By Maureen Holohan
Maureen Holohan just competed her senior season at Northwestern as one of the Big 10’s top players. She wants to continue playing basketball at the next level. But unlike her male counterparts, some of whom are preparing for Wednesday’s NBA draft, the opportunities for women to play pro ball are minimal. Yet despite of her frustrations, Holohan continues to press on, looking for “a chance to continue doing what makes me happy.”
While I was shooting around with players on the men’s basketball team this past year, a freshman asked me what I wanted to do upon graduating from Northwestern.
I told him that I hoped to play on the professional team in Chicago this summer and then pursue a pro career overseas in the fall.
Without hesitation, he laughed.
I stood there for a second trying to figure out what bothered me more—the response itself or the fact that it came from a Northwestern athlete standing in our gym, a place where I’ve spent more time in any one of my years than he will in all of his four.
“Whey are you laughing?” I asked.
“Sounds funny coming from a woman.”
After working out one day in April, I ran into our athletic director, Rick Taylor, in the parking lot of Dyche Stadium. He asked me what I’d been up to.
An excited, proud feeling filled inside of me as I told him about the Women’s Basketball Association’s Chicago Twisters, and of how my search for a team overseas looked promising.
And then he cut me off.
“Why don’t you just hang it up?” he said. “Give it up and get on with your life.”
He told me that I should go into coaching. In the middle of the conversation, the New York Jets’ second-round draft pick, Matt O’Dwyer, walked by.
“There is only one difference between us,” I tried to explain. “And it’s that he is male and I am female. I work just as hard. I’ve dedicated as much of my life, and care just as much as he does. It’s just that he has a place and I don’t.”
He listened, but didn’t quite seem to hear.
“I don’t mean to crush your dreams,” he insisted. “But the reality of the situation is that the money is not in it and the public doesn’t want it.”
LIVING A DREAM
My playing days started in the 3rd grade when my dad would toss me into my older brother’s practices. I decided then that I was going to be a basketball player. No one person could tell me differently. Being a professional basketball player is now an extension of that childhood dream.
Each player on the Twisters earns $50 per week. Most of us have full-time jobs during the day. We practice twice a week and play all our games on Saturday nights from April through August (home games are at DePaul’s Alumni Hall). On the day of our road games, we drive two vans or a small bus to all sites less than 500 miles away. During a game, when we’re tugging on our snug uniforms or when we’re trying to deal with a referee who truly belongs in the circus, we just look at each other and laugh. We are laughing not at the situation as much as at ourselves—at the extent we will go to keep playing the game we love.
The truth is that most of us don’t care about the money or what the public wants. After a lifetime of hard work, I deserve a chance to continue doing what makes me happy. One of my friends told me once that taking a basketball away from me at this stage of my healthy career would be like taking a tennis ball away from a dog. I play simply because there are few things in my life that make me happier than running up and down a basketball court. And I know that I will pass through these precious youthful years only once.
After a tough college season, I returned home to New York for spring break. On a night like most, my brother Ryan and I called a couple of kids from the old neighborhood, jumped in the car, and drove up to our grade school gym for some late-night basketball.
Seven stragglers from the town’s over-30 league were shooting around. Some I recognized from my early high school days, when my dad would bring me up to play against guys in the league. When we walked into the gym, that made 11. I joked with our friends that when it came time to play, the girl would be left out.
Sure enough, this 6-foot-7-inch, 250-pound Big Man came down our way and told me I had to sit first game. It would have been fair to simply to make teams, but I didn’t say anything. When the game was over, the remaining guys shot to get on my team. Somehow I let it go.
Before checking the ball in, Big Man said to me, “No earrings.”
He got quite a kick out of himself.
On the first play, he drove down the lane, and I slid off my player in attempt to slow him down. I went for the ball and barely touched him. He stopped everything and started belly-aching over the weak foul.
He whined, “Come on. I’ve got to go to work in the morning.”
He drove down the lane a second time and the same thing happened. My brother and our friend told him to cool off. When he barreled down the lane for a third time, I planed myself and waited for him. Leading with a stiff arm, he ran right over me. I picked my six-foot 145-pound body up and continued down the floor without a word.
The more we played, the less he had to say. When we were through, I was too close to saying something. I play to play, not to fight with anyone. But frustration had filled inside of me.
In my own grade school gym, across the street form a city where I was part of a city that won a state championship team, I was put to the test. A test thrown at me virtually every time I set foot in a pick-up gym. A test based on what I am—a female, and now on who I am—a dedicated and serious basketball player.
But my 18-year-old temperamental brother Ryan, who was born to confront, surprisingly lightened my stress by putting things in a comical perspective. “He’s some 6-7 former Division 87 player bitter on life,” he said. “He just can’t handle it. Don’t waste your time on him.”
ON THE MOVE
Someone once said that dealing in the face of unrelenting adversity should only motivate me further. Being run over, tackled, swung at by players like Big Man has been the easy part, simply because eventually part of them concedes and treats me like everyone else.
What hurts more than anything else is when the people who are supposed to be supporting you reveal such an undermining bias and ignorance. A person gets tired of others laughing at her dreams, and others telling her to do something according to what society dictates.
Such misconceptions and attitudes exist beyond Northwestern. One of the first times I heard about the Twisters was on the radio this past winter. The broadcaster announced that Chicago would be having its first professional women’s basketball team. He paused for a second, and said, “No foolin’.”
A month ago, after missing a home Twisters game because of an academic engagement, I rushed into my apartment to check the score in a thick Sunday Sports, which includes scores on anything from roller hockey to rugby. We were 6-0 at the time, making us the only undefeated professional team in Chicago, and I could not find the score.
The root of the problem lies in the negative attitudes and stereotypes upheld by people in influential public positions, who have a tendency to perpetuate an untrue story and demonstrate a complete disregard for the facts.
A recent study showed that half of the girls age 12 to 17 in the United States are playing basketball.
ESPN will be televising every game of the 1996 women’s NCAA basketball tournament. USA Basketball is investing $3 million into the recently selected Olympic team so it can travel and play together before going for the gold in Atlanta next year. Top Americans playing overseas are making up to $300,000 a season.
After winning the national title this year, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team was greeted by almost 100,000 people, including the governor of the state.
So the reality of the situation is that you’re either in denial or simply the fool if you can’t see that women’s basketball is one of the hottest, fastest growing sports around.
THE BIG PAYOFF
Obviously, our league has a long way to go. But I am grateful to be part of a team again, and in this case, one extremely talented group of ultracompetitive players. Sure, the league needs much shaping up in the areas of organization and discipline, as well as an increase in funding to give players a viable, full-time profession in a place where Americans should be playing—right here at home.
Despite the obstacles, and having accepted that we might not reap the benefits of our sacrifice, together we continue to move forward, clearing a path for those who aspire to follow in our footsteps.
It is my vision to be in a packed arena someday; to be surrounded by cheering American fans; to be there for one player in particular. When the game is over, and the crowd is gone, I will walk down to courtside, and stand overlooking what used to be my stage, a place where I experienced some of the greatest moments of my life.
But the best feeling of all will be seeing the smile on my daughter’s face as she emerges from the locker room. It will be then that I am filled with a sense of serenity, knowing that my perseverance and persistence helped make her dream come true.