Transgender hoops player makes home court debut

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Gabrielle_Ludwig

Mission College basketball player Gabrielle Ludwig.

The women’s basketball team at California’s Mission College expected the bleachers to be full and the hecklers ready when its newest player made her home court debut.

In the days leading up to the game, people had plenty to say about 6-foot-6-inch, 220-pound Gabrielle Ludwig, the transgender athlete who joined the team mid-season.

Coach Corey Cafferata worried the outside noise was getting to the players, particularly the 50-year-old Ludwig.

A pair of radio hosts had laughed at her looks, referring to her as “it.” And online threats and anonymous calls prompted the two-year college to assign the Navy veteran a safer parking space next to the gym and two police guards.

Last week, Ludwig gathered her 10 teammates at practice and offered to quit. This was their time to shine, she told the group. She didn’t want to be a distraction for the team. The other women said if Ludwig, whom they nicknamed “Big Sexy” and “Princess,” didn’t play, they wouldn’t either.

Didn’t she know she was the glue holding the team together?

“Then let’s just play basketball,” she replied solemnly, looking each teammate in the eye.

A lifelong basketball lover, Ludwig has been helping the coach and working out with the team since the beginning of the school year, but she only received conference clearance to compete on the last day of November. She took the court as No. 42 the next day, scoring three points on four free throws in about seven minutes of play. Last weekend, during her first home game, she scored eight points in 11 minutes, Facebook friend requests from the opposing team – and not a single heckle.

“I got exactly what I always wanted, just to fit in and be normal like everyone else,” Ludwig said.

The story of how she ended up in a basketball uniform again would inspire comparisons to “The Natural” or other tales of middle-aged redemption were it not for gender. She played on her high school team as Robert John Ludwig, then one season at a community college on Long Island in New York. After she dropped out, her court appearances were limited to pickup games.

The basketball bug returned 12 years ago, when her daughter from her second marriage, then 7, started playing youth basketball and Ludwig signed on as her coach. Ludwig kept coaching other people’s children when her daughter moved on to high school and still works with hundreds of middle school girls every year.

Her transition five years ago raised questions, but parents generally accepted her decision warmly, she said. So did the women she played with in a couple of intramural leagues.

What the naysayers do not know, she said, is that Ludwig is not the same player she was once. She has less muscle and height, because of the hormones she takes. And at her age, she has to work to keep up.

“Yeah, I hit with a little more punch down low, but that’s because I weigh 220 pounds, but I am not the only 220 woman out there,” she said. “It’s different now. My body has changed, my strength has changed, my attitude has changed.”

While coaching a youth game on the Mission court last year she met Cafferata. They kept in touch, and when Ludwig half-jokingly asked if he had a spot for her, he said he might.

“The only thing I had to do is talk to my potential teammates and say, ‘Hey, do you have room for me? This is where I am, this is where I’ve been, and I really love this game. Can I play with y’all?’ And it was a resounding, ‘Hell yeah!’”

Cafferata is a self-described champion of underdogs and he is rooting for Ludwig all the way.

But to become a starter, she will need to work on endurance and speed.

“Gabrielle has earned a spot on this team,” he said. “She practices hard. She runs hard. She is no different from anyone on the team – she is a great, coachable player.”

Because she’s been taking female hormones since 2007, she’s also eligible to compete under sport rules. Transgender student athletes who have taken medication to suppress testosterone for a year may compete on women’s teams under a policy adopted last year.

The California Community College Athletic Association had another hoop for Ludwig. Because its rules base gender on a student’s birth certificate, she would need a new one. Ludwig, who underwent a surgery over the summer, petitioned a judge and obtained her papers on Nov. 30.

Mission College athletic director Mike Perez was all for Ludwig playing. He admires her for working a fulltime professional job – as a systems engineer for a pharmaceutical company – while carrying a full course load in computer administration. He also has seen the way her young teammates look up to Ludwig “and not just because she’s tall.”

Teammate Amy Woo, 19, said Ludwig has brought a maternal influence, helping the team keep problems in perspective.

“We all love her,” Woo said. “If someone is going to talk against her, they are talking against all of us because it’s like she is part of a family.”