An Evening with the Glasgow Gazelles
Written by Marissa Macwhirter
Thump. Thump. Thump.
I can’t tell if the pounding in my ears is the ball beating against the gym floor or my heart trying to break out of my chest. I stare out into a sea of waving arms, searching for my teammates. I panic.
“WHO WANTS IT?” Lesley shouts from the side-line.
I throw the ball at a pair of open hands. One swift movement and the ball is in the basket. I feel elated. High-fives and congratulations are shared across the court.
This is Tuesday night at Kelvinhall Gym with the Glasgow Gazelles, a basketball collective creating a safe space for female-identifying and non-binary persons. Their Womxnifesto describes the collective as “a competitive, supportive and encouraging environment within which we can learn basketball, stimulate new friendships and strengthen existing bonds”.
Coach Lesley McKinlay brought the Gazelles to Glasgow after meeting the original collective, founded by Bwalya Newton, in Hackney back in 2016. Her passion for basketball found its home with the collective and she wanted to share its power and potential with the womxn of Glasgow.
“There are so many spaces in sport for people who don’t identify as women or gender non-binary, for people who identify as male, it’s just taken for granted.” says Lesley. She contends that creating spaces where women feel comfortable in sport requires a conscious effort.
“A lot of the people we meet at Gazelles, they’ve never really been in a team sport before, ever. It’s just not something they did growing up. Gazelles is a safe place where you won’t feel intimidated, nobody is going to make fun of you, nobody cares what you’re wearing, and no one cares if you sweat or fall over.”
Lesley fights to ensure that every member of the team feels comfortable playing, veteran or newbie. Midway through our Tuesday session, a man walks over from the adjoining court and tries to film the players on his phone. She confronts him swiftly and calmly and he retreats.
Experiences like this reinforce the solidarity of the Gazelles. Safe in each-others’ company, the defence drills resume. It’s empowering to watch such a diverse group of women engaged in sport. Experienced players take time to coach, and new players gain confidence as the hour wears on.
After each weekly session, the Gazelles uphold a tradition of taking over the local pub. In the early days of the collective there were about ten players each week. Now, over twenty women commandeer a reserved section of the bar.
When everyone settles with a beer, Lesley begins a round of positive feedback. New players look confused, old-timers look nervous. She goes around in a circle and calling everyone by name begins to tell them what they did well during the session. Everyone is put on the spot but despite the jibes, everyone has to accept the compliments that come their way.
It’s hard to take a compliment without being self-deprecating in response, but with twenty teammates surrounding you, the positive feedback really sinks in. It’s empowering. No matter how you think you performed, the Gazelles are encouraging. Perhaps this is why so many people keep coming back.
Kirsty MacDonald, who has been playing with the Glasgow Gazelles for a year, credits the collective with helping her manage stress and anxiety. An injury she had growing up prevented her from doing sports, but she says in hindsight she should have been encouraged to participate more and improve her strength.
“I think it would have had a big impact on my confidence and my strength of character. It’s only since starting playing basketball that I got out of a terrible, terrible relationship and totally changed my life around. I don’t think I could have done that without basketball. So, it’s been really big for me. “Big, big” she says.
Hazel Scarff has been playing with the Gazelles for a few months after hearing about it through a friend. In addition to rediscovering her love of basketball, she’s made new friendships with other players.
“All the Gazelles are really motivating and were so welcoming on my first-time training. Ultimately, it’s the people that go that keeps me going back,” she says.
The comradery of sport is a powerful means of bringing people together. It’s something Lesley experienced in Hackney when she found the original team and she brought it with her to Glasgow.
The womxn who make up the Gazelles come from diverse backgrounds, skill sets, careers and ages. Taking advantage of the impressive network she created, Lesley has been able to organise a range of projects produced entirely by females. The Glasgow Gazelle’s website, currently in the making, will be an entirely female created site from coding to copy.
After a one-hour session of exercise and another hour session of positive sharing at the pub, I’m looking forward to returning next week. It’s empowering to be surrounded by women in a social situation that doesn’t involve alcohol.
The Gazelles provide an important space for female-identifying and non-binary persons within the realm of sport. The combination of positive energy and exercise has created a powerful community in a space historically reserved for men.
The year ahead of the Glasgow Gazelles is a bright one. Lesley plans to expand the space of the weekly sessions in addition to launching the website. She says the Gazelles will continue to take up space in the community and she’s looking forward to exploring their options both on and off the court.