Just in time for March Madness, the University of Nebraska Press has published “The Rebounders: A Division I Basketball Journey.” The cover shows author Amanda Ottaway at 4 years old shooting a basketball toward the hoop in her Hollidaysburg backyard. Ottaway, in sweats and sneakers, arms and legs flailing as the ball leaves her hands, is determined to sink the shot. How that passion has shaped her life is at the heart of this beautifully written memoir.
Her book tracks her sports journey from Hollidaysburg High stardom through four years at Davidson College in North Carolina. But if this book is about the love of the game, it is also about the reality of it. The oldest of five athletic children, Ottaway recalls the delight and eventual anxiety of recruiting letters and phone calls, of coaches who pressure her to sign or who won’t commit. When she signs with Davidson, things continue to go downhill. The once adored game now feels, as she says, “like the skin on my dad’s old basketball… like a callus over an old wound.”
That wound comes from coaches whose guidance is spotty at best and who punish losing with mockery and extra practices for already weary and injured players. If there are any unsung heroes here, they are the athletic trainers who tape ankles, rub muscle knots, and wipe tears. Ottaway and her teammates hope to be victorious underdogs, but after her last game, she is ready to get on with her life.
Fortunately, Davidson’s exceptional teachers have helped her to hone her writing skills. Ottaway began telling stories at 4. At 12, she published her first poem, and in high school she recorded a book review for this program. That love of writing wins her the senior essay award at Davidson. When she performs at Poetry Slams, her teammates scream the loudest.
With time and distance, the love of basketball returns. Teaching English in Tanzania, Ottaway watches young girls dribble a ball for the first time and gleefully shoot it through her encircled arms. She recognizes herself.
Her delight in basketball may have waned briefly, but Ottaway never loses her affection for her teammates, dubbed the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Sweatpants.” They celebrate together through the good times and hug each other through the bad, some of which they bring upon themselves, and some of which they don’t.
On the morning of the funeral for Amanda’s mother, Ellen, the author looks out the window to see former teammates, who have driven hundreds of miles, planting a cherry tree in her backyard. It will bloom every March. Ottaway writes, “I did not choose these women, but I choose them now, and I choose them forever.”
“The Rebounders” is for mature readers who follow women’s sports or just want to know what it’s like to play at the Division I level. The book reminds us how far women’s basketball has come. But more than anything, it captures the feel of the game, literally, in the swoosh of the ball through the net, and figuratively, as a metaphor for love itself.
Reviewer Kirk Weixel is professor emeritus of English at St. Francis University in Loretto.