According to an AP report, Gabrielle "Gabbi" Ludwig, a 6-foot-6-inch transsexual player on Mission College's women's basketball squad, made sports history this month as a basketball player at a Santa Clara, California community college. The 50-year-old transsexual, Desert Storm veteran, father and Mission College freshman is believed to be the first hoopster to play college ball as both a man and a woman.
The last time she played a college basketball game was in 1980 – as a man.
With a court order in hand, Ludwig was cleared to play women’s college basketball and that’s exactly what she did last weekend at the 19th annual Comet Classic at Contra Costa Community College.
As the tallest, oldest and most muscular player on the team, Ludwig knew the hecklers would be out in force so before her debut, Ludwig gathered her 10 teammates at practice and offered to quit. She didn’t want to be a distraction for the team. The other women said if Ludwig, whom they nicknamed “Big Sexy” and “Princess,” didn’t play, they wouldn’t either.
A lifelong fan of the game, Ludwig was introduced to basketball as a 7th grade boy named Robert John Ludwig. She went on to play on her high school team and then one season at a community college on Long Island in New York. After she dropped out, her court appearances were limited to pickup games.
The basketball bug returned 12 years ago, when her daughter from her second marriage, started playing youth basketball and Ludwig signed on as her coach. Ludwig kept coaching other people’s children when the daughter moved on to high school and still works with hundreds of middle school girls every year.
The transition from a male coach to a female coach five years ago raised questions, but parents generally accepted Ludwig's decision. While coaching a youth game on the Mission court last year she met Coach Corey Cafferata. They kept in touch, and when Ludwig half-jokingly asked if he had a spot for her, he said he might.
Eligibility rules determined Ludwig had to enroll: She takes 12 credits at Mission College through online courses.
Ludwig has also been helping coach and working out with the Saints since the beginning of the school year, but she only received conference clearance to compete on the last day of November. She took to the court as No. 42 the next day, scoring three points on four free throws in about seven minutes of play. Last weekend, during her first home game, she scored eight points in 11 minutes, Facebook friend requests from the opposing team — and not a single heckle.
The story of how she ended up in a basketball uniform again would inspire comparisons to “The Natural, ” "Invincible," or other tales of middle-aged redemption were it not for the gender twist.
Coach Cafferata is tactful when asked whether Ludwig’s size and former gender give the Saints an unfair advantage. A self-described champion of underdogs — his roster includes a player who is deaf, one barely 5" tall and others with learning disabilities — the coach is rooting for Ludwig all the way. But to become a starter, she will need to work on endurance and speed.
“Gabrielle has earned a spot on this team,” he said. “She practices hard. She runs hard. She is no different from anyone on the team — she is a great, coachable player.”
As someone living as a woman and taking female hormones since 2007, Ludwig was eligible to play in the NCAA. Transgender student athletes who have taken medication to suppress testosterone for a year may compete on women’s teams under a policy adopted last year. Could we see Ludwig in the WNBA at some point? According to the San Jose Mercury-News, the league has no requirement that a player be born female so we'll just have to wait and see.
The California Community College Athletic Association had another hoop for Ludwig jump through however. She needed an amended birth certificate with her new name, Gabrielle Monika Ludwig. Doing so meant cutting off her previous identity, burying Robert Ludwig in one sense. But playing basketball again was a pursuit that carried a larger message. Ludwig, who had sex reassignment surgery over the summer, petitioned a judge and obtained her papers on Nov. 30.
Ludwig turns 51 this month and has acknowledged that part of her motivation for playing women’s basketball was to be a role-model for transgender youth. She finds hope, if not gratification in the temporary suspensions ESPN radio hosts Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin received this week because of insensitive and offensive remarks they made about her. But she wants her court accomplishments — not her gender change — to draw comments.
Mission College Athletic Director Mike Perez was all for Ludwig playing. He admires her for working a fulltime professional job — as a systems engineer for a pharmaceutical company — while carrying a full course load in computer administration. He also has seen the way her young teammates look up to Ludwig “and not just because she’s tall.”
“I could tell that one, she was a person of substance and two, somebody who was really sincere about what they were trying to do,” Perez said. “Many people have different views, but the most important view is she ... has a right to be on this basketball team.”
Teammate Amy Woo, 19, told the AP “We all love her. “If someone is going to talk against her, they are talking against all of us because it’s like she is part of a family.”
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