Whole new game for Gabrielle Ludwig

Gabrielle Ludwig has finally found a comfort zone on the Mission College basketball court and now is reaching out to help others. Courtesy Gabrielle Ludwig

She calls this "the most awesome year of my life," which likely comes as a shock and maybe even a disappointment to those who did their level best to make it one of her worst.

It wasn't exactly an epiphany for Gabrielle Ludwig to discover that life is good. The 52-year-old transgender basketball player who is playing her second year for Mission College, a community college in Santa Clara, Calif., had experienced far too much of the other side to not recognize the difference.

No, the shift came more subtly and it was mostly in others. Not that the idiots have gone away, because they are always lurking no more than an Internet click or a random jeer away. But somehow things are different than they were one year ago, when her story captured headlines and drew reaction that was often anything but accepting. That change, she says, has indeed made her a different person.

She recalls Mission's game last season at Ohlone College and the outright hostility in the gym as one of many examples.

"I had brought my sixth-grade girls [AAU basketball team] to watch their coach play," Ludwig said. "They had no clue I was once a man. I was just Coach Gabbi to them. But they sat behind one belligerent guy, who brought that to their attention. It was hard for them to hear that, and I had to explain to them when all I wanted to do was make it such an amazing time for them to watch a women's basketball game."

If that were all that had happened, it would have been bad enough. But making it truly disturbing was that another man ran down from the bleachers to accost Mission coach Corey Cafferata, shake a finger in his face and tell him among other things that he was despicable, disgusting and a disgrace to women's basketball for allowing Gabbi to play.

"And he just took it," Ludwig said of her coach. "He told him, 'I don't care if she's a transsexual. She's a woman and a student who works hard in school and on the court...'"

Cafferata recalls that the man had his hands in his jacket, which made it especially concerning.

"He asked what was wrong with me," Cafferata said. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' and just walked away."

Mission returned to Ohlone on Veterans Day, and spectators were asked by the public address announcer to observe a moment of silence in honor of all those lost and to honor the veterans present, one in particular.

"Then they announced my name and everyone applauded," said Ludwig, who served as Robert Ludwig in the Navy for eight years beginning in 1984, including in Operation Desert Storm.

"After all the hate I saw last year in that gym and for me to see that, I'm human -- I broke down and cried. I'm choked up now just thinking about it."

All Ludwig really had in mind originally, she said, was to play the game she loved but left after one year at Nassau (N.Y.) Community College more than 30 years ago.

In the ensuing years, Robert married and divorced twice, had a daughter and gained two stepdaughters, and suffered through what Gabbi called the "abyss" of taking hormones but not being fully transitioned to a new gender.

Finally, in the summer of 2012, Ludwig had gender-assignment surgery, emerging as Gabbi but continuing as a systems engineer [designing robots that assist with DNA research], a dedicated parent, and a coach who passionately leads a nonprofit youth basketball program as well as the sixth-grade AAU team.

She met Cafferata in May of last year, when he was refereeing a basketball tournament in which she was coaching.

"She was a whiner and a complainer and she said something sarcastic to me and I said, 'You know what, if you ever want to learn how to play ball, come to one of my practices and you can learn from me.'

"She called me at work [in August] and said, 'I want to play for you.' I didn't remember who she was and I told her, 'School starts in three days and I already have my team.' Then she said, 'And, oh, by the way, I'm 6-6,' and I said, 'Why don't you come on over?' "

Ludwig enrolled in 12 credit hours of online courses, got the proper approval from the California Community College Athletic Association and joined the team.

Winning the acceptance of her new teammates was never a problem, she said. Getting past the daily abuse she took from opposing fans and even media was considerably more difficult until, she said, she began to realize it took away from what she ultimately wanted to accomplish.

"Originally I just wanted to play some basketball," she said. "But I owe it to the people in the LGBT community who said, 'You can be a positive role model out there.' "

It started with changing how she viewed the mistreatment, and listening to her coach's advice.

"He said, 'Gabbi, you've been through so much in your life, you're going to let a few boos and expletives from some drunks in the stands take away from what you and this team is doing?' " she recalled. "And he was right."

Cafferata, 42, a former college basketball player who describes himself as being "in horrible health but excellent shape" from the effects of Type I diabetes, has almost no patience for Ludwig feeling sorry for herself or worrying about what other people think of her.

"For me, if they're within the rules, I am going to support any type of player I have, and I have some challenges on my team," he said. "But the outside world is entitled to their opinion about Gabbi, and my opinion is that she has to suck it up and be tough.

"What Gabbi wants is to be accepted by everybody, and that's not going to happen. That's just the way it is, and that's hard when you're a very sensitive person."

What some of the nastier adversaries seemed to dwell on when Ludwig first began playing was the notion that she somehow had an unfair advantage against her opponents, but even at 6-6 that was not the case both because of female hormones reducing her muscle mass as well as the unavoidable fact that she is 52.

"One inimitable truth that I am sick and tired of is when people, especially men, equate femininity with weakness," Ludwig said. "Spend one second on the court with them, and they are the toughest competitors I have ever played against in my life. The idea that 'She has an advantage because she used to be a man' doesn't apply anymore. I have to work to keep this spot. And there's not a woman I have played against who has not said, 'Oh really? You want this, you have to earn it.'

"I'm so thankful that women are growing up now not fearful, but headstrong and confident."

It's those very same headstrong and confident women -- teammates and opponents alike -- who inspired and maybe shamed her into getting into serious shape, good enough to allow her to play an average of 34 minutes a game, which is up from 10 last season.

"My advantage last season was my height; this year it's my conditioning," she said. "I worked twice as hard this summer and preseason, and dropped a ton of weight. … I think my sex change literally saved my life."

As a man, Ludwig said, she weighed as much as 268 pounds, had prehypertension with "sky-high" blood pressure and was warned about being at risk for a heart attack.

"Today, I'm totally in the best shape of my life," she said while laughing that her teammates "eat everything I want to eat."

She also takes pride now in not just being able to compete at a high level -- leading the team in scoring with 17 points a game and leading the state in rebounding with 18 a game -- but in helping mentor even her opponents.

"There was this one woman we played against who was tall, and I could tell her coach expected a lot out of her and I knew she was struggling, both with basketball and as a college student and trying to fit in," Ludwig said. "She made a really good play, and she was on the foul line and I said, 'Hey, amazing move. I've been playing basketball a long time and you got me good, girl.'

"Next thing I know I have a Facebook [friend] request and a lifetime friendship."

That has happened more than once to Ludwig with opposing players and also with coaches, most of whom are closer to her age than their players. They'll ask her good-naturedly during timeouts and after games how she does it.

That boost in confidence has also made this season considerably more pleasant.

"This year she's in better shape. She's the leading scorer and rebounder, and this team is somewhat built around her," Cafferata said. "So she feels comfortable with the team, she loves this team, and when you have that, whether the outside world is giving you a hard time or complimenting you, it doesn't matter as much."

After this year, Ludwig will have two seasons of eligibility remaining and calls moving onto a four-year college "definitely a possibility, but I have to be realistic. I don't know how flexible they can be in regard to practice times [while I juggle work and kids]."

Once again, Cafferata is blunt.

"She'd have to have a coach accepting of everything, very flexible and they can't be conservative," he said. "If they are, she'll never play again."

Just this week, Cafferata said, he received his first call from a coach inquiring about Ludwig's ability to play at the next level. A Division I coach outside of California wanted to more about "G. Ludwig" and her 18 rebounds a game. As Cafferata began talking about her, the coach interrupted him.

"Wait, is that the player who's been in the news lately?" the coach asked.

When Cafferata said she was, the coach responded, "You know, Coach, we'll pass on this, but we'll get back to you if we're interested. Thanks for your time."

Ludwig's real goal, she shared almost sheepishly, is to one day practice with her favorite team, the L.A. Sparks.

"I know I'm old, but I'd come in shape," she said. "I can run with them. I'd love to give it a shot. In my head, I know those women would kick my ass, but my ulterior motive would be to meet every one of them, grab a bunch of autographs and have the opportunity to do something I could never do as a guy because I was always struggling with my identity."

The concept of 'If I only knew then what I know now' strikes Ludwig to the core, motivating her to use the platform she has now to help others.

"There were times sitting at my desk doing my homework when I was in seventh, eighth, ninth grade and struggling inside. 'Am I gay? Am I straight? Why do I want to be a girl?' It was such a scary time," she remembered. "I would have given anything just to know, 'What's wrong with me? Why am I feeling this way?' and put a name to it. 'Oh, I'm a transgender, that's why,' and then I could deal with it.

"Kids who are taking their own lives nowadays because they are bullied for who they are could have picked up a newspaper and read the good stuff. Unfortunately, I'm sure some of them also read about what people have said about me and thought, 'That's why I'm never coming out.' "

Recently, Ludwig said she gave a talk about those issues at an area high school, and one girl waited for the room to empty before confiding in her that she identified as a lesbian but couldn't tell anyone.

"She told me, 'You helped take some of the sting out of my day today,' " Ludwig said.

Another student said her parents told her the Bible said what Ludwig had done to herself was "an abomination to God."

"But she said, 'As I listened to you, I thought, 'How could you be an abomination to God when only God could make someone like you?' " Ludwig said, her voice breaking again.

"I think," she said finally, "I am making a difference in people's lives, and that's all that matters, right?"