It’s a lay-up line like any other, with 14 men and two women dutifully tossing up buckets in the Uncasville, Connecticut gym where the WNBA’s Sun practice. The team’s coaching staff watch from the sideline as the players warm up. The men are aiming to snag a spot on the Sun’s unpaid, all-male practice squad; the women are hoping to earn last-minute invites to training camp.
Predictably, one of the guys decides to flex with a dunk. “That was so extra,” assistant coach Brandi Poole, who is supervising the proceedings, tells him. The Sun’s Morgan Tuck and Shekinna Stricklen, standing nearby, roll their eyes. “Jordan, stop showing off,” Stricklen yells, a grin on her face. He’s a returning member of the squad; apparently, his antics are familiar. “We don’t allow dunking in our practice,” she explains. “We’re gonna foul his ass before he does that.”
The laid-back atmosphere belies just how surprising the scene might be to anyone who hasn’t played basketball at a high level: a gym of men competing for the opportunity to be beaten by WNBA players, for free. Registration for the tryout cost $20, and came with lunch and a ticket voucher. If they make the squad, they get a pair of shoes.
“I’d rather be here playing against the girls than out on a court at a park or something,” explains Wes Murphy, a 28-year-old native of nearby Norwich who’s been on the squad since he was in college. “They know the game of basketball better — so many guys just get up and down the floor, throw shots up and have no idea what they’re doing.”
But the men anxiously trying to prove their worth on the hardwood are aware of how they look to so many of their peers, who use social media to share memes that make the same sexism women basketball players have always faced nearly inescapable. “Get back in the kitchen,” “Who cares?” and, of course, “I could beat a WNBA player one-on-one” are all familiar refrains.
“I just laugh,” says 30-year-old Garvin McAlister, who is an assistant coach at Post University, a DII school in Waterbury. He’s been on the Sun practice squad for years, and knows better than most just how implausible those online claims to on-the-court dominance really are. “I’m like, ‘You will get killed, what are you talking about?’”
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Women playing at the highest levels of basketball have practiced against men for decades, for reasons expressed in Jordan’s braggadocious, lay-up line dunk. The strength and speed that’s often more easily cultivated in men helps push even the best women athletes in perfecting their game. In the WNBA, the squads are also part of maintaining league parity: teams are only allowed to have men on their practice squads in order to prevent them from hoarding potential players.
“We need their athleticism and size so they can really battle with our women,” Poole explains. “Guys can do some things athletically that most women can’t do — like, if a point guard is skying in for a rebound, there’s not many women that can do that,” says Stricklen. “It makes you have to be better in that way.”
Male practice squads’ ubiquity in college and professional women’s basketball has long been a source of curious press and, occasionally, consternation. In 2007, the NCAA nearly forbade women’s teams from creating male practice squads on the grounds that they took away opportunities for women athletes. But ultimately the coaches and players won out, believing that the best way to try to close basketball’s gender gap is, in a sense, to ignore it.
Finding men willing to do the same is its own challenge — especially for Connecticut, who do not play near a major city. On the flip side, there might not be another state in the union where women’s basketball is more established, thanks to the long-dominant UConn Huskies. McAlister shared an AAU team with Geno Auriemma’s son; Auriemma (briefly) coached their team when he wasn’t manning his legendary post at UConn. Jason Pelham, a 24-year-old trying out for the squad for the first time, was a practice player for the men’s and women’s teams at UConn. “A lot of my friends were doing this,” he explains. “I’m trying to get into a career in basketball, just networking in the best way I can.”
Unsurprisingly, many of the men attending for the first time also practiced with women in college — and there’s a degree to which it’s a self-selecting population of men who already understand just how good women can be. But that doesn’t mean that the first practice alongside the best women players isn’t still a reality check.
“I think for them to even come to try to be a practice player, they already respect the game,” says Tuck. “But it can catch them off guard if they haven’t played against high-level women. They might think it’ll be a little easier, or that they’ll be able to do certain things that they... just can’t do against us.”
“I wouldn’t say I was skeptical, but I definitely came into that first practice and said ‘I’m not gonna let girls push me around,’” says Christopher Lenox, 22, who graduated from the University of Richmond last year where he played with the women’s team for three seasons. “But I mean they’re DI for a reason. I was really impressed by the physicality that they played with — I loved it.”
“I was 1000% surprised,” McAlister recalls of his first practice with the Sun. “Just by how they give it to you. They can tell you what they’re going to do, and you still really can’t stop it. They’ll dominate you just as well as a really dominant player on the men’s side, which was kind of eye-opening... and humbling. But whatever, you get over it. After a while it becomes basketball, and you want to give it right back to them.”
As for the WNBA players themselves, they’re tolerant — to a point. “Some guys come in thinking they’re Joe Macho,” says Murphy. “They have a little swagger to them, thinking that they’re really good. Once the girls see that, they’ll put an elbow in you — they’ll make sure you leave with a bump or a bruise, which is very respectable.”
Even for the players who know what they’re in for, taking a few Ls (or hard fouls) from some of the world’s best makes the constant taunting women basketball players endure seem even more juvenile. Pelham, for example, coaches at New London High School, where students sometimes mock him for having played with the UConn women’s team.
“I’ll tell them, ‘Alright, you guys laugh, but one of these girls could come in here and beat every last one of you,” he says. “Any DI women’s player is extremely fundamentally sound, and that’s where you can get easy points and take advantage of people. You kind of have to humble yourself, put your pride aside and realize these are the most talented women basketball players in the world.”
The men at the Connecticut Sun practice squad tryouts, and others practicing with women across the country, are ultimately there for one reason: they truly love the game of basketball. The teams are littered with aspiring coaches and others looking to work at some facet of the game. “A lot of the respect for women’s players comes from NBA and college players, and a lot of the people who are disrespecting the women’s game are absolutely terrible at basketball,” says Lenox, who wants to work in college sports. “Basketball is basketball.”
“This is like a free coaching clinic for me,” says McAlister. “I watch how they conduct their practices, how they handle their players, how they handle off-the-court stuff — I’m always trying to learn things.”
There are plenty of men who will never be convinced that women can hang on the court, who will continue to be shocked when a woman sinks a three or sets a hard screen. But all over the country there are guys who know women can play better than them, and actively seek those women out, setting aside machismo because they simply want to play against the best.
“If you ask them if they can beat us, of course they’re going to say they can,” says Tuck (although none of them actually said that). “That’s just them being competitors. But they know that we can play just as good as guys.”