SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The women’s basketball team at Mission College expected the bleachers to be full and the hecklers ready when its newest player made her home court debut.
In the days leading up to the game, people had plenty to say about 6-foot-6-inch, 220-pound Gabrielle Ludwig, who joined the Lady Saints as a mid-season walk-on and became, according to advocates, the first transsexual to play college hoops as both a man and a woman.
Coach Corey Cafferata worried the outside noise was getting to his players, particularly the 50-year-old Ludwig.
A pair of ESPN radio hosts had laughed at her looks, referring to her as “it.” And online threats and anonymous calls prompted the two-year college to assign the Navy veteran of Operation Desert Storm a safer parking space next to the gym and two police guards.
Last week, Ludwig gathered her 10 teammates at practice and offered to quit. This was their time to shine, she told the group of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. She didn’t want to be a distraction for the team. The other women said if Ludwig, whom they nicknamed “Big Sexy” and “Princess,” didn’t play, they wouldn’t either.
Didn’t she know she was the glue holding the team together?
“Then let’s just play basketball,” she replied solemnly, looking each teammate in the eye.
A lifelong basketball lover, Ludwig has been helping coach and working out with the Saints since the beginning of the school year, but she only received conference clearance to compete on the last day of November. She took the court as No. 42 the next day, scoring three points on four free throws in about seven minutes of play. Last weekend, during her first home game, she scored eight points in 11 minutes, Facebook friend requests from the opposing team — and not a single heckle.
“I got exactly what I always wanted, just to fit in and be normal like everyone else,” Ludwig said.
The story of how she ended up in a basketball uniform again would inspire comparisons to “The Natural” or other tales of middle-aged redemption were it not for gender. Introduced to the sport as an impressively tall seventh-grade boy, she played on her high school team as Robert John Ludwig, then one season at a community college on Long Island in New York. After she dropped out, her court appearances were limited to pickup games.
The basketball bug returned 12 years ago, when her daughter from her second marriage, then 7, started playing youth basketball and Ludwig signed on as her coach.
Her transition from a male coach to a female coach five years ago raised questions, but parents generally accepted her decision warmly, she said. So did the women she played with in a couple of intramural leagues.
While coaching a youth game on the Mission court last year she met Cafferata. When Ludwig half-jokingly asked if he had a spot for her, he said he might. “The only thing I had to do is talk to my potential teammates and say, ‘Hey, do you have room for me? This is where I am, this is where I’ve been, and I really love this game. Can I play with y’all?’ And it was a resounding, ‘Hell yeah!’“