OAKLAND, Calif. -- The clock is ticking on the Harlem Globetrotters' postgame autograph session at Oakland's Oracle Arena, and the crowd in front of Tammy "T-Time" Brawner is still five-deep. The other Globetrotters' autograph sessions are starting to wind down, their individual crowds dwindling.
Brawner, meanwhile, is running her Sharpie ragged over basketballs, tickets, game programs and jerseys, trying to get everyone taken care of before the buzzer. It's hard to walk away from awestruck little girls who tell her that they want to be just like her.
She signs for another minute or so after the buzzer sounds and before being ushered away by security. From up in the stands, in the section directly behind the Globetrotters' bench, Brawner hears her name as a group of people stand and wave. Her mother, sister, aunt and other family have surprised her by flying in from Detroit. Some of her former Dominican College teammates and a few of the girls she used to coach at Skyline High in Oakland are also in the group.
They are all here to watch Brawner's hometown appearance as the lone female member of the Harlem Globetrotters on this leg of the tour.
Brawner, 26, became the 10th woman added to the Globetrotters' all-time roster last fall. There are currently three women on the full roster, following the footsteps of Lynette Woodard, who broke the barrier back in 1985, each of them traveling and performing on a different leg of the Globetrotters' national and international tours, which run simultaneously.
Brawner is featured prominently on her leg of the tour. Her appearance during team introductions, announced to the strains of "Sweet Georgia Brown," generates warm applause. She enters the game -- on this tour the Globetrotters' foils are called Global Select -- midway through the first quarter as the point guard. She engages in an impressive ballhandling display that was her hallmark as a college player and a large part of the reason she landed her spot on the roster. She returns in the second half, taking a few 4-point shots, making a few layups and dishing off some pretty assists.
Tameisha Price, her older sister, nearly cries when Brawner runs out on to the court.
"It's almost surreal that my sister is living out her dream this way," Price said. "She has the personality for this. She's able to hold her own on the basketball court and she knows how to entertain. We are all just so excited."
Brawner's path through college basketball was not quite a direct route. After two seasons at Cal State Northridge, Brawner chose to stop playing to pursue acting and modeling in Los Angeles. She ended up back in Oakland following graduation (she graduated in three-and-a-half years with a degree in criminal justice), weighing options about graduate school and working as an assistant coach at her alma mater, Skyline High.
"Something kept telling me, 'You are still a basketball player,'" Brawner said.
Skyline coach Shawn Hipol had known Brianna Chambers, the coach at Dominican College in Marin County, for years. Chambers had asked Hipol to keep his eyes open for a point guard. Turns out he knew one.
"I told her I had a kid coming back home who had a year-and-a-half of eligibility left, and I thought she might be what they needed," Hipol said. "I took her for an open gym, she did her thing and they were pursuing her as soon as we left."
Brawner used the rest of her NCAA eligibility at Dominican and earned an MBA. She hired an agent to look for opportunities to play overseas. Instead, her agent pointed her at the Globetrotters' annual tryout.
"She was shopping my highlights and they liked what they saw," Brawner said. "They called me in for a workout. It was a scrimmage; we did some ballhandling. It was all men there. I was playing against men, shooting with men."
It turned out to be a prelude to her current life.
Brawner said she always feels like part of the team despite her private dressing room, which she will proudly say is the "best-smelling room" in the arena. She also jokes about having trouble finding someone to hang with on the road when she wants to get her eyebrows done.
"Most of the rest of the time, I don't notice it too much," Brawner said. "On the court, they push me to be better."
Tay "Firefly" Fisher has been with the Globetrotters for four years. He said Brawner's addition has been seamless; the players view her like a sister.
"She's one of us," Fisher said.
Brawner's Globetrotters experience started on Thanksgiving as part of a military tour with stops at U.S. bases in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Afghanistan. The team's efforts also include campaigns benefiting breast cancer research and anti-bullying initiatives.
Brawner used the week she had in her hometown to work on those projects, including making an appearance at her former elementary school.
"This is what I want to do," Brawner said. "If all people know me for is being a basketball player, I haven't done my job."
Hipol isn't surprised at Brawner's success on this unique stage.
"She's always had the skills; she had the ballhandling skills of a boy when she was young," Hipol said. "When she came to Skyline as a freshman, she probably weighed 80 pounds, but she could do things that made you say, 'wow.' She might not be the quickest player or the tallest, but I think she can do anything she wants to do."
Brawner is able to say a quick hello to her friends and family courtside before team officials move her toward the locker room. One of the ushers stops to shake her hand. The photographers who have been capturing her picture with fans throughout the autograph session stop her and ask for pictures of their own. A lingering group of young men shout out "Oakland represents!" And she waves. But it's time to go. She has to get ready for the Globetrotters' 7 p.m. game. Brawner is smiling broadly as she walks off.
"This was everything I hoped it would be," Brawner says as she stands just inside the tunnel. "I felt an incredibly energy running out on to the court. I saw my mom and my sister. It was just awesome. I'll never forget it."