It’s Sunday morning, and I roll up to the rec center in my navy workout shorts, high socks, Nike slides, and old Drexel University basketball jersey. Without fail I wear a Drexel jersey to play pickup. I have several of them. They’re ten, eleven years old by now, but they’re in immaculate shape, kept alive by something like magic or willpower. I don’t wear this jersey because it’s my favorite, though it is. (My shoulders look great in it.) I wear it so that when I, a nonbinary player whom everybody reads as a woman, walk into a gym full of dudes who think they’re hot shit, there’s a chance one of them might point to my chest and ask, “Did you ball in college?” To which I’ll say, “Yeah, D1.” Once they hear that I played at Division 1, the highest collegiate level, they might say, “Oh, word?” or, “That’s what’s up.” With this sliver of approval, the door opens for me, just a crack.

I’ve had thousands of such conversations dating back to high school, when my friend V. and I would show up to the outdoor courts and try to get in on all-male pickup games. Except back then I had to say I was a D1 prospect with plenty of schools to choose from. It’s amazing what the phrase “D1” will do to the brain of the average man on a basketball court.


It wasn’t always this way for me, this having to beg for inclusion. On the playground during recess the boys were terrified of my friends and me. We took to the soccer field with our ponytails and soccer shorts, our jaws set and lethal gazes trained on our opponents. At eleven we were the best players on the field, and everyone knew it. We didn’t back down against anyone, not even our boyfriends. In fifth grade alone we accounted for a broken pinkie, a fractured shin, a black eye, a split lip, a broken nose, and several sprained ankles. Time and time again the boys came back for more, even if it meant losing by ten, twelve goals. They respected our game, respected how easily we took from them.

I like to think the courts and fields we play on remember us, that they hold evidence of our magnificence: The sweat that dripped down our necks during overtime, when we forgot the world and everyone in it but the bodies on the field. The skin scraped from our knees when we slide-tackled the forwards. The blood from a kid’s nose when I kicked the ball straight into his face at recess. The DNA of prepubescent boys who begged us to take it easy on them, knowing and loving that we wouldn’t.


Playing at the rec-center gym is nothing like my time at Drexel. There are no bright lights, no student section chanting my name, and no electric buzz of the crowd on its feet. It’s just me, a court I had to pay five bucks to access, and a bunch of guys who I think want what I want: To know transcendence. To access a different plane of existence for a while. To both escape themselves and become more who they are.

I’ve always enjoyed pickup: the sudden poetry of it, the immediate bond and intimacy among strangers. There are no refs, no matching jerseys, no time-outs. People of all ages and abilities spontaneously come together, and you’ve got to figure out how to adapt to players whose games you know virtually nothing about. It’s all guts and very little glory—yet there is some glory, even if only a handful of spectators are watching. One OHHHHHHH, after you cross someone so hard they fall on their ass, can make you hold your head high for the rest of the week. In pickup games even the trash talk is better, more creative. You’re free to taunt and dare, to go for the jugular. Pickup basketball is the purest form of the game. It makes everyone anonymous, though we all hold the shimmering hope that we’ll one day become legends of these unknown courts.

While the men warm up—balls ricocheting all over in sweet cacophony—I take a seat on a bench, pull on my knee brace, and start lacing up my Kyrie 7s. Nobody asks about my Drexel jersey, but that’s OK.

Sometimes I’ll have my friend E. with me. A solid rugby player but not much of a baller, he can hardly keep from traveling every time he has the ball. That doesn’t matter, though, because when I walk in with him by my side and he starts dapping dudes up, he’ll nod in my direction and sing my praises. “She’s legit,” he’ll say. I won’t bother to correct the she that troubles and dizzies me, that threatens to rip me from my body and send me up into the rafters. In this setting I’m already an outsider fighting to gain entry. I wouldn’t be comfortable—or safe—revealing just how othered I am. When E. introduces me, I’ll watch the men’s eyes take in all five feet, four inches, 135 pounds of me. They’ll nod, accepting E.’s word as gospel.

It’s a strange form of humiliation, this being on display for their approval, making myself small and needy for these guys. Outside of this gym, I work on taking up space, on speaking out, on making myself bigger—wider back, broader shoulders, thicker thighs, larger biceps.

But E. isn’t with me today. Why am I here again? Oh, that’s right: Because I love the game. Because basketball was my first and most formative love. Because when I step on the court, every problem in my life melts away: the loss of old friends to overdoses and family members to cancer, the never-ending anxiety of raising a child, the school shootings, the relentless legislative attacks on queer and trans people, the hate crimes. Because there is nothing more intoxicating than the ball sizzling at my fingertips. Because I become untouchable and untamable, a demigod of my own making. Because gender disappears for me while I play, though I don’t think the same is true for these men, who stand so firmly in their manhood. All they can see is “woman,” and I will, one way or another, be punished for it.


Every day at recess the boys would attempt to split my friends and me up: “Marisa, come on, you know you want to play forward for us.”

Although it felt good to be wanted, I refused to break up our team; we all did. “Nope, sucks to be you,” I’d say, sticking my tongue out at whatever boy had asked. I didn’t yet understand my gender as anything at all. I saw myself as a person, devoid of any delineation. But I understood the girls as my teammates because of how we moved as one, as if we could communicate telepathically. I never felt more connected to anyone than when I was on the field with them. To play together like that was to really know each other. Erin liked to post up her defender and have the ball served to her feet, while Rachel liked a nice lead pass to her left. If Tara was one-on-one with a defender, she’d pass it up the field almost every time, while in the same situation Brae would always try to school him. Me, I liked to run, run, run. Give me even an inch of space, and I would take the whole field.


Because E. isn’t here to vouch for me, I feel exposed and edgy, eyes darting around the court, making split-second judgments about whose respect I must earn. The men’s respect is conditional. They have the power to take it away whenever they please, anytime I’ve violated an unspoken rule. If I play too well, they’ll resent me; if I don’t do enough, I’ll be overlooked.

The gym is freezing, the AC on full blast, and the fluorescent lights are so bright they wake me right up. Two games are going on at once. Several guys, ranging from agile eighteen to creaky mid-thirties, are warming up already. A few think they’re sharpshooters, though they brick it from twenty feet. The signature guard spends his warm-up time shaking invisible defenders like he’s Allen Iverson in 2001. A six-foot-five string bean throws down several dunks, and spectators ooh and ahh. And of course there’s the one dude who’s just a bit too cool to warm up, so he does all these slow-motion moves—in-and-out dribbles and lazy lay-ups—acting like he’d rather be anywhere else, though we all know this is his church. It’s all of ours. Martin Shaw, the renowned mythologist, said we “make things holy by the kind of attention we give them.” He was talking about prayer mats. This court is a collective prayer mat for the twenty players running up and down it. We could be anywhere else on a Sunday morning, but we are here, dressed in our basketball best, hoping for the one play that will make it all worth it, the play that brings us to our knees.

It’s easy to pick out the alpha. The others circle around him like hungry planets, asking when we’re going to start and who he’s picking for his squad. He’s the one I start rebounding for. Maybe even compliment his jumper while I’m at it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll pick me for his team, but it gets me on his radar and shows that I’m willing to be a team player. I do this even though it makes me sick to give up my power so he can keep his. While I’m here, I put a bit more swagger in my walk. I deepen my voice, try to act like one of them. Because, let’s face it, masculinity is rewarded. Maybe I am doing a disservice to femininity by feeding that beast, but it’s the only way I know how to access the game I love in a gym full of men; the game that is never just a game but a domain in which people are sorted and categorized from a young age: by ability, by neighborhood, by income. By gender. There is a certain queerness for me, as a nonbinary person, to playing pickup basketball with all men. It’s the queerness of yearning, of loving a sport that doesn’t always love me back; a sport that doesn’t know what to do with me, where to put me.

There is an ugly history here. The WNBA wasn’t founded until 1996, when I was six. You’ll find men in every corner of the internet talking about how the WNBA sucks and no one watches the games (though the 2022 WNBA finals had a viewership of more than half a million people). They complain that women can’t dunk, which, according to them, makes the games less exciting. And, of course, you’ll find men who say they could totally take these professional basketball players in a game of one-on-one. I can’t spend too much time reading their hateful delusions without wanting to throw my laptop out the window.


In an Esquire interview, trans actor Elliot Page talks about his love of playing soccer as a child, of being a part of a team—until, that is, the boys and girls were placed in separate leagues. He was distraught and begged his mom to let him keep playing with the boys. It changed the sport for him; he kept playing for years, but much of the love was gone.

He also discusses “what it means to find and create empty space” when playing a sport. I feel similarly about basketball. Everything on the court is fluid and malleable. Nothing ever stays the same for long. The game itself reflects what it means for me to not fit comfortably in a world that tells me I must be one or the other.

When the boys at recess hit puberty—when their faces became riddled with acne, when their voices cracked, when they shot up like trees, when their chests grew pecs—something changed. They no longer saw my friends or me as equals on the field. Many of them were now bigger and stronger than we were, and they wanted us to know it. I got my period, my pecs turned to boobs that I was dying to chop off, and I was no longer a talented and fierce soccer player in their eyes. I was a stranger, an alien, a threat to their shaky identities as boys-becoming-men. They didn’t understand the power of a team as an entity that transcends individuality, that reaches beyond what we think we know about the body. Those girls from the playground and I went on playing together for years to come. My memories of that time are never about winning seasons or championships. They are about belonging: the huddles and high fives, the pregame pump-up dances and the postgame bus rides, the moment on the court or field where everything fell away and we came together in wordless connection. Never once did I think, I am playing with girls.


The gym isn’t packed yet, so I may get to play in the first game. But my team will likely not let me play point guard, the position I’ve excelled in all my life. From the first check ball, trying to figure out how to convince these guys to pass to me, let alone pick me up the next game if my team loses, is like solving a complex math equation. But let’s say I find a way to control our team’s possessions, and I’m good and loose and start to get that look in my eye—the look that says I forgot I’m in some random rec center and not back at Drexel in front of a sold-out crowd. I hit a jumper. Then another one. Next time down the floor, I drive and kick the ball to a guy who sinks a baseline three. On defense I pickpocket a dude who gets sloppy, and I finish for an easy two. Feeling like nothing and nobody can stop me, I pull up for a three on a fast break, and the net burns as the ball falls through it. There is never a game in which I don’t want to win, but here the fight is less about the score and more about the chance to fall in love—with the game, with myself—all over again.

Despite my performance, we lose by one. Pickup-basketball rules are: the winning team plays again, and the losing team is off. But the team that’s coming on can choose people from the losing team if they need another body or two. I wait around in the middle of the court, hopeful that the new team, having witnessed my ability, will pick me up. I’m sure I wear a choose me, choose me look on my face, but I don’t care. I just want to play. There is something awful about wanting to be welcomed among men, whether as an out nonbinary person or a temporary woman. I don’t belong, not really. They all give each other daps, but I don’t get even one.

The captain of the new team, a six-two jacked guy wearing a tight white tank top, looks straight over my head, scanning the gym for a suitable option. “You,” he says, pointing to a guy who, during warm-ups, launched rainbow threes that hit nothing, not even the backboard. I sit down on the bench, drink some water, busy my hands with an extra ball. A young guy on the sideline, just there to spectate, tells me it’s bullshit I wasn’t chosen. “You’re the best out there,” he says. I muster up a Thanks, but his words make me feel worse. He’s validated my suspicion that the men don’t take me seriously as a player, or maybe they are threatened by my skills. That I can’t prove this is why I wasn’t picked up only makes it worse. If I say the wrong thing, if I accuse the men of certain prejudices, I might be painted as a sore loser or a “bitch” who can’t handle a “man’s game.” My resentment and fury turn my thoughts cruel, beyond the type of on-the-court trash-talking that’s generally accepted. I want to say: Your defense is pathetic, you have the worst handles I’ve ever seen, you have no business shooting past five feet. But if I did, I’d be ostracized.

I’ve had enough. Deflated and rejected, I storm out of the gym, not even bothering to take off my Kyries. Hot tears burn my eyes. I kick the curb, then text my wife that I’m on my way home, tell her what a fucking waste of time pickup was. I will always be on the outside looking in. I will always be, at best, tolerated in male spaces.

And it hurts, it really does. Players are players. Good ball is good ball—or, at least, I like to think so. And a high five, a dap, a head nod, a pointing finger giving me props—these small moments of recognition, on the rare occasion I get one, are an invitation in. The door opened, not just a crack but swung so hard the knob dents the wall. A sudden creation of space. A no-look alley-oop pass frozen in midair.