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The flinch between invisible
How women in the NBA are asked to bide their time until it runs out.
Could you tell me the longest you’ve been mad for? Like, the longest sustained anger you’ve ever felt. There are days where the quality of rage I’ve got is as steady and quiet as something molten, innocuous until it makes contact and then capable of dissolving whatever it rolled idly over right out of this universe. I’ve had anger that hurt, anger like fear, anger that’s delirious where I could only laugh for coping. I don’t consider myself an angry person. I’m certainly an easy read, emotions running over my face like spring thaw most of the time, but I skew sunny. Annoyingly resilient.
It’s weird then to realize, the times I tap into it like a frequency, spinning the dial back to a familiar static, that there is a kind of anger I have felt perpetually since I turned, probably, thirteen. Low-level, humming like a tune always stuck in your head, anger that’s invisible as what it takes to crank it right up.
Angling my body at the last minute out of the way of a dude coming down the sidewalk who has not altered his trajectory an inch to avoid a full-frontal collision, someone’s voice rising, hardly louder but just enough, over my own. Being called a bitch in 5th grade in the middle of a recess handball game by a boy whose house had a half sawed off tree in the yard we all used to sit in together, not understanding what it meant but seeing the intention plain over his face, how visceral he felt whatever that was. Slapping him, automatically, feeling the flash of his face on my palm, how visceral I felt whatever that was. Listening to the value placed on men, the trepidation placed on women, for as long as I can really remember. Most things I’ve won against boys, then men, being equated to head starts, good timing, the kindness of someone else, all of it perpetuating further the feeling of needing to prove it, every time, for most everything, a feeling I have been trying to chase off since it first started creeping around.
Watching male friends shrink or go silent when called on things, watching as they — and men in their orbit — have learned the right things to say and when, have practiced, gotten good at the rhetoric, and still under the platitudes I’ve no sense where some would stand when pressed, uncomfortably, past the surface.
Feeling the tectonic pleasure of a basketball bouncing hard and close on hardwood floor come up through my feet, legs, stomach, settling in my chest, looking up and catching another writer, a security guard placed courtside, a photographer, a fan early in their seats, eyeball the credential hanging from my neck to see what it could possibly say about why I was standing there, eyelids dropped low, smiling to myself. The looks aren’t any different than a lifetime of the same look before that one, it’s only the situation that changes. When you are somewhere someone else figures you shouldn’t be, all the reasons within that doubt — authority, time, place, dress — still only distilling down to one real reason: you are a woman holding space.
My anger, that anger, comes from the flinch between being invisible and then suddenly not to someone. You realize you weren’t being seen, heard, paid the respect others collect by being a body there and breathing. And when you are seen it’s with surprise, incredulity, distrust, a caveat to materializing. You’re a barrier, but barely. That anger is as dormant as the feeling it takes to provoke it, but rises reliably as hackles along an animal’s back when it smells threat or blood.
To ask if I get tired of it is like picturing an ant with 50 times its body weight on its back. It’s a bad analogy but every one like it spells servitude: a tug boat, a cart horse, the endless, coiling line of a freight train in the middle of nowhere stretching back past where the horizon starts to curve under. It’s tiring depending on where you’re watching from. From outside, you wince, from in it, you only know you are going forward with added weight, but when was there a comparable difference? When was there less? Can you remember?
I don’t feel angry anymore when people tell me I am overreacting about Becky Hammon’s candidacy for becoming a head coach. Instead, I move them to the edges of my mental orbit, stray satellites that flash occasionally as they drift in loose and further passes. What does rile me are the same instances of invisibility capable of crowding my vision out with the rising hammer of my heart, but within the league. People that put Hammon alongside Jason Kidd, Luke Walton — Kidd who got a head coaching job the season exactly after he’d quit playing, Walton who got one after two years as an assistant who was frequently boosted to fill in for Steve Kerr. Kidd, who had his jersey retired in a pre-season game, so enthralled was the franchise that a job wasn’t enough for proof, before he would officially start the regular season as coach. Kidd, who bought ownership shares in the Nets that same year. Walton, who Kerr called one of “the best human beings in the NBA” after the Lakers fired him. Walton, who got another head coaching job with the Kings two days after he was fired, a sexual assault allegation levelled against him a week after that, and had the investigation dropped and dismissed by the league, neatly as putting away your suitcase after a summer trip, as soon as the regular season was set to start. People that put Hammon alongside these two as anything but good examples of lesser qualifications, who have, I guess, never heard of nepotism.
Every time Hammon has been moved away from a coaching start, this season or any previous, it has been with the same invisibility. When he was ejected in November and asked postgame why he subbed Tim Duncan in over Hammon, Gregg Popovich said he was “not here to make history” — what else has he been doing, his entire career? If not by virtue of trying, then by the routine of being there. Five championship titles, three coach of the year awards, so much of what Popovich seems hellbent on these last few seasons has been making a show of how little he cares, in the sense of, why bother and why bother asking him about it. In the sense of, what he is doing is only business as usual. But his business as usual has been that way, secured, for 24 years and when you have been afforded that kind of time the way you pay it around isn’t even in the same currency from where you started. I know the context of that quote was larger, and Duncan said that he didn’t want Hammon to have her start on a technicality, but also bullshit, because Duncan did.
Timing is so rarely perfect. These big, historic moments where women are involved get held back because of people who aren’t them holding the stopwatch on when history starts. History, as we’ve gotten more cognizant of it, can get so caught on making a moment the right one that it never happens. This week, when Duncan did his first full game as a head coach, against the Hornets with Popovich out on personal reasons, the logic went that Duncan was the assistant who had scouted Charlotte. Sure. But when I hear that, I automatically start calculating how many games Hammon had been there, running through Charlotte when the Spurs did each season, different rosters yes but Charlotte’s head coach, James Borrego, someone she’d counted as a coaching colleague on the Spurs since a year after she started. You can’t double down on Duncan’s technicality comments, or Pop’s reluctance to come out and make a statement, no matter his vehemence to it as a practice, and claim clarity on the plan for Hammon. He is happy enough to talk, loudly, when it suits him so this isn’t a case of a franchise clamped down on its comms. It wouldn’t take anything more than admitting, verbatim, that there is a plan. Would not take much more than acknowledgement of seeing someone like Hammon in the work, in this case, that she is already so well-versed in that its become her primary language, but one she is speaking in the dark.
The thing with Pop not talking, too, is that he leaves Hammon and Duncan to be squared off against the other, he’s put them in a position neither has the autonomy to respond to, not really. Hammon knows Duncan is an all-timer with the team, knows Pop has said he won’t accept Hall of Fame induction until Duncan gets it alongside him, she knows all the boys club shit and she’s also coached him, for years. Duncan knows Hammon as a coach, as someone who a lot of stake has been placed in by the franchise in both a regular and buying into the media way, can see all the clamouring, and now he knows her as a coworker. Someone he warms guys up with, sometimes with Hammon, using the same moves Hammon used to use with him. The layers to the situation, no matter how you’re looking at it, fall so heavy on both of them but neither has the overview perspective to navigate the weight.
The relegation of Hammon, as less qualified people are shuttled into prominent positions, shows the same surfeit of reticence with every way I’d listed out instances of women’s invisibility, the only difference is that, for her, it has been packaged as professional development. But when you prepare and prepare and prepare for something, aren’t you, every step of the way until you move forward and away, shedding small pieces of yourself, earlier versions, and creating a kind of vacuum of readiness, a permanent state of almost there until you’re invisible as a pilot light? A quavering thing that will, as time wears, blink out and bring with it not innocuous invisibility, but a noxious one, capable of catching, immolating, at the barest spark.