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When I used to play pickup ball at Western Michigan University there was a player there that no one wanted to guard because "Bear" was so strong and physical. When Bear got the ball on the blocks it was either a score or a foul. Up until a couple weeks ago, Bear was the toughest woman I'd ever played against.
Game Night: She's got game
Then I went to Seattle.
Now, before I go on, I have to tell you that at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds I'm not exactly a small guy. And I play a lot. But none of that mattered to Tiffani Johnson, who took one look at me and started talking smack.
"I have a mouse checking me," she said.
"Mouse in the house," she yelled another time.
Tiffani is 6-4 and weighs 240 pounds.
I would have argued with her, but I was still dizzy from a Lauren Jackson elbow I'd received a few minutes earlier. The Aussie clocked me so hard my knees buckled. The worst part? She didn't even notice.
As I was trying to move Tiffani out of the paint, I remember thinking how the day before, practicing with a WNBA team seemed like such a cool idea. From the stands I thought I saw the other male practice players smiling. Upon closer inspection I realized they were actually grimacing.
"It's not if Lauren's going to get you," one of the regulars said afterward. "It's when."
The other guys all laughed in agreement.
"The first time she hit me I wanted to go home and cry," another victim joked. "She is a strong woman."
Yes, she is.
She should be. She's an Olympian. A WNBA All-Star. A member of the WNBA All-Decade squad. I felt like Bobby Riggs. I was playing against one of the best basketball players in the world, and I was shocked at how easily she scored against a couple of skilled gym rats. I would like to think her gender had nothing to do with my surprise. I would also like to think Betty Lennox didn't cross me over on the baseline. But she did.
"How we play is the definition of basketball," said Lennox, the 2004 WNBA Finals MVP. "In the NBA you see one guy with the ball and everyone else just stands and watches. We play team ball. Plus the only time you see guys diving for loose balls is in the playoffs. We play hard like that every game, every possession."
And every practice.
By the end I was tugging on my jersey looking to get subbed out. I was exhausted, and I thought I heard Lauren sharpening her elbows. But no one would come in for me. So much for a band of brothers. Then I had an epiphany about Bear, who, despite her nickname and on-court demeanor, was actually a really nice girl. Perhaps the real reason we didn't like guarding her wasn't so much that she was good, but because we had to acknowledge the possibility that she was better than us. For teenage boys who play sports, that's a tough lesson to learn. Based upon some of the criticism I've heard about the WNBA, I would venture to say some of my older brethren are wrestling with that one, too.
"Our game is different but it doesn't mean we are somehow weaker because of it," said Sue Bird, another member of the WNBA's All-Decade squad. "We are not as athletic so you are not going to see a lot of dunks, but we do everything else as well as the guys."
And I have the knot on my head to prove it.
Read more about LZ's Game Night with the Storm in the upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine. Granderson is an editor at ESPN The Magazine.