An Ode to the Onslaught

By Ilana M
Volume 1//Personal Essay

Sometimes I wonder what I would do if basketball didn’t exist. I’ve played basketball on and off since I was seven. And to this day, I think it’s the only thing in my life that helps me feel focused and centered and calm. Especially in these post-college years filled of confusion and the unknown. And right now, when the world feels so heavy it’s hard to even lift myself up; it’s impossible to tune everything out. I have one of those brains that never really shuts off. Finding activities where I can relax is increasingly challenging for me. Sleeping promises a brief vacation from my racing thoughts, but sometimes even my dreams are so realistic I can’t escape my own anxieties.

Two years ago I moved to a new place, and shortly thereafter, entered into a little bit of a crisis. Relationship issues, health issues, and work issues. I reconnected with someone I knew, and she mentioned beginning to play basketball with a group of old friends. Many had never picked up a basketball until a few months prior. As a woman, it’s hard for me to find places I feel comfortable playing, so I rarely did. Having not played in over a year, the following Tuesday I went to their practice. There were air balls, travels, endless turnovers, and general confusion. I didn’t care; it was a group of non-male bodies playing ball. I have continued to go to every Tuesday and Saturday practice for almost two years. This group is unlike any other I’ve ever been a part of. It’s a group of about 15 women in their late twenties who are in love with basketball. It’s not about winning or competition; we rarely even keep score. It’s hard to explain the kind of joy you get from running hard and scoring baskets and watching your friends run successful fast breaks. We have few opportunities for this type of pure joy as adults. I cherish the few hours I get to experience this kind of childlike joy every week.

There is no other space in my life where I can be who I am when I play basketball with The Onslaught. I found the Onslaught when I really needed community. These women are some of the most resilient, brilliant, and compassionate people I’ve ever met. I’ve learned so much about myself. I’ve learned how to play on a team, to balance other people’s strengths and weaknesses with my own. How to not overreact, how to let things go, what makes me upset, what makes me angry, and most importantly how to take risks and be unapologetic. I’ve even learned to be okay with not being competitive. Sometimes.

I’ve also learned that my commitment to playing basketball is for so much more than the game itself. As women, we are often made to believe that we are physically inferior to men, we are too emotional; we must be kind, soft, appease and comfort others. Basketball allows us to be aggressive and assertive and to carve out a space for ourselves in a world and sport that is narrated by and created for men. In our case, it means waiting our turn for court time at a male dominated outdoor court in a public park and hoping we get lucky and no guy will come tell us they think it’s “cute” that we are playing or try to give us pointers on how we can “be better.”  

Some weeks Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings are the only thing that keeps me going. They are the few hours in my week that I can rely on to get release from all the chaos; to sweat, to cry, to run, to yell, to push. And most importantlyto be present both emotionally and physically. The Onslaught is so much more than a basketball team to me. Sometimes I find myself becoming impatient when we run layup lines and people are unfocused, chatting awayasking questions about job interviews, graduate school applications, Tinder dates, and weekend trips. But I can’t really imagine it any other way. And lucky for me, The Onslaught also shares meals, cries, political debates, sleepovers, beach days, birthdays, and dance parties. Sometimes I wonder if we will continue to play basketball forever. Maybe one day we’ll even find another team to compete against.

A few months ago my dad, laughing, said to me: “I can’t believe you’ve become such a jock.”  Insulted at first by the idea of it, I realized lateras long as I can be a jock on a team like this, I’ll take it as a compliment.