Coming out of her hotel room, dressed in red and gray basketball shorts and a matching mesh top with STARS logo written across the front, an older couple approached the future PCC women’s basketball player. Guadalupe Vazquez Herrera went to a Chicago amateur basketball tournament prior to her senior year, hoping to make an impression on some of the coaches and scouts. The last thing she thought she’d confront is a moment of keenness and introspection. The interaction was brief and awkward, but it also brought on other inquiries.
“Are you here for soccer?” the older white gentleman said.
He was curious what this young half-Salvadorian and half-Mexican girl was doing at this hotel, even though she was surrounded by her teammates and coaches. Perhaps he wasn’t aware that Latinas played basketball too. Basketball is a worldwide sport. And although the game has been dominated by African-Americans since the inception of the NBA or even the WNBA, that’s not a rule or by design. She pondered what he meant by the question and why he singled her out but managed to brush it off without giving it much thought. The last thing she wanted was for the aberrant interaction to affect her game. But it didn’t alleviate the comment. The microaggression would be the first of many on her journey to becoming a basketball player.
“In all these tournaments, there’s these other girls, they’re doing very well,” Vazquez said. “But I didn’t see other girls that look like me.”
That wouldn’t be the last incident that she’d face in the amateur leagues. If anything, it was only a precursor for what the future would await. On another occasion, she took a team photo for their social media page. She decided to leave the team, but they still posted the photograph. In the comments section, some of the followers criticized her hair. The followers were wondering why her hair was so frizzy. Some of them called her Mufasa from the Lion King. She wasn’t aware until an ex team member let her know of the incident. Vazquez says that she had to go through it. She feels like the microaggression and outright racism was a badge of honor on her journey. The stunning aspect in Vazquez’s voice is her impetuous confidence that she’ll get past the negativity. The people that talk bad about her. The people who want to make her look bad. She’s very self-assured. Almost cocky.
When the 5 foot 8 inch combo guard started attending PCC, her dad would drop her off at the Metro station in Los Angeles. Then she’d take the Gold line to school. The entire trip would take approximately an hour and a half. On this particular day, he dropped her off at the Atlantic station. Vazquez had her headphones on as usual. A stop or two later, a man walked onto the same car, looking to make conversation. She didn’t have any music on, but hopefully this would deter his loquaciousness. He went on speaking to her, with or without a reply. Even her countenance was that of boredom, so that she could keep up the charade. She still remembers all of the construction at the Little Tokyo stop. In total, the strange man stayed with her, speaking nonsense for five stops. At this point, she started feeling a little anxious about the situation. The construction at the time called for patrons to get on a shuttle bus to get to Union Station. As Vazquez got onto the shuttle bus, she didn’t see the man get on the bus. She peered around and took her headphones off.
Now feeling a little relief, Vazquez sat down with her legs slightly open. It was the same way that she sat on the bench during timeouts when she felt lethargic. She sat near the front of the shuttle bus in the handicap station upon the advice of her parents. At least that way, the conductor could see her. Unexpectedly, the man from the metro emerged and decided to sit across from her.
“What’s your name?,” the metro stranger said. “What school do you go to? How old are you?”
“Leave me alone,” Vazquez said.
“Close your legs,” the metro stranger responded after trying to touch her.
“Don’t touch me,” Vazquez yelled. “Can you please tell him to leave me alone?,” Vazquez said, speaking to the conductor.
“Leave her alone,” the conductor responded absent-mindedly.
Vazquez rushed into Union Station and FaceTimed her dad. She spoke to her dad in Spanish, so that the metro man wouldn’t be able to understand.
“I speak Spanish too,” the metro man said, still following Vazquez.
She pondered whether to keep walking or to take off running. But what if he chased after her. She split between the two hairs and walked faster. Once inside Union Station, she tried to blend in with the crowd. Her father, still on the phone, told her to call for security. She found a police officer within the station and filed a police report. Once she finally calmed down, she realized that the strange man was gone. The police assured her that nobody was following her anymore, but it didn’t keep her from looking back every now and then. This is what Vazquez endured to play basketball at PCC. A long train of stops, each with its own individual battles.
Vazquez and her father grew up in America, but her mother is from El Salvador. It’s a country that’s dominated by soccer, yet she has never touched a soccer ball. El Salvador is one of the countries that Republicans like Donald Trump have demonized by stating that “they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime.” He’s also accused the entire country of being associated with gangs like MS-13. It’s a tactic that he’s used to tarnish immigrants, but just because his words are fabricated and deceitful doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact. So, when people find out that Vazquez is Mexican and Salvadorian, she always gets a look of shock.
“They didn’t believe that I was actually Mexican and El Salvadorian,” Vazquez said. “They would always tells me ‘you have to be another race for you to be good.’”
This isn’t what she imagined when she started playing basketball at the age of three. Her father played basketball. His friends played basketball. Her entire family is into basketball. When she stopped growing, he encouraged her to start shooting. That’s one of the reasons why the ball comes off her fingers tips in circular motion. It’s all the repetition and follow through from a young age. Shot after shot after shot after shot. If she doesn’t follow through or takes a play off, her parents are not afraid to pass judgment in a straightforward manner. They’ve never quibbled or beat around the bush when it came to criticism.
In many ways that’s how she leads. Well – that and her favorite basketball players. She’s a huge Michael Jordan fan. Jordan had a straightforward hardworking leadership style. He was known to rip into his teammates if they weren’t doing well. But those qualities haven’t traveled into the new era of basketball or even sports. America is more conscientious about the modern athlete and critics have said that the competitors have become coddled and can’t handle criticism whether it’s constructive or not. That’s one aspect of Vazquez’s game that may need some veering now that she’s considered the star of the team. She’s earned it. She was the second leading scorer in the state at 27.8 points per game. She’s a true threat and a game changer, but her leadership style could cause ruffles in the locker room.
“You see, I grew up with that [mentality],” Vazquez said. “You have to be able to take what they’re saying, not the way they’re saying it.”
One day in practice, Vazquez felt like one of her teammates was being lazy. She felt that her passes weren’t meeting the mark and the expectation set by the coach. She realized that everyone was tired, but they had an upcoming game against a good Mt. San Antonio team. Vazquez tried to shrug it off, be constructive, and call her teammates over in a circle before trying to executive the play again. But Vazquez described the next pass by the same teammate as “garbage.”
“What the fuck are you doing,” Vazquez yelled. “Get your shit together. Pass the ball right. You’re being fucking lazy.”
Her teammate proceeded to cry and walk out of the gym. It’s very indicative of the Jordan and Kobe era. Those were the days when basketball players could rip into you at practice and you’d have to stand there and prove that you could handle being berated. But Vazquez isn’t playing with Scottie Pippen or Shaquille O’Neal. She’s playing with other freshmen at Pasadena City College. Her coach, Joe Peron, has other ideas on where he’d like her to improve. He would like her to adapt her basketball skills and add some vocal leadership. Coach Peron believes that she needs to be more vocal and deliberate in her leadership style.
“She needs to be more verbal in practice,” Peron said. “Because she’s not used to it. It didn’t happen when she was in high school, so I’m here to nurture that and bring it out of her and help her to be the leader that’s needed for our basketball team. Everyone respects her but she needs to come out of her comfort zone.”
At the moment, Vazquez felt that her teammate deserved to be castigated. Her new adventures into leadership were somewhat risky, hurtful, and savage. Although the vast majority of sports fans perceive the end result of leaders, they rarely see the growing inexperience when they’re still playing ball at a city college. Vazquez eventually apologized to her teammate but it was clear that she wasn’t about to accept listless behavior.
Vazquez says that she can take criticism, but she’s not going to take criticism from teammates who don’t put in the same effort. The only cure to stop in-team fighting is winning, but this Lancers team ended the season with a record of 9-16. In fact, it was coach Peron’s worst record since he’s been at PCC. Small squabbles between the young team happened often. After a while her coaches had to call her into the office to speak to her about her leadership style. It seems that Vazquez keeps all of her frustrations inside. Every turnover, every mistake, and lack of hustle is mentally recorded. They boil out onto the court and explode in a rage of displeasure. This is why Peron believes that she needs to communicate more in practice.
There is some light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Her teammate, Emily Trinh, felt that her leadership changed throughout the season. Trinh voiced that Vazquez would give her a pep talk if she was having a bad game. Vazquez helped Trinh with her jump shot. Trinh returned the favor by picking her up for school. That way she could avoid any other strange metro men.
“I feel like towards the beginning of the year, she was a bit more closed off,” Trinh said. “But as the season progressed and she got closer to the team, she became more of a leader.”
Perhaps a basketball player isn’t a 6 foot 7 inch African American basketball player who grew up with the talent of LeBron James. Maybe a basketball player is self-motivated, dedicated, hard-working, and courageous enough to face her demons. She may fall from time to time, but she won’t let it keep her down long enough to look the haters in the face while dribbling back down the court after scoring.
On her road to becoming a better leader, she has found at least a nugget within herself of what it will look like. The one word within that kept creeping into our conversation is effort. That’s why one of her favorite teammates is Trinh. Trinh hardly scores at 4.8 points per game and doesn’t have a consistent jumper, but she brings effort off the bench. She’s also the only teammate working out with Vazquez this spring.
“You don’t have to be the best one,” Vazquez said. “You don’t have to knock down all your shots. But if you’re hustling, if you’re doing the best for the team, picking each other up, I’ll trust you. I’ll respect you.”
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