See The Subject Beyond The Frame

The best thing about this sport is all the time. By design, tournaments are abrupt and unforgiving. They reduce a player to her worst game. They collapse history. They cut stories short. And that’s supposed to be the fun part: the madness. We’re meant to take some pleasure in entropy, in the suddenness of the endings, in the business left unfinished. But the truth is that every March is sweeter for November, and for January, and for last March and for next March. The real fun of women’s college basketball is that you get these great players, and you get them for so much time. That was all I could think on Monday night as the camera showed JuJu Watkins wiping away tears with the hem of her jersey while Paige Bueckers whispered something into her ear. Watkins plays the kind of game that obscures just how young she is, and suddenly her real age shocked me. She had so much time left, so many more games to play at USC, a fact UConn’s former freshman phenom herself knew well.

At its greatest, women’s basketball feels exactly this way. Insular, self-referential. The top five players in the 2020 college recruiting class were, in some order, Bueckers, Angel Reese, Caitlin Clark, South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso and Stanford’s Cameron Brink. All five have now played in a national championship game. They have haunted each other for a long time; each has stood in another’s way. Clark and Bueckers will play their second game against each other tonight, having already met as freshmen in the Sweet Sixteen. “I was looking back and I saw some old footage of that game and we both look really, really young,” Clark said yesterday. “It’s cool to see how our careers have evolved.” It is cool to see careers evolve over four years; it’s been just as interesting to watch the rest of the world evolve, too. Maybe Lisa Bluder, who couldn’t cross half-court when she grew up playing basketball in Iowa, thinks about this often. Maybe Kim Mulkey, when she read a Los Angeles Times columnist call her players “dirty debutantes,” thought the world hadn’t actually changed that much.

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The columnist has since apologized. In his quest to be an alliterative dumbass, he did help me understand what has been so captivating about this group of players. The debutante is a young woman in transition, acquiring some sense of herself just as the world imposes its own limits on what she can be. “I’ve been sexualized, I’ve been threatened, I’ve been so many things,” Reese said, choking up at the press conference after LSU’s loss to Iowa. One TV commentator turned this into a gotcha moment. “You can’t be the big, bad wolf but then cry like Courage the Cowardly Dog,” he said. As if it weren’t the most ordinary thing in the world for a 21-year-old woman to take some thrill in being seen, and to, at the same time, feel frightened by how much of herself she has ceded to other people. I have thought of these college stars in a battle of orientation, one between portrait and landscape. The portrait focuses on its subject, the landscape situates her in something she can’t hope to control.

Always searching for the great women’s sports novel, but not expecting to find one so timely, I picked up Rita Bullwinkel’s debut, Headshot, a few weeks ago. It studies eight teenage girls at a boxing tournament in Reno. Their stories unfold in bracket form; each chapter pits one fighter’s monologue against another’s in their bout. None of them will find lasting glory in her sport—this Bullwinkel confirms for the reader, as she peers into each girl’s future. Boxing will leave Artemis Victor only with hands “so spoiled that it will be hard to open the refrigerator door. No one in her life at that point, including her daughter, will have any remembrance of the meaning attached to what it means to be a boxer.” One girl will become a pharmacist, another an admissions officer. But for this weekend in Reno, the girls are suspended in tournament time, which feels like forever, no matter how fleeting it really is. In their heads, we become party to their freakish drive and ambition, forces we know will be circumscribed by the outside world. The novel’s title evokes the boxer’s weapon, and also the act of portraiture, which has the same power to stun. 

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In this sense, they differ from the young women who headline the NCAA tournament, each of whom is made constantly aware of The Implications For Women’s Basketball. “I’ll take the villain role. I’ll take the hit for it, but I know we’re growing women’s basketball. If this is the way we’re going to do it, then this is the way we’re going to do it,” Reese said before Monday’s Elite Eight game. This year, amid the noise of the tournament, the actual games have come as relief. The players shine most when, like Bullwinkel’s boxers, they’re understood as something more specific than a jumble of stakes. And on the court, their loud, brilliant play crowds everything out. They take up the frame. Could you really watch what millions of people watched on Monday night, or what millions of people will watch tonight, and understand it only as the simple race war, as “milk and cookies” vs. “dirty debutantes,” as David vs. Goliath, or good vs. evil, or Magic vs. Bird? Can you do justice to Reese’s blocks, each one so crushing, and to the hazy magic of Clark’s pull-up shot, if you flatten them into something else?

Rematches can be fun—time looping backward and all. But old fights get stale. When Reese, Bueckers, and Clark were freshmen, their first NCAA tournament became a story for reasons other than the play. At this year’s tournament, the same patterns crept into the frame; someone noticed, four whole games into the Portland regional, that the three-point lines painted on the court were uneven. One was nine inches short at its apex. “Things happen. Let’s move on,” Geno Auriemma said. Of course, someone had to ask him about it. Of course, he had to supply his take. He wondered whether the three-point line story was a function of attention, whether the extra eyes trained on Bueckers and Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl had helped to spot the mistake. Sometimes portraiture just gives way to landscape. “The games were the games. The kids were fantastic,” he said. “Tomorrow, the next day, this will all be ancient history.”

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This fall, I found myself in the back rows of an unusually packed press room in Brooklyn after Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. It had been a strange game, both tactically and in its ending. Late in the fourth quarter, the Aces’ point guard Chelsea Gray headed to the locker room with a foot injury. Her chances to return to the series seemed slim. For much of the afternoon she’d been guarded by Breanna Stewart, a defensive tack akin to cutting off a blood vessel. And it worked: In wingspan vs. pick-and-roll, wingspan won.

One reporter asked a question not particular to Stewart or to the game or to the series; they rattled off examples of other well-attended women’s sporting events that weekend and asked the players on the podium something like, “Why do you think it took so long for people to start caring about women’s sports?” I could almost see this writer’s story on the page. I could imagine Stewart’s response, transcribed and pasted between pre-written paragraphs. Stewart’s arms, the arms that explained her singularity and her team’s survival that day, formed a cartoonish shrug. But when the room’s laughter subsided, she answered the question. In that moment, she looked tiny. Six-foot-four and tiny. I wished someone would rotate the camera and zoom in.

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