It shouldn’t have felt ironic — a girl in an IDF t-shirt guarding a Palestinian boy twice her size. And that wasn’t why I wanted to switch on defense; I’m five-two and three-quarters, he was maybe five-eight, five-nine, not so tall, but broad, strong. I’d scored a mid-range jumper on him the first play of the game but when he got the ball on offense, his shoulder was enough to knock me out of the way and clear the lane as he scored an underhand front of the rim lay-up.
“Let’s switch,” I said to my teammate, who didn’t seem to see the imperative. “He’s gonna push past me every time.” The guy he guarded was skinnier and more of an outside shooter—it would be a better match up. But he didn’t want to switch and another teammate pushed the ball down the court, so I got back on offense. We each hit a few more shots and the game grew heated as my team ended up winning by one. Every time someone on my team scored, the guy I guarded cursed out. He seemed to have a lot of pent up anger that I feared he would unleash on me at any minute.
It wasn’t the first time I had played basketball with guys speaking Arabic—I’d played plenty of pick-up in parks in Jerusalem during my visits there—but it was the first time I’d played with guys who might be Palestinian while wearing an IDF t-shirt, at NYU, during a wave of high terror in Israel; I made sure to say “good game” to each of my opponents. At the water fountain, the guy I guarded ended up in line ahead of me. As he straightened and turned back toward the court, I offered an innocent compliment, hoping to subdue any tension and willing to overlook his anger in the game as competitiveness, rather than heightened frustration at my presence: “Nice shooting,” I said, immediately regretting my word choice as I remembered the shirt I had on (every movement I made felt loaded—I hadn’t wanted to guard him too closely). He didn’t respond.
But something about having that shirt on and hearing him and his friends walk into the gym together speaking Arabic made me eager to press on. Something about having that shirt on, a shirt I’d neglected to wear to the courts in the past because I didn’t want to deal with politics when I just wanted to play ball or get in a good workout; because I was somewhat afraid that I would be confronted about it, as ridiculous an assumption as that might be given that it’s just a t-shirt and I’m just a girl trying to play basketball; because occasionally the courts would get so crowded that getting in a game as a girl was hard enough, let alone misconceptions of the IDF and Israel plastered on me; because I felt guilty for always choosing another shirt in my drawer; because I needed to do laundry; because I’d seen a guy playing in an IDF t-shirt a couple days before and felt inspired; because I have nothing to hide, I approached him and his skinnier friend as they stood on the foul line waiting for the next team to figure out their five and assemble, a process that always took too long.
“Did you all know each other before school?” I asked, stretching my arm across my chest, trying to seem casual, basing their closeness on the fact that when the five friends entered the gym, they had announced that they wanted to play together.
“No, we met here,” the skinny one answered.
“Oh, where are you from?” I then asked, getting to my real question.
“Lebanon,” said the skinny one.
“Cool, what about you? Where are you from?” I asked the broader one, who had been silent the whole time.
He broke from his distant gaze and looked right at me. “I am Pale-sti-nian,” he said, annunciating every syllable. It was the first and last time he looked me in the eyes.
They veered their bodies away from me before I could ask them their names and my words hung in midair as someone finally shouted, “Check ball!” I did match up with the skinny one this time as new players came on and his team divided, and the broader one sat this one out.
I went up for a rebound and took an elbow to the face (my dad would not be happy, he would tell me I have to wear a mouth guard, which I’d never done, even in high school, and that it wasn’t worth it to get hurt). I was fine, I just needed a sec to recover. I backed off the court for a moment and squeezed shut my eyes, opening them slightly as I noticed the broad Palestinian guy in my periphery, leaning against the matted wall. He had put thin-rimmed glasses on, giving him that effect of looking smarter and like he’d had enough for the day. His voice floated up from the floor as I heard him say, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, half-turning my head, impatient to get back in the game and again regretting that I hadn’t turned fully toward him when I thanked him, a little shocked at his concern, the first gentle thing he’d uttered all night; then I realized I had acted normal and took a deep breath.
In all my years of playing basketball, in all my years of playing pick-up basketball with guys and 99.9% of the time being the only girl on the court, at NYU and elsewhere, I had never felt so self-conscious as I did in that shirt. Even before the team of Arabic-speaking students entered the gym, I felt like I was going to have to turn at any moment, be ready for an onslaught of questions or insults or a ball being thrown at my face. Was I being paranoid, self-indulgent, overthinking it? Probably, maybe. But I felt that so much more than how I played was suddenly at stake. In that shirt, I represented Israel, in some way. I understood why many of my guy friends chose not to play in Kippot. I understood why many of them chose to play in Kippot. There was more at stake than when I wore the multicolored Star of David necklace I got for my Bat Mitzvah, or the gold-lettered necklace I got of my name in Hebrew on Ben Yehuda, both pieces of jewelry I rarely wore as they, like all jewelry, I discovered from middle school refs, became an inconvenience when I went to play sports.
He passed by me to leave as I bent over the water fountain—I was right about what his glasses indicated. There seemed to be an idle moment where I was drinking and he was passing in which I could have said something. But anything further felt like too much—I sensed that he didn’t want to talk to me, not right at that moment, anyhow. I continued drinking as I followed him out the door with my eyes, asking him his name in my head—I had never been shy before. I let him go as I hoped he would return, telling myself that t-shirt or not, next time he showed up to play basketball, I would find out his name.
This is all it takes, I thought. This is all it takes.