FREMONT, Calif. — Beneath the foggy mirror in a makeshift locker room no bigger than a storage closet sit 11 women, their wide eyes affixed to an overdressed basketball coach who is delivering a pregame speech that is equal parts inspiration and four-letter words.
The scene plays out at colleges across the country each night, but on this rainy evening inside a dimly lit Bay Area junior college gymnasium, it serves as prelude to a debut unlike any other in the sport’s history.
When the focus of the 12-minute pep talk pivots to this topic, the eyes of 10 18- to 20-year-old women – including one deaf player and another woman a few inches shy of 5-feet – focus on the one Mission College player who has yet to play this season. There near the door sits the oldest (50 years old), tallest (6-feet-6, 230 pounds) and most muscular person in the room: Gabrielle Ludwig.
“Come out and be Gabrielle the player,” head coach Corey Cafferata tells her. “You worked hard to get here. This damn team in here, everyone has your back!”
Gabrielle Ludwig, 50, a transexual basketball player at Mission College in Santa Clara, CA stands with her team during a game at the Contra Costa “Comets” Tournament on the Contra Costa College campus.
Ludwig nervously runs her hand over the sock approaching the tattoo on her leg. She has long been eager yet apprehensive about this moment. Can she still play? What will she hear from adults in the stands? What will her opponents on the court whisper? And can she keep her emotions in check? Glancing up from the dirty rug, she says she is calm. She didn’t know if this day could ever arrive: Tonight, before spectators who will cheer and curse her, she hits the reset button on her life.
“Your name will be called,” Cafferata assures her about playing time. “Your name will be called.”
Few outside this room know it all comes back to that name. They don’t know she is 50 and last played a college basketball game in 1980 – as a man. They don’t know the odyssey: one failed suicide attempt, two failed marriages; one 19-year-old daughter who insists on calling her dad, two girls who insist on calling her Momma Gabbi.
And they have little sense of reactions Ludwig has encountered – the gawking, the whispers and the female referee in Barstow who looked her in the eye and refused to shake her hand. All of this prompted by the tension between a person’s desire to play organized basketball and a community still trying to comprehend that person’s half-century life journey.
“Last time I played college ball, I was 20 years old,” Ludwig tells her team. “Walking out here 30 years later … ”
Her voice is drowned out by the applause of young women who know in their hearts that the worst backlash, the worst of all, is only minutes away.
The woman teammates call Gabbi, Giant or Big Sexy was born Robert John Ludwig in Germany three decades before any of them were a glimmer in their parents’ eyes. Ludwig, who did not know his birth father, followed his mother, Elfie, and Al, the military man his mother fell in love with, to America.
Childhood was laden with positive experiences, Ludwig says, except for the feeling that something was terribly off-kilter inside, that every time Ludwig looked in the mirror he saw the wrong image staring back. At every opportunity he would try on his mother’s dresses and experiment with makeup only to rush to slip off the clothing and wash away the lipstick before his parents could catch him.
“It was aspirin to a bad headache,” Ludwig says of the dress wearing. “I lived a life vicariously through my mother’s closet.”
When Ludwig moved to Long Island at age 9, the struggle became more pronounced; his body was a mismatch with his spirit. Children picked on him daily, Ludwig said, and he felt intense personal angst. Ludwig said he wondered if he was gay, but he also wondered: How could he be gay if he didn’t find men attractive?
Unable to find an answer to what haunted him, Ludwig sought an escape. At 15, Ludwig says, he popped every pill of every color he found around the house. His parents arrived home to find little Bobby, the boy who loved baseball and the toy helicopter his dad once brought home, with his mouth foaming and his body void of an identity. He told his parents he didn’t want to be here.
Once puberty hit, the image in the mirror changed, and suddenly there were pectorals and size and advantages. Maybe he could just stuff this identity crisis back in the closet with his mother’s dresses and find refuge and a catharsis in something at which he thrived: basketball. Finally, this awkward, big-eared teenager with a German accent had something to look forward to.
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