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Watching my dad coach women's basketball helped me become a feminist

Alysa Auriemma says that growing up around female athletes coached by her dad, Geno Auriemma, helped her become a feminist. Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

I'm 12 years old. I lace up my Reeboks and give myself a confident glance in the mirror.

"Ally! If you want to go to practice, you need to be ready now!"

"Okay!"

I'm going to watch my dad, Geno Auriemma -- coach of the UConn women's basketball team and the coolest guy in the entire world -- run practice for two hours, and maybe get some shots on the basket myself as well.

The drive to campus is quiet. We listen to the same radio station every time; even now, I can't hear the song "Boys of Summer" by Don Henley without thinking about those drives. We get to the office, and I'm greeted by everyone who works there. I even manage to swipe a Diet Coke from the fridge.

When Gampel Pavilion is nearly empty, its lights have a strong glare. They make you blink. The floor smells like wood polish. That day, like many other days, 12 athletes are stretching on the court, making small talk. Laughing. The calm before the storm.

Sometimes, while practice is going on, I walk under the bleachers to hear my sneakers crush old popcorn and dirt. If my brother's around, we play H-O-R-S-E in stops and starts; we play when the team is scrimmaging, and we immediately stop when the whistle blows so that we're quiet when Dad's talking.

The athletes jog around the court twice before commencing their drills. I never pay much attention. It's a flash of bodies, movement and muscle. The pierce of Dad's whistle cuts the air. Today, he's in a good mood. When I visited practice the other day, he was much more vocal. Sometimes I think he's toning down his language because I'm here.

The players are different sizes, shapes and muscle tones. When I was much younger, we had a girl from Israel on the team. That year we had one from Zagreb, Croatia, and another from St. Petersburg, Russia. But the binding fabric is that they are all women. They are all athletes. They are all defined by their capacity to work hard, not by the gender they were assigned.

***

It wasn't until after I graduated from college that I identified as a feminist. I don't think I had a sense of the word until then. Sure, I thought women were just as important in society as men, but I had never been aware that women were subjugated. Growing up with a mom and dad who are very much a team -- and with a dad who never made my gender an issue -- I had never experienced that kind of discrimination. It had never even come up in conversation.

My mother is an extremely independent woman. She's also one of the kindest, most generous people you could ever hope to meet. I have friends who wonder why I tell my mom everything -- but when you have a mother like mine, you want to tell her everything. The players on my father's team feel the same way. But underneath all that velvet lies steel.

My dad, who moved with his family to the United States from Italy when he was 7, taught me the value of going for what you want and of being self-reliant. He had to develop a thick skin and a relentless work ethic in order to survive in this new country. But he also showed me that asking for help wasn't a sin. When I was 23 and decided to move home back from New York City and switch careers, my dad didn't tell me to suck it up. He took my hand, held it and said I should follow whatever path would make me the happiest.

This nurturing, supportive environment made me feel pretty powerful growing up.

***

At the end of practice, I try to get as close to the huddle as possible without being bothersome. Today, there's positivity in my dad's tone. I don't know what he said exactly, but I recognize the look on the players' faces. They're exhausted. Beaten up. Determined.

A few years ago, Diana Taurasi said of my dad, "He builds you up before you get there, and then he just breaks you down. Then you get to January like, 'I hate this!' And then he builds you back up. So, by March? Unbeatable."

These two ideologies, kindness and hard work, were instrumental in my upbringing. I grew up thinking I was afforded every single opportunity in the world. I was never told I couldn't do something just because I was a girl. But if I told my dad I wanted to do something, his response tended to be along the lines of, "Good. But do you know what work is involved?"

Later on in life, I'd hear from some players that, in practice, he'd bring me up as an example of hard work. As a girl who switched from cello to violin because the cello was too heavy, this made something in my chest blossom. Maybe I'm doing something right. Maybe the people who make fun of me at school aren't seeing something he's seeing. And my dad's always right. So maybe, just maybe, I'm worth more.

In high school and in college, I started to realize that I actually had it a lot better than many others. Because of my status as a white, upper-middle-class girl in a pretty progressive state, and because I had such supportive parents, I was given an edge. I was introduced to the words "white privilege," which left me with a tremendous sense of guilt. I wanted to know what I could do to help, and I was going to have to do this work on my own.

So I started reading. A lot. I listened to the experiences of women and men that differed from my own.

But most of all, I just watched the people who played for my dad.

The athletes my dad coaches come from all sorts of backgrounds, from former communist countries to the middle of Alaska. But uniformly, they have all been kind, funny, hard-working and honest people. I loved all of them in different ways.

They were, and are, activists in their own right. Breanna Stewart recently attended a rally at the Seattle airport to protest President Donald Trump's immigration executive order. Last summer, a few players in the WNBA, including Maya Moore, wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts to take a stand against the spate of very public police killings of black men.

Eventually I started a blog of my own, originally chronicling daily life as the daughter of one of Connecticut's most famous citizens. But I realized I had a platform and a voice. I dipped my toe into activism a few times, and the blog grew from there. Today, it focuses on the liberation of our country's women from the shackles of sexism, misogyny, rape culture and racism. Lately, this has branched out into a focus on immigration, refugee support and anti-fascism.

I wouldn't be the feminist, activist or anti-racist I am today without my background growing up surrounded by these powerful athletes, who just happened to be women. I wish every single girl in the world could have a chance to experience that kind of camaraderie, sisterhood and community from such a young age. Because of these women, and the women who continue to come through my dad's program, I am a better woman. I can only hope to continue that legacy in my own work.