WILDCAT WEDNESDAY – I’ll never forget stepping out into the tip of a scrimmage in my Chicago Twisters semi-pro team practice as a rookie from Northwestern, and seeing everyone on my team walk away from Big D. I knew two things. Big D was a legendary scorer and rebounder from DePaul. And second, she didn’t know who I was at all except a pasty white girl who looked like she was South Side Irish.
While everyone else wanted no part of such a physical assignment, I stepped in knowing I had to prove my worth to my potential new team and coach in what was my unofficial try-out. I was a no-name rookie from Northwestern/Troy, NY playing against girls who owned the Chicago Public High School league.
Knowing I was the new girl named Mo and nothing more, I knew I had everything to gain.
Coach Stephanie Rivera, wife of Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, was serving as coach of the team. She even paused and looked me nervously, thinking I must have really wanted the $50 per game they were offering us to play as “pros.” She tossed the ball up and I went right at Diana “Big D” Vines as she played every scoring position on the floor. She could handle it even when she was out of shape. She could post because she had a kid when she was 18 or so, and I swear any woman I’ve played against who has had a child feels rooted the ground when you try to push them. And she made it clear early that she could defend, even if it meant holding your shirt and knocking you around just to get me, the hyper rookie, to stop running around so much.
I remember doing alright in that first run. My biggest strength was to simply outwork Diana, and I did what damage I could and hoped the running around would increase my chances of her being off. I remember my friend Penny from UIC and Natalie Perrino from DePaul, rooting for me and giving me a few high fives. Then I remember thinking, “Oh, this is not so bad. I fit in and I like the new energy of our tough, gritty bunch”—until the second practice. That’s when the match-up repeated itself, and not even seconds into it, I felt it was going to get hardcore fast, so I leaned in after being pushed and then a ball went up. On a rebound I went up with D and she took one of my blade-sharp elbows right between the nose and upper lip. I didn’t mean it. We got tangled up and my elbows were brutal if they caught a player just right.
She screamed and yelled and everyone and everything stopped, including my heart. My two friends were on my team and looking out for me, but even they moved away from me as Diana raised her head so we could all see the amount of pain she was in. She slammed the door as she exited the gym. Stephanie didn’t know what to say or do. She called for us to split into free throws because we were short without Diana in the game.
During those harrowing minutes, Penny said to me, “Don’t worry, Mo. Keep holding your ground.”
Even Natalie, who was one tough Italian girl, looked shocked and concerned. Her eyes grew wide. “Stay tough, Mo.”
I still had a really bad feeling that this was not going to blow over, and I was right. Diana emerged from the double doors glaring at me so hard as she pressed paper towels on her upper lip. She stared so hard at me that I just stood there, unable to move. Others may have taken it as bravery. It was 100 percent fear. I knew it would have been laughable and futile to try to run from her. All I could do was stand, pray, and hope she did not get ahold of my hair because her hands were so damn strong. She walked straight toward me and took her shoulder at the last second and jammed it into my collar bone. I somehow held my ground as she blew past me, mad as hell, and straight out of the gym.
Penny, Natalie and Nora, who was training to be a Chicago firefighter, all looked at me in shock.
“Oh my God, Mo,” Nora said. “I’ve seen her beat the shit out of girls like you. You’re so lucky.”
I don’t know if she was kidding or serious or what to make of any of this, and nobody was giving me any advice outside of “Thank God you are still alive.”
I kept it together until I got into my tan Honda Civic parked on a side street in downtown Chicago. I burst into tears. I was in one fight as a kid, against Chad Rockwell, after a group of neighborhood kids agreed that a group of us were going to send a clear message to Chad to stop his bullying. We planned the circling attack and each had something in our hand, which is embarrassing for me to write by the way. The whiffle ball bat, the boxing glove, the tennis racket – all of those weapons and the kids carrying them disappeared and it was just me and Chad in that circle. We started dancing around in the circle, fists raised, and I waited because in as much as I fought with my brothers, I had no clue how far this would go. I was 12 years old. Chad punched me in the face and I shook my head, and was like OK, so that’s what that a punch to the face feels like. (I fought with my brothers, but we never hit each other in the face.) Then I raised my hand and popped him in the cheek. That crushing, intentional feeling of contact and violence – the way his skin sank into his face – it felt so awful to me that I immediately burst into tears and ran inside my house.
I hit him, and I cried. That’s what a mess I was back then and even now.
So there I was sitting in my Honda, I took a few deep breaths, then drove back to my apartment and met up with a guy I was dating at the time.
“If you can’t find me after the next practice,” I told him. “I’ll be in the dumpster behind the Gold Coast Multi-Plex in downtown Chicago.”
He said not to worry. In time, I’d earn her respect.
I told him that I didn’t know what I’d do if she hit me. I didn’t know how badly I’d lose.
He said not to worry. He believed in me and my ability to either prevent it, handle it, or survive a fight.
I returned to practice and as soon as I walked in, I ran right into Diana sitting on the floor.
“Hi,” I said.
“What’s up?” she said.
It was as if nothing ever happened.
We went on that summer to play ball all over the Midwest. We drove a van to most games, even as far away as Nebraska. I played in that game instead of walking across the stage to get my diploma because that team and my mentality toward being loyal to my teammates was that important to me. Diana didn’t disappoint me as a teammate ever.
If anything, I remember appreciating the fact that she made me better when I was guarding her and when she was on my team. When you’re with a player who can score the way she can – through sheer will – the game opens up for you, a shooter, slasher and utility player. After leading my college team in every statistical category (including turnovers), I loved playing with a scorer, enforcer and ass-kicker. The crowds would heckle her though, and I didn’t like it. I remember being at a game in Kentucky where they flew in players just to beat us, the undefeated Twisters. Our referee was literally a clown – he was acting like it was his stand-up act and I wanted to have him removed by police. Diana kept it together even as the fans and the referee didn’t treat her so well. I did not. At another game, I remember this one crazed female fan sitting alone in an empty gym just ripping Diana – just calling her garbage over and over, and shrieking this wild banshee scream whenever Diana make a mistake. I had to take the ball out next to her and I just looked at her like, Why? What did Diana ever do to you?
The funny thing that I remember about D is that we didn’t have long talks even on the road trips and even with me as the nosy, curious journalist. She had a cute son and she told me a bit about him. He used to joke that I looked like Stacey aka “Honey Baby,” another very light-skinned white girl on my team, and he got us mixed up when we played, which we thought was funny. I think Diana worked corrections at the Cook County Jail. I just know that most of our chatter was during games. “You okay, Baby?” she would say to me and others. “You okay, Boo?”
I thought the “Boo” was hilarious. I know it was an affectionate nickname like man, bro or sister. Yet all I could think of was Boo Radley from To Kill A Mockingbird when she said it.
I have one final memory of Diana that I’ll save for another blog, but the most vivid one from that summer wasn’t of how wild she and Tammy and Penny were on the bus ride prior to the championship, or how we played and won in front of 2,000 screaming fans after we incurred two technical fouls in the last minute. I went up to Diana and Tammy after two techs and said, “Please D, we need you here. We need you now more than ever and if you get another T, we’re not going to win this game.”
It’s not this memory – or that she listened to me. It was when we were practicing at DePaul one night and I stepped in to take a charge on her in practice, which is only something I, the overachieving Northwestern nerd, would do. I stepped in and not only took the charge, but she saw it all coming. She reached out to grab me before I fell backward, and she grabbed me by the shirt, but her strong hands ended up grabbing me right by the middle front of my sports bra. So I sort of fell back on a bungee cord until she whipped me upright by my bra. It was the most entertaining charge I ever took.
She whipped me back up after passing the ball off to let the play continue, and she said with all sincerity, “You okay, Boo?”
I said, “Yes, thanks, but who the hell is Boo?”
She burst out laughing right in the middle of the scrimmage.
Who was Boo?
I realized by the end of that summer that it was me, and all of her other true teammates.