Cornfields to City of Lights –
Gutsy Globetrotter Breaks Barriers In Basketball
“What kind of operation?” Mom inquired
“Will she walk again?” Dad asked the doctors.
What if I couldn’t play basketball? I fell into a restless sleep with my legs trapped in traction. The phone ringing beside my hospital bed woke me at midnight.
“Allo, dis ze trainer for Asnières Club de Basket. We want you play in Paris?”
“What? I can’t understand you.”
“You play basket in France wiz us?”
“Yes, but I have a back problem.” I said.
“What you say? No problem? We pay you go back. We pay plane. We pay flat and car. ”
“No. It is my health.”
“’Ealth? Sink about it. I call few days.”
I hung up the phone, bewildered. He was talking about the star forward. Not me, the invalid, who couldn’t crawl to the bathroom.
Weeks later I had rehabilitated from a slipped disk in time to debut in America’s first Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), but my team declared bankruptcy at Christmas. I was one of the causalities, limping from a bad back and broken heart. However, when Francis, the French coach, called back the next summer, I was ready to forfeit all to embark on an odyssey playing basketball abroad.
“What about your coaching contract?” my dad asked when I broke the news.
“I got out of it,” I answered tying my shoelaces. I was dressed in shorts, T-shirt and high-tops, always ready for a game.
My dad rattled off arguments as to why I should quit playing professional ball. He was right. I would never make money, or have job security.
“What about your back?” he asked.
My back. I squeezed my eyes shut and saw my crippled body strapped to a white hospital bed. My mind echoed Dad’s words, “No, no, no,” but my heart spoke louder, “Go, go, go.”
“When are you going to get a real job?”
“Dad, I’m only 23. How many chances will I have to play? To live in a new country, meet new people?”
My dad, first to disagree with my decision, was also the first to help me to prepare. I shot baskets; my dad rebounded in a musty fieldhouse as stifling as a sauna.
But what was I thinking? I dropped out of French class in school and had no idea where Paris was. In 1980, small town midwestern girls rarely left the State and never crossed continents. My friends, also clueless, told me to pack tampons and toilet paper as if I were moving to a Third World Country.
A week later, standing in a strange airport, my heart pounding, I spotted a man, waving a sign printed, ASNIÉRES, and yelling, “Potreesha!”.
I thought my dream to play basketball abroad had come true when my plane touched down in Europe. But when I looked out Francis’ car window and saw little people pecking cheeks and scurrying down cobblestone streets with baseball bats (baguettes) slung over their shoulder, it hit me, “Oh my God, I’ve landed on another planet.”
For the next six hours, I smiled and struggled to understand the conversation over dinner. First we drank the apéritif. Then wine with fish. Wine and meat. Wine and cheese. Dessert and champagne. I stared at the claret liquid, debating what to do. I grew up in a coach’s family, where drinking was taboo. How could I imbibe alcohol in front of my coach? Yet to avoid offending the hostess, I tipped my glass at regular intervals. Alarmingly, as soon as my glass was half empty, Francis filled it again.
My stomach ached from the new foods; my head pounded from the new words. And our first practice almost never started. A dozen players greeted one another by kissing each other on the cheeks four times. On our first road trip, before boarding a caravan of cars driving us to Belgium, we repeated the ritual under a street lamp. Then I hopped in Francis’s car, whisking us through Paris as the early morning mist rose above the Arch of Triumph and the deserted Champs Elysees.
Near the border, Francis asked, “You have your passport?”
“Passport? No, what do I need my passport for?”
“Customs!” Francis pulled the car off the side of the road.
“Dehors!” he shouted, his face crimson. “Out.”
I feared he would abandon me on the roadside. Instead, he opened the trunk and pointed.
I crawled in, folding my long limbs into a ball, imagining the news headlines, “American superstar asphyxiated when smuggled across the border in the boot of a car.”
During our first game, I was so rattled from the ride in the trunk that my hands shook. A teammate came in off the bench and whispered, “No pass. Shoot.”
I swished the next ten shots. We beat Holland in the final. At the awards ceremony when they announced, “Patreesha Mackencee, meilleure joueuse,” a pair of hands pushed me forward to accept the MVP trophy. I smiled as I shook hands with the tournament director, and then turned to face my teammates’ cold stares, longing to crawl under the floorboards.
Later, I joined the others in the bar, a standard fixture in European gyms where sports were as social as they were competitive. There, submerged in a cloud of smoke, teammates leaned on the table listening to a story. Just as I sat down, they burst out laughing.
Living in a foreign country was like always being the only one who doesn’t get the joke.
Still, at the end of the year, I did not want to leave France and felt devastated when the French Basketball Federation banned foreigners. Luckily, I received another garbled phone call in guttural German. What play ball in Germany? Learn a new language? Adopt a new culture? No way! But I boarded a train, crossed the border and fell in love with Marburg, the fairytale town immortalized by the Grimm Brothers.
…Ah, but that is yet another gutsy story.
Patricia McKinzie-Lechault Bio:
Pat McKinzie, a pioneer in the early infancy of Title IX, was the first female athletic scholarship recipient in Illinois, drafted into the first women’s professional basketball league, and part of the premier wave of American ball players in Europe. As a globetrotter, she traveled across Europe and lived in Paris and Dijon, France and Marburg, Germany, and Geneva, Switzerland. The columnist turned blogger, teaches and coaches at International School of Geneva. She lives outside Geneva with her French husband, Gerald Lechault, CEO of a Swiss printing company. Raised abroad, her Third Culture Kids, a daughter, now a pediatrician, and son, finishing his teaching degree, reside in the USA. Her book Home Sweet Hardwood, A Title IX Trailblazer Breaks Cultural Barriers Through Basketball will be published soon.
Sonia Marsh Says: I loved your “Gutsy” attitude and what you said to your “Dad, I’m only 23. How many chances will I have to play? To live in a new country, meet new people?”
Obviously you never regretted your decision to move, and now live in Geneva, married to a French man. What a complete change you made in your early twenties.
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