In charge: Monique Currie muscles past Jason Jacobs. Photo: Jon Gardiner
I hunched over onto my knees and sucked in as many deep, heavy breaths as I could. While beads of sweat glided down my nose and fell onto the shiny hardwood of Cameron, I glanced to my left and saw a dozen intimidating stares coming from the players sitting on top of the press table. They seemed to snicker at every missed shot that I took and every ill-attempted drive to the basket that I made. Surely if they stepped onto the court and started playing, I would look like a boy among men--except, to be more precise, I'd be a man among women.
At dusk on this warm day in early September, as echoes bounced around the empty upper deck of Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Duke women's basketball team watched thirty men drive to the hole, take charges, and loft up shots in an all-out effort to make the women's team's practice squad.
The Duke women do not hone their post-up and box-out skills on just anyone. Every year, the coaches put together an all-male practice team, consisting of the cr?me de la cr?me of intramural cagers, to go body-to-body against the women in daily practice.
"The biggest thing is that the guys are just bigger, stronger, and faster. It's kind of a God-given thing," says former Duke player and assistant coach Georgia Schweitzer '01. "It really makes a big difference when the women are practicing against people that are stronger than them."
I laced up my high-tops to see whether I had the skills to run the daily grind of Duke basketball practices. I was confident, even though my basketball glory days were back in the eighth grade, when a considerable height advantage over every other player in the local rec league was all I needed to win the awards for most rebounds and blocked shots.
"I just wanted to come play some basketball in Cameron," confessed an awe-struck freshman during warm-ups. "It'd be sweet to get to play in here all the time." We hopefuls shot around under the intense lights beaming down from rafters laden with championship banners. Whistles blew, teams were formed, headbands were put in place, tensions tightened.
Somewhere, James Naismith was rolling in his grave--the quality of play, especially mine, was not exactly SportsCenter material. The varsity women watched while leisurely dribbling basketballs and cracking jokes, in between bites of fried shrimp, their post-practice meal that night.
I awaited my call back in the following days, but eventually surmised that the coaches must have lost my contact information. Those they managed to reach were scheduled to start practicing with the team that week.
A couple of weeks later, I am back at practice--not throwing up more air balls, but taking notes from the sideline. It feels like tournament time inside Cameron; the play is smooth and fluid, and the competition fierce. The ACC championship itself might be on the line, the way sweat pours, picks are set, and elbows thrown, amid the constant chorus of squeaking shoes and a flurry of flopping pony tails. The women on the sidelines anxiously await their time on center court while taking practice shots and cheering on their teammates. Any basket scored by the male team is greeted with complete silence from the women and a sober, dutiful jog by the men back to the other end of the court.
"We play to win in practice," says preseason All-America Monique Currie. "The guys want to see us lose, and the guys want to make us look bad, but, at the same time, they're helping us get better--Oh come on," she interrupts herself to rebuke a male player who cockily holds his follow through while watching his three-pointer fall. "Phff, don't hang your hand after you hit that," she yells at the player as he trots meekly back.
In the beginning, Currie says, the practice team can be a little chauvinistic in its approach. "I think when they first start with us, they kind of underestimate us a little bit and they take it easy--until they look bad. Then they'll start playing hard."
This year, freshmen and sophomores make up a large part of this unassuming bunch, with some wily veterans providing leadership. They spend most of the practice executing the plays and defensive sets of the women's next opponent, while the team works on countering with their own winning strategies.
While the coaches ask the men's squad to simulate game situations, they also warn against playing too aggressively against the women. The health of the team is the first concern, and the men complain that practice fouls are called with this in mind. "They don't call anything on the girls," bemoans one former practice player.
"They're guys, come on," Currie tells me. "They should be able to take a bump or two. But it gets physical. We don't get easy calls either." All the men will say is, "No comment."
The men practice with the women from September through March Madness. While Duke looks forward to epic playoff matches and championship hardware, the practice squad will quietly go about its task. For them, playing basketball every day is the life they adore, and all the reward they need.