52-year old Gabrielle Ludwig, the first transgender to play college basketball, is having a tremendous sophomore season at Mission College . She tallied six points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked three shots in Mission College’s 67-47 victory over Allan Hancock in a consolation game at West Hills on Dec. 22.
Ludgwig, a 6-6 guard, leads the California Community College Athletic Association Coast –South Division in rebounds with 17.2 a game, total offensive boards (70) and 3.1 blocks a game. She has grabbed doube digit rebounds in each of the Saints 13 games and has topped the 20-carom plateau four times. Ludwig hauled in 28 rebounds, including 11 on the offensive end versus Portervile on Nov. 24.
Ludwig is also third in the Coast- South Division Conference in points per game (16.9)and is scond in the conference in field goal percentage (45.7 ). She has reached double-figures 11 times and poured in at least 20 points five times, which includes a 34-point effort versus Porterville on Nov. 24.
Ludwig told ESPNW that this is "the most awesome year of my life."
While Ludwig is enjoying herself suiting up for Mission College, which is located in Santa Clara, this season, it hasn’t always been the case.
Ludwig, who had gender-assignment surgery in the summer of 2012, was harrassed and verbally abused during away games last season.
Mission’s game at Ohlone College was one game in particular that stuck in Ludwig’s mind.
"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."
This isn’t Ludwig’s first foray into college athletics. She played one season at Nassua (N.Y.) Community College more than 30 years ago.
Ludwig 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.' "
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.
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."
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."