This story originally aired on Oct. 21, 2016. This week it appears again as part of our episode on "Assists."
It's October in Chicago. My friend Sara and I step out of her apartment and into her twinkling, bar-lined neighborhood with purpose.
“If they can’t do it, we’ll have to leave," I say.
“We have no other choice,” Sara nods.
Tonight, we have one goal: to get a drink at a sports bar while watching the do-or-die Chicago Sky playoff game.
That’s right. We want to watch women’s basketball. At a bar. In public.
“I mean, they’ll probably have it on, right?” Sara says.
This is my 20th year watching the WNBA, ever since the league started in 1997, when I was 7 playing ball at every recess. I had no idea how quickly I'd get fed up with myself in the basketball gym, or that I'd tearfully quit my elite AAU team suddenly at age 13. And I didn't know how fascinated I'd become with the players who kept playing: women whose bodies move with breathtaking strength, often discarding notions of femininity like an extra sweat towel.
These days, I'm so taken with WNBA professionals that sometimes, I make the trek alone to Rosemont — the Chicago suburb where the Sky play home games — to watch them compete across from a restaurant equipment warehouse, in a stadium pockmarked with fans.
Now, I'm dragging Sara along with me. We duck into a cavernous sports bar. Sara asks the bartender, “Excuse me, would you mind changing one of these to ESPN2?”
“What’s on ESPN2?” he says.
“It’s the Chicago Sky playoff game, and …” Sara says.
The bartender stares back, then gets his act together. “I’m sorry, we have trivia tonight, actually, and we need to have the Blackhawks on this TV, and this one, this one, this one and this one.” He points to all the TVs in the bar. Then he shrugs, almost generously. “It’s just that we just can’t.”
Sara and I leave quickly. The game has already started.
"I didn't know how fascinated I'd become with the players who kept playing: women whose bodies move with breathtaking strength, often discarding notions of femininity like an extra sweat towel."
“What about over there?” She points to the next sports bar, a little more excited now. This has become a quest.
We approach the High Dive, a bar known for its chicken wing special. I really hope this one works out — and I declare to the bouncer, “So, we want to watch the WNBA. Would you guys put it on?”
“Oh, I’m down with that, definitely down with that,” says the bouncer guy — who's not a bouncer at all, he's an angel. “But they just wanna watch hockey here. You gotta ask the bartender.”
We have found an ally.
Sure enough, inside there are a bunch of dudes scattered around the bar, the Blackhawks preseason game shining on all four television monitors.
Then we notice. It's the greatest sight we’ve witnessed all night … the bartender. She's a woman.
“Hey could we — do you think — ESPN2? Any of the — yes! Over there? Yes!” Sara and I launch at the bar, all at once.
And just 10 minutes later — I forgive her, the remote was acting real funky — voila! We are watching Chicago’s very own professional women’s basketball team battling to keep its playoff run alive .
And yes, the hockey-watching men scoff and smirk. And yes, I already know the Sky will get pummeled by the Los Angeles Sparks. And yes, these players still earn a relatively measly salary, decades behind the earnings of the NBA.
Right now, I don't care.
Because we're drinking cheap beer and eating an excellent chicken wing special at just another sports bar, all while watching women — most of them black and many of them queer — compete on a nationally overrated — I mean broadcast — sports network.
As soon as the server comes to take our order, we offer to buy her a shot. She agrees. "To women!” We toast.
It is a small, bright victory.
A version of this story first appeared in The Hairpin.
This segment aired on September 29, 2018.