SANTA CLARA, California — The women's basketball team at Mission College expected the bleachers to be full and the hecklers ready when its newest player made her home court debut.
In the days leading up to the game, people had plenty to say about 6-foot-6-inch, 220-pound Gabrielle Ludwig, who joined the Lady Saints as a mid-season walk-on and became, according to advocates, the first transsexual to play college hoops as both a man and a woman.
Coach Corey Cafferata worried the outside noise was getting to his players, particularly the 50-year-old Ludwig.
A pair of ESPN radio hosts had laughed at her looks, referring to her as "it." And online threats and anonymous calls prompted the two-year college to assign the Navy veteran of Operation Desert Storm a safer parking space next to the gym and two police guards.
Last week, Ludwig gathered her 10 teammates at practice and offered to quit. This was their time to shine, she told the group of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. She didn't want to be a distraction for the team. The other women said if Ludwig, whom they nicknamed "Big Sexy" and "Princess," didn't play, they wouldn't either.
Didn't she know she was the glue holding the team together?
"Then let's just play basketball," she replied solemnly, looking each teammate in the eye.
A lifelong basketball lover, Ludwig has been helping coach and working out with the Saints since the beginning of the school year, but she only received conference clearance to compete on the last day of November. She took the court as No. 42 the next day, scoring three points on four free throws in about seven minutes of play. Last weekend, during her first home game, she scored eight points in 11 minutes, Facebook friend requests from the opposing team — and not a single heckle.
"I got exactly what I always wanted, just to fit in and be normal like everyone else," Ludwig said.
The story of how she ended up in a basketball uniform again would inspire comparisons to "The Natural" or other tales of middle-aged redemption were it not for gender. Introduced to the sport as an impressively tall 7th grade boy, she played on her high school team as Robert John Ludwig, then one season at a community college on Long Island in New York. After she dropped out, her court appearances were limited to pickup games.
The basketball bug returned 12 years ago, when her daughter from her second marriage, then 7, started playing youth basketball and Ludwig signed on as her coach. Ludwig kept coaching other people's children when her daughter moved on to high school and still works with hundreds of middle school girls every year.
Her transition from a male coach to a female coach five years ago raised questions, but parents generally accepted her decision warmly, she said. So did the women she played with in a couple of intramural leagues.
What the naysayers do not know, she said, is that Ludwig is not the same player she was as a 24-year-old male. She has less muscle and height, because of female hormones she takes. And at her age, she has to work to keep up.
"Yeah, I hit with a little more punch down low, but that's because I weigh 220 pounds, but I am not the only 220 woman out there," she said. "It's different now. My body has changed, my strength has changed, my attitude has changed."
While coaching a youth game on the Mission court last year she met Cafferata. They kept in touch, and when Ludwig half-jokingly asked if he had a spot for her, he said he might.
"The only thing I had to do is talk to my potential teammates and say, 'Hey, do you have room for me? This is where I am, this is where I've been, and I really love this game. Can I play with y'all?' And it was a resounding, 'Hell yeah!'"
Cafferata is tactful when asked whether Ludwig's size and former gender give the Saints an unfair advantage. A self-described champion of underdogs — his roster includes a player who is deaf and others with learning disabilities — the coach is rooting for Ludwig all the way. But to become a starter, she will need to work on endurance and speed.
"Gabrielle has earned a spot on this team," he said. "She practices hard. She runs hard. She is no different from anyone on the team — she is a great, coachable player."
As someone living as a woman and taking female hormones since 2007, Ludwig was eligible to play in the NCAA. Transgender student athletes who have taken medication to suppress testosterone for a year may compete on women's teams under a policy adopted last year.
The California Community College Athletic Association had another hoop for Ludwig. Because its rules base gender on a student's birth certificate, she would need a new one. Ludwig, who had sex reassignment surgery over the summer, petitioned a judge and obtained her papers on Nov. 30.
Ludwig, who turns 51 this month, acknowledged that part of her motivation for playing women's basketball was to be a role-model for transgender youth. She finds hope, if not gratification in the temporary suspensions ESPN radio hosts Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin received this week because of the remarks they made about her. But she wants her court accomplishments — not her gender change — to draw comments.
"If men think that women's basketball is easy, let them spend a day out here and get their butt kicked," she said.
Mission College Athletic Director Mike Perez was all for Ludwig playing. He admires her for working a fulltime professional job — as a systems engineer for a pharmaceutical company — while carrying a full course load in computer administration. He also has seen the way her young teammates look up to Ludwig "and not just because she's tall."
"I could tell that one, she was a person of substance and two, somebody who was really sincere about what they were trying to do," Perez said. "Many people have different views, but the most important view is she... has a right to be on this basketball team."
Teammate Amy Woo, 19, said Ludwig has brought a maternal influence, helping the team keep problems in perspective.
"We all love her," Woo said. "If someone is going to talk against her, they are talking against all of us because it's like she is part of a family."