A few weeks ago, as I was walking down the street to my car, a man stopped me to begin a conversation about my height. Here we go, I thought. He asked the usual questions, prodding me about my basketball career, and then there it was: “Let’s play one-on-one. I bet I could beat you.”
It was far from the first time. I’m a tall woman, at 6-foot-2, and almost everywhere I go, people notice me. The first question is: Do you play basketball? When they find out I’m a professional player, some are just impressed and want to know more about the life of a pro athlete. Most of the men I talk to, though, ask me to play one-on-one.
If you’ve ever had that impulse, let me stop you here. I’m not going to play you one-on-one. I’m never going to play you one-on-one. I have been playing basketball my entire life, and for just as long I have been challenged by men who think they are better than me. I had to prove my skill in middle school against the boys who thought girls don’t play basketball. I had to prove my skill in high school when the guys’ egos were hurt because the girls basketball team was more successful and more popular than theirs. I had to prove it in college when grown men started challenging me to one-on-one games because there was no way this college woman was better than they were. Time and time again, I have trounced men — far too many to count. Now I have nothing to prove.
Look, I get it: Sometimes men are just flirting. But it’s easy to tell when someone is serious. Flirtation can be subtle and playful: “When are you gonna let me play you one-on-one?” Men with insecurities sound more braggartly: “I bet I would smoke you on the court.”
There’s something about basketball that activates men’s egos. It’s almost as if they still consider it a sport that women should not be playing. In 2018, that is truly a tired narrative. The WNBA has existed for more than 20 years, and before that women played college and overseas basketball. Get with the times! Does this happen in other professions? I’ve never heard of a person saying they’re a real estate agent, only to have someone snap back, “I bet I would sell more houses than you.” But I guarantee that every single woman who has played high-level basketball has been told by multiple men that she’d lose to them on the court. A former WNBA teammate of mine recently sent me a screenshot of a random man repeatedly commenting on her Instagram, saying he would thrash her one-on-one.
I am a competitor, and when I was younger, I lived for those challenges. Whenever a man called me out, I took it upon myself to embarrass him if a court was available (preferably with a crowd present). Throughout high school, college and even very early in my pro years, I handed out losses to countless overconfident men.
But the same story played out each time. It went a lot like the scene in the film “Love and Basketball” when Quincy meets Monica, tells her “Girls can’t play no ball” and proceeds to play her two-on-two with his friends. As he’s about to lose, he pushes her, and she falls into a sprinkler, cutting her face. Similarly, when the men I played realized they’d underestimated me, the hacking would start. They would elbow, undercut and even throw me into the pads under the basket — passing out real bruises to match their bruised egos. There was no way they were letting this woman beat them in front of their friends. I took the hits, made my shots, and walked away battered but victorious.
Those days are behind me now. As I got older, I collected more accolades and finally was drafted into the WNBA. I had made it. I was a paid professional. I. Do. This. But men still didn’t see it that way: Why can’t a man respect a woman at the top of her field? That was a question I didn’t care to try to answer anymore. And it had nothing to do with the physicality. If you’ve watched me play, you know I am very physical when I’m being paid to be.
But I’ve also had nine surgeries, seven on my knees and one on each hip. I have my livelihood to look after. This isn’t just a game for me anymore; it’s my career.
Why risk what I do for a living to prove myself to a rough-and-tumble nobody, the kind of guy who has probably never played real basketball? Inevitably, those are the guys who challenge me. Collegiate and professional male basketball players have too much respect for us to be jerks; they understand the game at the highest level and know that we’re extremely talented and that what we do is remarkable. Instead, it’s always the men with the broken hoop dreams who didn’t have the grades or the talent to play in college. The men who “dominate” in their 25-and-up rec league at the gym. The ones who know absolutely nothing about playing basketball at this level but are still strong enough to rough me up when things go south.
If I get hurt playing them, I risk losing my job, while they’ll just go back to their mundane careers. Not all professional contracts are guaranteed, and even the good ones have stipulations: WNBA contracts include language saying you are not allowed to skateboard, skydive or do practically anything that could cause you harm when you are not playing for your employer. Basketball is a physical game — when my employer is paying me to take physical risks, not when Basic Bobby feels the need to prove (most often unsuccessfully) that he can beat a professional women’s basketball player.
I may not be a superstar. I may not average the most points in the game. But my track record speaks for itself. I’ve won a high school state championship, played for two NCAA national championships and won two WNBA championships, as well as two championships in overseas leagues. Talk to anybody I’ve played with or anyone who’s coached me if you have any doubts. But I already know I’m a good player. And no, I won’t play you to prove it.
Devereaux Peters is a professional basketball player who won two WNBA championships with the Minnesota Lynx in 2013 and 2015.