Joburg Expat: Netball or Basketball?

July 8, 2011

Netball or Basketball?

Those of you who have been following my blog since last year will know that I have, despite all my love for South Africa, expressed disdain for one of the staples in the South African school day - netball. 

First of all, it's only for girls. I HATE when a sport is restricted to one gender. When I was a kid in Germany, all I wanted to play was soccer (which wasn't for girls back then), and when I came to America, the one sport I most wanted to try was baseball (boys only), not softball (the girl version). Why would you throw a huge clunker of a ball when you can use one that so elegantly fits into your hand? And why, oh why, would you want to throw it underhand as if you were in a bowling alley?

The same is true for netball. Why just  pass a ball around when you can do such a glorious and elegant thing as dribbling between your legs? And hitting a three-pointer with the shot clock expiring?

However, you can't really judge a sport until you've tried it. Which is precisely what I did last week, when parents were invited to play against the grade three girls. I admit I was a bit apprehensive - after cheering the kids on to try new things - about not wanting to make a complete fool of myself. So while we were warming up I quizzed Sunshine about the rules. Not all players are allowed in all parts of the court, it turns out, and there are rules about which foot you can pivot on - I can't remember - as well as how far you have to stand away when defending a shot (three feet, can you imagine?). 


When the teacher came around to hand out shirts for the different positions, I seized the moment: Since I had no clue what a center or a wing attacker does, I zeroed in on the one thing that made sense to me - goal shooter. Even if I hadn't just witnessed an entire netball season I would have figured out what the goal shooter does. I donned my little shirt with "GS" imprinted on it, planted myself in the semicircle around the basket that Sunshine told me was to be my area of operation, and waited for passes. 

What a glorious game I had! Netball, I discovered, is THE perfect game for middle-aged women. You are not allowed in one entire half of the court; therefore, you only run half as much as you would in basketball, which is perfect for a spoiled expat who does nothing but sit around in the sunshine and read all day (Noisette's definition of an expat wife). I remember when I joined a women's basketball pickup team in Raleigh some years back and attended the first session. After running up and down the court three times I was panting with my tongue hanging at my knees, wondering how it was possible that I, who considered myself in good shape, could be so exhausted. And the time that same team was chosen to play against some visiting Japanese semi-professional team because the UNC Women's team wasn't available (a huge honor for us to fill in for the North Carolina women!)? Let me just say that by the time I arrived to play defense, the action had already moved back the other way. (To be fair, those players were half our age and played semi-professionally, after all). 


Not so in my netball game. I was hanging out contentedly at the half-court line, waiting for the action to move my way. Our goal keeper would get the rebound, pass it to another defender, from there to the center, then to wing attack, and from there to me or the other way around. Between the two of us this other mother and I shot at least 30 baskets, I'm sure. It felt very satisfying to showcase what a nice jump shot looks like, something you don't often see in netball as it's not normally necessary to jump when your opponent has to be three feet away. In every other aspect it was much like basketball. Passing, shooting, and rebounding. Us moms gave a fine performance on how it's done! Granted, we only  had to beat 9-year old girls two heads smaller than us, but as a stay-home mother you take any kind of success you can get, even if it's winning against little kids. Okay, I might be a tad competitive.

It turns out you can get hurt in netball just the same as in basketball. One mother slipped and fell about halfway through with what was later diagnosed as a torn Achilles tendon. Ouch! I was trying to play that one in my mind - telling Noisette that I'd be out of commission for weeks, if not months, because I played netball with our daughter. But I guess it's better than when I had to tell him I broke my wrist because I wanted to try out a wee little jump with my snowboard in the terrain park. He was very upset with me that time. In any case, I wish this mom a speedy recovery!

As far as the debate of basketball versus netball: I still think basketball is the superior sport. You have to run much more and need more conditioning and you need more athleticism and ball-handling skills. It's easy to move from basketball to netball once you understand the rules, but a netball-player would have severe trouble having to dribble a ball. What I will say though is that netball makes a great drill for basketball practice: You really learn to get the ball up the court quickly with a few passes and make better use of your teammates, and you really have to learn to get open if dribbling isn't an option.

Thumbs up to Dainfern College for their netball program and for letting us moms play!

Also see: What the Hell is Netball?