feet as it reverberated through the stadium.
In the US, the WNBA have recently released a 30 second video with current players talking about their admiration for the very first women who played for their league in its inception 20 years ago.
While I wasn’t necessarily looking up to these women, or their Australia counterparts, as a future player, the video is a reminder that young girls need strong role models in different fields to show them that there are so many ways to be a girl, and that each and every one of those is valid.
With this being an Olympic year, it will be awesome to see the Opals and Team USA pitted against each other again. We’ve had so many close encounters, and it would be amazing if this was the year the Opals could come out on top.
I know that while I’m watching the matches I will still be thinking back to the 1996 games in Atlanta in which Carrie Graf was an assistant coach.
So many of the incredible players I loved to watch are long gone now, but I’ll still be reminiscing about the huge impact each one of them had on me and on my sense of who I was in a world which was a little narrower than the one we live in now.