College athletes are teenagers growing on stage into young adults, and so there might be not much unusual that one of the players competing in a basketball game against the University of Miami here Tuesday night has spent this season becoming a man.
Except for this:
It was a women's game.
The first publicly transgender athlete in NCAA Division I basketball -- in this case a player born female and transitioning to male -- played with the George Washington University team that faced UM in an 83-62 Hurricanes victory, and the juxtaposition was notable.
Just a few miles east, a huge crowd in a much bigger arena adored the Heat as it played the New York Knicks in an NBA game that tipped off around the same time. This was the Three-King Circus, the game with all the media and attention, the place where the national spotlight shone.
Over here, in a small campus arena, a crowd you would be generous in the holiday spirit to call sparse -- maybe a few hundred folks -- watched a player who in a very real way is having a season more remarkable than even LeBron James or Dwyane Wade.
She was Kay-Kay Allums until recently.
She is Kye Allums now after legally changing her name.
She is changing much more than that.
She has become he -- identified now as a man while competing with teammates named Sara, Kristin and Megan.
NCAA rules allow biological females who identify as males to play on women's teams as long as they have not begun hormone procedures because the testosterone involved in the physical transition is a banned performance-enhancing drug.
Allums, a 21-year-old junior, is putting off the hormone procedure until after basketball, but make no mistake. He didn't allow room for any in this declarative in November: ``Yes, I am a male on a female team.''
There is nothing else quite like this in American sports.
``It's not something I can say is completely comprehended,'' as Miami coach Katie Meier put it Tuesday.
Allums is challenging perceptions. Inviting serious conversations beyond free throws and final scores.
A young woman has made the decision to become a young man, not in private, where such personal epiphanies usually are revealed only to family and friends, but in the arena of major-college sports. Allums privately told teammates last year and went public, to Outsports.com, before this season.
``It got too tough to not be me. People would call me a girl and say `she' and refer to me as someone I knew I wasn't,'' said Allums, who now goes by the masculine pronoun. ``People tried to tell me to be what I wasn't. As I got older, it became more important to be myself.''
Allums said all of this last month. On Tuesday, the school declined our desire to speak with Allums, noting he declines to speak on this subject on game days.
That's OK. I can respect the desire to not be bigger than the team and season. Besides, just doing what he is doing speaks pretty eloquently. Says plenty.
Most of us can't imagine how it feels to be trapped in the wrong gender. But the problem isn't what we can't imagine. The problem is if we can't find empathy, or take a fair shot at understanding. What transgender people go through is hard to fathom for most of us, perhaps. It is easier for us to make a ``he said, she said'' wisecrack and move on. But there is bravery in what this athlete is doing. Some might ridicule, but many surely see him as a role model.
``I want to open people's eyes to what being trans is,'' Allums has said. ``I want other people to not feel that discomfort I felt in being someone I'm not. I didn't choose to be born inside this body and feel the way I do. It bothered me to hide who I am.''
Allums, born in Daytona Beach, grew up a tomboy who preferred jeans to dresses, and discovered an attraction to females in high school in Minnesota before gradually awakened to transgender sensibilities.
Is it a stretch to call Allums a hero if what he is doing, on stage, helps ease the inner turmoil others might be feeling? The website of The Nation, the respected magazine, has called Allums ``the Jackie Robinson of 2010.''
Allums has not generated more attention, or controversy, for two reasons, I think, beyond the fact women's college basketball -- outside of Connecticut and Tennessee and a few other enclaves -- is not nearly as maniacally followed as the men's game.
First, Allums is hardly a big, dominating, star player for a great team, standing 5-11 and averaging a modest 6.7 points as a reserve. Surely there might be an outcry from opponents if Allums were, say, a 6-5 physical force averaging 25 points.
Mostly, it has been the understanding of teammates and opponents that has softened the transition and defused what might have been a circus atmosphere. If it is true as a generality that women are more accepting than men, well, good for women.
``Courage,'' is the word George Washington captain Ivy Abiona uses for Allums.
Hurricanes players were nonchalant.
``We go by [uniform] numbers,'' guard Shenise Johnson said afterward.
Said Meier: ``It's definitely something to have a conversation about. It was talked about in the team. It's just a story you don't see very often. It's definitely intriguing. Congratulations to him for finding out about himself.''
UM, George Washington and Morgan State are participating in the Miami Holiday Classic through Thursday, and the Canes won Tuesday night's game handily behind a combined 36 points from super guards Johnson and Riquna Williams.
Meier's overlooked Hurricanes are 12-1 now, the victories including an upset of then-No. 11 Georgetown. Miami is on the verge of popping into the national Top 25 polls. (The Canes women, by the way, have won 14 consecutive home games dating to last season. Take notes, Dolphins.)
It's a shame the team draws paltry crowds, even with tickets only five bucks and admission free for UM students. Then again, admittedly, it took the curiosity over a transgender opponent to lure yours truly to his first women's game of the season.
Allums, by the way, attracting no discernable reaction from the crowd, scored a quiet seven points for George Washington.
No matter. Whether the shots are falling or not, he is making his point.