They Might Be Giants

The Lowell girls' varsity has made it to the city championship game 10 times in the last 13 years. Credit Coach Jim Thomas and the temerity of his tiny but talented teams.

Nobody's perfect. Not here, anyway.
"Hey, hold it. Hold it!" Jim Thomas is saying. Thomas is the dean of students at Lowell High, and on this Saturday afternoon, he is standing beneath the basketball hoop in the school's gym. Outside, the day is bright and hazy, lazy, the kind of afternoon when you can see the ocean from this part of town, a blue silk line at the end of the concrete streets, waving you in. But here, inside this echoing cavern, beneath this flame-sprayed steel ceiling and these yellow fluorescent lights, things are not as pretty. "That's about the fifth time," Thomas is saying. "Give me 20 crunches."

Instantly, the players drop to the floor. They curl their elbows to their knees, pull their knees into their chests, and rock back and forth, the bones of their spines clicking like castanets against the varnished wood of the floor. Then, just as instantly, they're standing again, in a single line, facing the basket, which is high above them and far away, a mile or more, it seems, over their heads. "Anybody not understand what we're doing?" Thomas asks, when they're on their feet.

His tone of voice says there's only one answer. But in a way, what these players are doing in a gym on this beautiful autumn afternoon isn't as easy to figure out as it might seem. Already, this varsity basketball team at Lowell High has practiced 12 hours this week, and the season hasn't started yet -- not even the pre-season. And this is nobody's idea of a dream basketball team -- the players are too short, too skinny, swallowed up by their T-shirts, with their bony wrists and ankles like matchsticks, like martini stirrers. Plus, they're girls, brainy girls who go to the city's academic high school, who study hard and know what they want to be when they grow up. Basketball players like this won't end up in the National Basketball Association, making big money. So why are they wasting their weekends in a gym?

As Thomas' voice dies away, the team takes it from the top. Traci Kanzawa, standing to the right of the basket, throws the ball out to Cori Shepherd, and then runs toward her and turns around and backs into her, arms in the air, as Cori shoots. The ball hits the glass and bounces back down onto the court. Traci has been playing basketball with some of these Lowell players for most of her life; Cori has just moved here for her senior year from Los Angeles. The way the drill works, Cori is supposed to get the rebound, but she's already walking to the back of the line. Almost reflexively, Traci goes for the ball instead.

"Ten! Ten crunches!" Thomas barks. The players drop to the floor. This time, when they stand up, they get it right, again and again and again until Thomas changes the drill, splitting the players into two lines, having two of them pass the ball in and then rush to block the shot, wherever it comes from.

"No, no, where were the rebounds? People just screened and stayed there," Thomas yells. "Ten crunches."

As the players hit the boards again, an apology floats up from the figures on the floor. I'm standing on the side of the gym, and I can't tell who says it, but it's distinct, perfectly clear. "Sorry, guys," the voice says, above the sounds of exertion, around the smell of sweat. It's starting, I think. All for one. One for all.

In the 13 years that Jim Thomas has coached this varsity basketball team at Lowell High, his players have been in the final championship game 10 times. Six times, they've taken home the trophy. In spite of the fact that the team is made up of short, skinny, smart girls. Whoever heard of a bunch of short, skinny, smart girls playing championship basketball? It doesn't make any sense.

Unless, that is, it isn't so much who's on the team as how the team works together. Get people working together the right way, and anything -- anything -- is possible.

It might come as a surprise to you, but basketball is the most popular sport for girls in the nation's high schools, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which ought to know. "Girls have played that as much as anything else growing up," says the federation's Bruce Howard. In fact, Howard adds, basketball has always been the most popular sport for high school girls, every year since 1971 when the federation first started keeping such stats.

"Basically, it is a sport that boys and girls can both do," Howard says.
These days, 426,947 high school girls play competitive basketball. That's nearly twice as many girls as played all sports combined in 1971, which should give you some idea of the explosive growth of the game among female high school athletes. And the current total number is not very many fewer than the number of high school boys who are playing basketball, which the federation clocked in at 520,269 in its 1994-95 survey.

But while the image of the teen-age boy on the basketball court is familiar -- The Basketball Diaries and Hoop Dreams are just two recent movies to explore the minds and motivations of young men who pound the boards -- the girls who play basketball are, for the most part, invisible. Overwhelmingly, the mythology of basketball is male, and part of the reason for that is physical. Boys are faster, stronger, and taller than girls, and the way that boys play basketball has come to define the way basketball should be played. Boys, for example, can dunk. Therefore, basketball involves dunking. Girls can't dunk. Therefore, girls aren't playing real basketball. That has been the thinking, in any case, the kind of judgments that have pushed high school girls off the basketball map. Never mind that because girls can't dunk, the stra-tegies they use become paramount, become all-important, and that in fact, dunking or not, basketball is a thinking game, of teamwork and footwork and skill as much as of simple, cataclysmic strength.

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