"The only thing I had to do is talk to my potential teammates and say, 'Hey, do you have room for me? This is where I am, this is where I've been, and I really love this game. Can I play with y'all?' And it was a resounding, 'Hell yeah!'"
Cafferata is tactful when asked whether Ludwig's size and former gender give the Saints an unfair advantage. A self-described champion of underdogs — his roster includes a player who is deaf and others with learning disabilities — the coach is rooting for Ludwig all the way. But to become a starter, she will need to work on endurance and speed.
"Gabrielle has earned a spot on this team," he said. "She practices hard. She runs hard. She is no different from anyone on the team — she is a great, coachable player."
As someone living as a woman and taking female hormones since 2007, Ludwig was eligible to play in the NCAA. Transgender student athletes who have taken medication to suppress testosterone for a year may compete on women's teams under a policy adopted last year.
The California Community College Athletic Association had another hoop for Ludwig. Because its rules base gender on a student's birth certificate, she would need a new one. Ludwig, who had sex reassignment surgery over the summer, petitioned a judge and obtained her papers on Nov. 30.
Ludwig, who turns 51 this month, acknowledged that part of her motivation for playing women's basketball was to be a role-model for transgender youth. She finds hope, if not gratification in the temporary suspensions ESPN radio hosts Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin received this week because of the remarks they made about her. But she wants her court accomplishments — not her gender change — to draw comments.
"If men think that women's basketball is easy, let them spend a day out here and get their butt kicked," she said.
Mission College Athletic Director Mike Perez was all for Ludwig playing. He admires her for working a fulltime professional job — as a systems engineer for a pharmaceutical company — while carrying a full course load in computer administration. He also has seen the way her young teammates look up to Ludwig "and not just because she's tall."
"I could tell that one, she was a person of substance and two, somebody who was really sincere about what they were trying to do," Perez said. "Many people have different views, but the most important view is she ... has a right to be on this basketball team."
Teammate Amy Woo, 19, said Ludwig has brought a maternal influence, helping the team keep problems in perspective.
"We all love her," Woo said. "If someone is going to talk against her, they are talking against all of us because it's like she is part of a family."