Brooklyn’s Net: Finding Community On The Netball Court
Growing up, sports just weren’t for Maggi Gao. Then she discovered her passion.
“Snap Shots” is a series that checks in with neighborhood athletes around the world.
When Maggi Gao moved to New York from Shanghai in 2013 to study psychology, she also hoped to meet people who shared her love of netball. Although it’s well known outside of the US, it’s something of a niche sport in the States, so she struggled to find anyone to play with—let alone a court to play on.
But eventually Maggi tracked down a court in Brooklyn—one of the only dedicated netball courts on the entire east coast—and found her community at Lincoln Terrace Park in Crown Heights. And it’s here that, while going through a series of drills, she explains what the sport means to her.
OK, first of all, what actually is netball?
Picture a basketball court – a netball court is kind of that size. In place of the basketball hoops are hoops on a stand, no backboards. The court is divided into thirds, and each of the seven players is assigned a position and an area to play in. Like basketball, the goal of the game is to get the ball into your team’s hoop. Unlike basketball, when you have the netball in your hands, you can't move. So you can only take one step before you have to stop and pivot and pass. It requires so much more precision and agility than a lot of other sports.
How’d you get into it?
I grew up in Shanghai and I was not athletic at all. At age 8, I enrolled in a British school that had just opened in my neighborhood and netball was part of the curriculum. I really hated physical activity up until then but netball made me feel a bit more confident in my athletic ability. People were very supportive. [They said] "OK, you can try this. Don't worry about doing anything wrong." It was the first time I could really try something. I've been playing netball for a long time. Wait, hang on, I can't do math right now…. 17 years.
What is the netball community like here in New York City?
It's tight-knit once you get in. Through netball in New York, I was exposed to the Caribbean American netball community. At first, I guess they were a little bit skeptical of me. They grew up together, they have netball lineage. Their parents immigrated from the Caribbean, and are like former national netball players from Jamaica, from Trinidad, from Granada. Having them accept me, after seeing me put in the effort and knowing the game, it was just such a fun experience. You meet so many people you wouldn't have otherwise met.
There’s a prevailing idea that netball is a “women’s” sport. How does that make you feel?
I remember when I was younger, I felt a little weird about it because it was like, "Oh, you're playing a woman's sport.” I think that implicitly said to a lot of people that it’s not good enough for boys to play. But as I got older, [I realized] that it requires so much more precision and agility than a lot of different sports. I think if I were to liken [it to another sport], it would have to be rugby sevens. That sort of power and that sort of speed.... There's actually a big men's netball league in Australia now. It's not professional, so they don't get paid for it. But it's so big now that these players are actually forming a men's netball team that's going to be paid soon. That's how big the sport is. In countries where netball is big, it’s seen as the ultimate sport for not only women, but also for men.
“You don’t lose the skills. You just become a smarter player.”
How long can you see yourself continuing to play?
Recreationally, probably another 30 years. I mean, you see these women out here at Lincoln Terrace Park playing pickup netball – it’s a lifestyle for them. Some were former national squad members back in the Caribbean. So they've passed on netball to their kids and they still will hang out with each other and play pickup netball. I’m 25 and a personal trainer but I play with this one Jamaican who is maybe 60 or so, and she can still kick my ass. You don't lose the skills. You just become a smarter player.
Words: Sam Hockley-Smith
Reported: September 2020