Ballerina Gets the Ball

by Jeanne Hodesh

Growing up in rural Maine our school was so small we didn’t have a gym. Twice a week we were bussed over to the town’s maritime academy to use the facilities. Our gym teachers were marines in training, and I was a skinny only child, far more adept at the barre in ballet rehearsals than I was at hand-eye coordination on the field.

Basketball is the only sport I ever learned to play. I spent games on the bench, my stomach cramping with anxiety. I dreaded the moment our coach would call me over to sub in, forcing me out onto the court. I didn’t kid myself about scoring; I just prayed I wouldn’t get hit by the ball. My technique was do everything I could to stay out of the paint, until — mercifully — I was swapped for another player.

But our team didn’t suck. Not at all. We were the Castine Cougars, green and gold, with an awesome point guard, and a secret weapon — Michaela, who was 6’4” in the sixth grade. Even if I didn’t understand how the plays worked, they did work, and we were winning.

It so happened that I was not the only one warming to basketball — the whole state was. Cindy Blodgett, a 5’9” freshman who played for the University of Maine’s Lady Black Bears, was packing Alfond Arena game after game.

Weekends, my dad began taking me to up to Orono, where we’d sit side by side in the bleachers as he explained what it meant to block and why it was good for a player to get fouled once or twice — it meant they were being aggressive, something I knew nothing about — as we watched. After games, I’d stand outside the locker room and hold out my ticket to get it signed by the players. I clipped articles about their winning streak from the Bangor Daily News. I asked for a #14 jersey for Christmas — Cindy Blodgett’s number. I still didn’t have any game myself, but I’d blossomed into a full-blown fan.

When our Cougars ascended to the regional championship, the score was so tight, I was never put in to play — I was a liability. My designated position was to hold down the bench, and that night, I covered it like a pro, screaming and hollering, stomping my feet and cheering like my life depended on it. We won by a point in double overtime. By March, Blodgett had lead the Lady Black Bears to the Women’s NCAA tournament — the University’s first visit to the Big Dance. The Castine Cougars got together at our coach’s house to watch our heroes play. As the bottom seed, the Black Bears were up against the dynastic Connecticut Huskies. We were the underdogs, and we were fine with that. Mainers are nothing if not tough. But right after the tip-off, things turned south. Learning how to lose gracefully was something we Castine girls didn’t have much experience with.

When the next season came around, I thought long and hard about my commitment to the team. I hated to play because I wasn’t any good at it, but there wasn’t much doing in Maine in the winter, when our seaside town’s population sunk back down to a couple hundred locals. They needed all the girls they could get. At the very least, at a school with only 60 kids in grades K-8, I upped the numbers.

We traveled from one tiny town along the coast to another for away games, our school bus tempting black ice as night settled in early through the shortest days of the year. While top 40 hits crackled over the radio, we snapped each other’s bra straps in the back seat and discussed our respective crushes.

Late in the season, we played Deer Isle, which only had five girls on their team. I thought it was a mistake when our coach put me on the court in the starting lineup, but by halftime we were leading by more than 30 points. We huddled around our coach’s dry erase board as she marked out plays, assigning positions.

“But what about me?” I finally asked. I hadn’t been taken out yet.

“You’re going to play until you score,” she said, firmly.

I knew my body as a dancer. I had strong calves that held steady in the deepest plié, and I knew how to lift my pointer finger just so to extend the line of my arm, making for a graceful wingspan. Now I found myself face-to-face with Deer Isle’s point guard on defense. Suddenly, it all made sense — I was sweaty and tired, and longed to sit down on one of the cool metal folding chairs behind the sideline — but this girl stood in the way. My arms shot out to either side, and I began to swish them up and down, one and then the other in an interpretive wave-like dance. Flummoxed, she aimed to pass the ball, and I intercepted it. I tore off downcourt, dribbling without even thinking about it, and arrived at the basket all alone. Up and in the ball went, and our score ticked up two more points. The crowd went wild. All the parents were on their feet — even the ones from Deer Isle — cheering like I was their own.

Buoyed by my victory, I dashed back to play defense, curious to see if I could make it happen again. I waved my arms to and fro, but got too close, and the referee called foul. Polite little me had fouled someone! Inconceivable. Who was I out here on the court? I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. Someone passed me the ball, and I shot again: nothing but net.

We beat Deer Isle something like 95 to 6. I was responsible for four of those points — I’d brought them in for the win. Later, as we changed up in the locker room, someone asked me what I called that move.

“What move?”

“Your octopus arms!” another teammate chimed in. “We’ll just call you Octopus Arms from now on.” A nickname.

In some ways, I’m the last person you’d expect to see in a sports bar — I like to work a good heel, and I’m often told I’m “ladylike.” But every year come March, I find a watering hole and belly up to the bar to watch the NCAA. I’ll drink seltzer — I don’t even like beer — and yell at the screen, “Get in the paint!” I make the same high-pitched hum when the team I don’t want to win is concentrating at the foul line, just like I did in the bleachers of Alfond Arena.

As I watch those lumbering college kids drive the ball up and down the court, I remember sitting on the edge of my seat as Cindy Blodgett brought our state out of hibernation, to its feet. At 12 years old I was gangly, bespectacled and terrified, yet I got the ball up and in — not once, but twice. Even after the hardest winter, spring comes. The NCAA seems to announce it. When I need to negotiate a raise with my boss, or I am deciphering text messages like code, pondering my next move in a romantic pursuit, I envision the court in Deer Isle. The basket isn’t as far away as you think it is. You can do this, I tell myself. You’ve done it before. Pull out your octopus arms, now. Try something you’ve never tried. You’re going to play until you score.

Photo via ceniva/flickr.

Jeanne Hodesh keeps her eye on the ball in Brooklyn, where she writes about food, travel and lifestyle.