FREMONT, CA - Beneath the foggy mirror in a makeshift locker room no bigger than a storage closet sit 11 women, their wide eyes affixed to an overdressed basketball coach who is delivering a pregame speech that is equal parts inspiration and four-letter words.
The scene plays out at colleges across the country each night, but on this rainy evening inside a dimly lit Bay Area junior college gymnasium, it serves as prelude to a debut unlike any other in the sport's history.
When the focus of the 12-minute pep talk pivots to this topic, the eyes of 10 18- to 20-year-old women - including one deaf player and another woman a few inches shy of 5-feet - focus on the one Mission College player who has yet to play this season. There near the door sits the oldest (50 years old), tallest (6-feet-6, 230 pounds) and most muscular person in the room: Gabrielle Ludwig.
"Come out and be Gabrielle the player," head coach Corey Cafferata tells her. "You worked hard to get here. This damn team in here, everyone has your back!"
Ludwig nervously runs her hand over the sock approaching the tattoo on her leg. She has long been eager yet apprehensive about this moment. Can she still play? What will she hear from adults in the stands? What will her opponents on the court whisper? And can she keep her emotions in check? Glancing up from the dirty rug, she says she is calm. She didn't know if this day could ever arrive: Tonight, before spectators who will cheer and curse her, she hits the reset button on her life.
"Your name will be called," Cafferata assures her about playing time. "Your name will be called."
Few outside this room know it all comes back to that name. They don't know she is 50 and last played a college basketball game in 1980 - as a man. They don't know the odyssey: one failed suicide attempt, two failed marriages; one 19-year-old daughter who insists on calling her dad, two girls who insist on calling her Momma Gabbi.
And they have little sense of reactions Ludwig has encountered - the gawking, the whispers and the female referee in Barstow who looked her in the eye and refused to shake her hand. All of this prompted by the tension between a person's desire to play organized basketball and a community still trying to comprehend that person's half-century life journey.
"Last time I played college ball, I was 20 years old," Ludwig tells her team. "Walking out here 30 years later ... "
Her voice is drowned out by the applause of young women who know in their hearts that the worst backlash, the worst of all, is only minutes away.
The woman teammates call Gabbi, Giant or Big Sexy was born Robert John Ludwig in Germany three decades before any of them were a glimmer in their parents' eyes. Ludwig, who did not know his birth father, followed his mother, Elfie, and Al, the military man his mother fell in love with, to America.
Childhood was laden with positive experiences, Ludwig says, except for the feeling that something was terribly off-kilter inside, that every time Ludwig looked in the mirror he saw the wrong image staring back. At every opportunity he would try on his mother's dresses and experiment with makeup only to rush to slip off the clothing and wash away the lipstick before his parents could catch him.
"It was aspirin to a bad headache," Ludwig says of the dress wearing. "I lived a life vicariously through my mother's closet."
When Ludwig moved to Long Island at age 9, the struggle became more pronounced; his body was a mismatch with his spirit. Children picked on him daily, Ludwig said, and he felt intense personal angst. Ludwig said he wondered if he was gay, but he also wondered: How could he be gay if he didn't find men attractive?
Unable to find an answer to what haunted him, Ludwig sought an escape. At 15, Ludwig says, he popped every pill of every color he found around the house. His parents arrived home to find little Bobby, the boy who loved baseball and the toy helicopter his dad once brought home, with his mouth foaming and his body void of an identity. He told his parents he didn't want to be here.
Once puberty hit, the image in the mirror changed, and suddenly there were pectorals and size and advantages. Maybe he could just stuff this identity crisis back in the closet with his mother's dresses and find refuge and a catharsis in something at which he thrived: basketball. Finally, this awkward, big-eared teenager with a German accent had something to look forward to.
Ludwig grew to 6-8 by his sophomore year of high school. And by the time Ludwig entered Nassau Community College in the fall of 1980, he was a high-flying teenager who could throw down all sorts of dunks. Ludwig also discovered another allure -- women -- and knew he had a strong attraction to them. But Ludwig says he was immature, didn't want to be in college and took for granted the tuition his parents paid for him to attend. He left the team after one semester.
By 1984, he would begin an eight-year stint in the Navy, during which he traveled the world as an aviation anti-submarine warfare technician served in Desert Storm. Unhappy with the politics surrounding the war, Ludwig says he crumpled the letter President George H.W. Bush sent to thank him for service.
As he lurked on the margins of global conflict, the one inside raged stronger. While stationed in Alameda, he felt most at ease wearing a wig over his short military haircut, lipstick and eyeliner and a sophisticated dress while hanging out at nightclubs with heterosexual Navy friends in San Francisco. Ludwig recalls them viewing him as a quirky but an otherwise cool guy. Dressing like a woman was not a sexual desire, Ludwig says, but rather a way to connect with his mismatched soul, a start at finding oneself. In San Francisco, a female friend told Ludwig how to talk to doctors so he could more easily obtain female hormones.
One six-year marriage had already failed. But now Ludwig had fallen for a female Fremont police officer. Two weeks into the relationship, Ludwig told her that he liked to dress in women's clothing because it made him feel good. But as time elapsed, Ludwig looked less and less like the dashing guy who had resembled Tom Cruise in a flight jacket.
Ludwig took female hormones behind his wife's back and developed breasts, somehow thinking it would go unnoticed. "But how do you hide that from your wife?" Ludwig says. "It's like you coming home, undoing your shirt and there are boobs there. Sure your wife would have some questions. Marriages are hard enough without a husband's boobs."
There were tears and love and a struggle that endured through an 11-year marriage and a birth of a daughter, Janelle Ludwig. But the two ultimately divorced. "I feel I betrayed her trust," Ludwig says. "That is a cross I have to bear the rest of my life. What would you do?"
The gulf between what Ludwig felt inside and what he saw in the mirror widened over the years. Ludwig knew he was a female inside but, on the outside, remained in a gray area, which was the most painful period of his life. "You look in the mirror and you have breasts and are developing a woman's body, and you have male genitalia," Ludwig says. "You kind of feel freakish. It's like you are stuck in the abyss."
The Internet helped him discover he was not alone and that he suffered from gender identity disphoria. As a transgender - someone who is taking hormones but has not fully transitioned to another gender - Ludwig held out on a sex change for one reason: He wanted to give Janelle, a free-spirit who dressed in mismatched clothes and socks, a strong male figure as she navigated the pressures of high school.
But Ludwig recalls that one day Janelle, who is now 19 and declined to be interviewed for this story, said, "Maddy (a combination of mom and dad), it's time you do what you need to do. If you want to become a woman, I will always love you and will always call you dad."
"I have one father and one mother," Janelle told him. "No matter how you present yourself, you'll always be my dad."
In January 2007, Ludwig walked into the human resources department at Roche Molecular Systems, where as a systems engineer Ludwig helps design robots that assist with DNA research. He and said he would need time off and that Robert Ludwig would not be returning. The employee who would return to the Pleasanton-based company would be named Gabrielle.
In a letter to work colleagues that she provided to USA TODAY Sports, Ludwig wrote, "It's become clear to me that I cannot proceed with my life without finding union between my body and my spirit."
Ludwig underwent the sex change operation, which made her a transsexual, in July 2012.
Ludwig says her company's insurance paid the entire cost of the $30,000 gender reassignment surgery and $100,000 total hospital bill. And when she returned to work, her business cards, cubicle nameplate, email and paycheck all included the same name -- Gabrielle Ludwig -- raising the curtain on a new life.
Ludwig then set her sights on her true passion: basketball. Theresa Foakes, Ludwig's partner for two years, says she has watched basketball sap more and more of her time. Foakes, whose 11- and 7-year-old daughters also live with Ludwig and call her Momma Gabbi, says Ludwig is an inspiration because of her commitment to her area non-profit youth basketball club and the six-grade AAU team Ludwig coaches.
"Basketball is her mistress," Foakes says. "She loves the game. I get jealous. I say, 'I know you will never cheat on me. You cheat on me with basketball.' She is very consumed by this right now."
But this summer Ludwig had a fleeting thought of playing college basketball again. She joked with Mission College coach Corey Cafferata about still having eligibility. He joked about still having a roster spot.
As the weeks progressed, Ludwig became more serious about the idea and began looking into how the possibility of playing, even reaching out to Berlin for birth records and questions. Cafferata did the same, conferring with Mission College athletic director Mike Perez. Perez turned to Dale Murray, the commissioner of the California Community College Athletic Association.
Perez says he had no hesitation about Ludwig playing for Mission College, though the process "has been an education for all of us. We can look at it like this is a student-athlete who wants to play basketball. No, this is much more than that. This is a student-athlete who is really opening up to what is going on in her life. What we can do is support her, as I would any student-athlete ...
"This is a special time for all of us in awareness - not athletics - but in the world we live in, a great opportunity for all of us to learn."
Eligibility rules determined Ludwig had to enroll: She takes 12 credits at Mission College through online courses. And she needed an amended birth certificate with her new name, Gabrielle Monika Ludwig. She was resentful about having to do so because it would mean cutting off her previous identity, burying Robert Ludwig in one sense. But playing basketball again - finishing something she regrettably aborted - now was a pursuit that carried a larger message.
"If the example I can set for the kids who are transgenders in high school, for the people who hate transgender people and for those learning to deal with transgenders, transsexuals, if they see me as a normal person and we are not the bogeyman and love life and raise kids just like you," Ludwig says, "maybe some of this mystery of who these people are will be taken away and there can be more blending into society. People are afraid of what they don't know. I am willing to put myself out there. It was not like that before. It was just about playing basketball. It's about more because I see an injustice."
Ludwig says she is forever grateful for the efforts of her athletic director and head coach, who has put his reputation on the line despite outside criticism. Players have heard that this is being cast as a disgrace worse than point shaving. They have heard that some consider them a coed team.
Sitting in the team van after one recent game, Cafferata, who says he makes $2,200 per month as a part-time employee, injects his abdomen with a shot of insulin and downs seven pills before going into Applebee's for a few beers and a hamburger.
Cafferata, 42, is an insulin dependent diabetic who has rebuilt a program that suffered through a 90-game losing streak before he arrived four years ago. But he knows his health is poor: One kidney is packed with waste, and says he would gladly trade a Mercedes Benz for a healthy one. He swallows pills to offset sometimes debilitating poor blood circulation in his feet that is worse than any pain he felt as a basketball player. He knows he is facing possible dialysis, perhaps this season.
"Maybe someone will give me a kidney," he says. "Worst-case scenario, I am on a machine at 4 a.m. and off at noon."
But he has never hesitated in fighting for Ludwig's eligibility. He says he believes in trust and loyalty and dependability on and off the court, and that that is what Ludwig brings (in addition to being an imposing interior presence).
Friday morning, Ludwig sat in Superior Court of California County of Alameda, where a judge decreed she is now legally recognized as a woman in the State of California. Her teammates behind her cheered the decision, and Ludwig turned around and said, "Let's play ball, y'all!" before they reconvened at IHOP for a pancake celebration.
Ludwig has served as a second coach to players, encouraging them to block out, keep their head up after a miscue and put a hand in a shooter's face.
But to teammates, she has been more than that. Some say they have learned about life's struggles from Ludwig. Standout guard Felicia Anderson considers Ludwig an inspiration not only because of her personal journey, one that opened Anderson's eyes to a different group of people, but also because of her age. They say they are in awe that Ludwig used to routinely dunk as a man some 30 years ago. Ludwig also never shies away from poking fun at herself, and teammates never hesitate to join in.
"If she ever says something like, 'Well, I used to do this or that,' we say, 'What, in 1920?,' " Anderson says. "She just laughs about it. She knows we are not judging her."
And teammates say they become particularly motivated if they sense gawking - or worse - from spectators. "Stop talking mess and come see her play," Anderson says. "It is 2012. Life is not like it was in 1920 - when Gabbi was five, right? - when women stayed home in the house. The world has changed."
On the road, Ludwig does not share rooms with teammates because of their age differences. But there are few other allowances made for her. Ludwig spoke to the team weeks ago and told them that she badly wants to play with them but would never want to endanger them. She says she sometimes wonders if someone who hates that she is playing will track her down with a bullet in hand.
Her teammates accept her without hesitation, in part, because they say they often feel like outsiders.
"We've been discriminated against for different reasons," Anderson says. "We're used to it. So to have someone come with us, you're discriminated against too. You are a part of our family as well. It's the common bond.
"We all have our own oppressions we are facing ourselves. Either we are lesbians or we are difference races or we dress like boys or we have piercings or tattoos or different hairstyles. All of us are already different, so it's like, where else would she be?"
Before last weekend, when she was cleared to play in games, Ludwig participated in pre-game warm-ups with the team. Before one game, a spectator named Lawrenze Thibodeaux stood under the basket, just a few feet from Ludwig, and kept snapping photos of the dark-haired player warming up.
"I thought it was ludicrous that she plays at 50," he says later. "That she used to be a man makes it doubly ludicrous. Damn, people are doing everything nowadays.
"I don't think a 50-year-old should be out here playing with kids. Whatever she is after I hope she finds it, and I hope people give her a break and not ridicule her. God is the judge. He put her there and he must want her there in that position."
Ludwig says that when Ludwig visited the snack bar for Gatorade, she encountered a Contra Costa College player named Jeannay Washington who told her, "Do you have enough steroids? If not, I have some for you," before high-fiving a teammate. Washington later denied ever talking to Ludwig but said she did not feel Ludwig should be eligible to play.
"They have no clue," Ludwig says. "They have been in this world 18 measly years. This 18 year old has not the slightest clue what life is about. It's when they grow up. If that comment came from someone like you, that would sting and I would need to find a home for that comment."
What Ludwig fears most are remarks by adults. And while spending a few hours at a hotel the afternoon before her first game, she knew what awaited in her debut.
"It is coming," Ludwig says. "It will be ugly. (Teammates) have not been around long enough to know how ugly it can be."
When Ludwig enters the game midway through the first half, the Mission College fans and parents greet her with a boisterous standing ovation. A different response resonated from some on the College of the Siskiyous side of the gym.
"What the (expletive) is that thing?" says Kevin Casey, the father of one of the Siskiyous players who lives in Citrus Heights, outside Sacramento.
"This just ain't right," says Ray Galli, a friend of Casey who lives in Folsom. "If you and I went to get breast implants, we could say we're women too. They are playing girls' ball and having fun. Man or woman always tries to find a way to cheat at any sport. To me, this is kind of cheating."
Ludwig at times labors while moving up and down the court in Mission College's run-and-gun offense. She grabs two rebounds with ease, towering over her competition. The Mission College side of the stands cheers. Casey points to her running up the court.
"I don't want her in the same locker room as my daughter," Casey says. "That's a man with girls. Take Shaq and cut his (penis) off and we'll put him out there with the girls. What's the difference? You have daughters out there. Mine might be a Tom boy, but she is all girl. They let too much (expletive) go by. Was it Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve?
"She's got the parts? Just because she has the parts does not mean she is one. That was man-made. Obviously it was not God made because she did not come out like that. Man-made. Fake."
Ludwig makes three of four free-throw attempts but misses all of her field goal attempts. She grabbed a slew of rebounds. Mission College lost. The Siskiyous players shake her hand and their coach, Tom Powers, individually compliments her on her performance in spite of her age - making no reference to her sex change.
Siskiyous forward Anna Cameron, a native of New Zealand who found herself guarding Ludwig at times, asks, "Men's leagues won't accept her, would they? So where is she supposed to go? It's a hard thing, and there are many different sides to it. She should play somewhere. She loves basketball."
With her knee wrapped, Ludwig pulls her car out of the dark parking lot and begins the drive back to Fremont to spend time with her partner and take an online quiz for her music course. Even in defeat, even when told of remarks of the two Siskiyous spectators, she says she has never been happier.
"I found a home with a bunch of dysfunctional lesbians, one deaf kid and a transsexual woman," she says, laughing. "This is my home. This is the team I fit in. I am that missing puzzle piece. It fits."
When Ludwig looks in the mirror she sees a father, a maternal figure, a veteran, a scientist, a life partner, and something she has been waiting more than three decades to say again: a teammate.
"Through camaraderie, we kind of figure out where the hell we are in life ... " Ludwig says. "We as human beings, we just want to be loved."
"Where is Robert Ludwig?" a reporter asks.
"Where is Robert Ludwig?" Ludwig says. "Gone."
She pauses for a few seconds, takes a deep breath and softens and slows her voice as her eyes remain glassy.
"Robert Ludwig is gone," she says. "And the person you have is Gabrielle Ludwig with everything Robert embodied and was ... That person [Robert] should be honored. He was a great guy. Robert is gone. He was a great father. His spirit is still here. It's just that the spirit matches the body, as it should be."
By Eric Prisbell