Get With the Program

“Where’s your ticket?”

A security guard is staring at me. I’m 18. I’m a freshman at Notre Dame. I’m a little shy. I weigh maybe 180 pounds — if you count my winter jacket and Timbs. Like I said, I’m a college freshman.

I’m standing in front of the Joyce Center, excited and a little nervous because today is one of my first home games. Tip-off is in about three hours.

“You need a ticket to get in.”

The security guard’s standing in the doorway. How’s he supposed to know me? Maybe I went to the wrong entrance?

“Uh …”

I can’t stop mumbling.

“Uh … I’m a … I’m a player. I’m on the team.”

Maybe I needed to be more specific.

“The basketball team.”

I show him my bag and add, “Men’s basketball.”

That moment jumped back into my mind recently. It got me thinking about the Notre Dame basketball program.

But not about my team. I’ve been thinking about the women’s team.

Any Notre Dame fan knows this already, but I’ll tell you in case you don’t: Women’s basketball is a big, big deal in South Bend. Notre Dame will always be a football school first, but the next biggest show on campus is women’s hoops.

It’s hard to describe how big it actually is until you go there. The sellouts, the screaming fans, the winning tradition. For one thing, I can almost guarantee you that a player on the women’s basketball team would never have had the same problem that I had getting recognized at the Joyce Center. Jewell Loyd and Skylar Diggins were celebrities on campus. They were some of my best friends, too.

The basketball culture is one of the coolest things about my time at Notre Dame.

It’s also unique.

Playing for a WNBA team isn’t anything like playing for an NBA team.

Recognition dropped off overnight for my friends once they got to the WNBA. They went from the top of the college basketball world — with wall-to-wall media coverage — to something else. The money is obviously not even close to the same as it is in the NBA. The endorsements and the TV deals aren’t the same. The crowds are smaller.

But worse than all of that, the respect isn’t always there. Coming from such a close relationship with the women’s team in college, I wasn’t used to hearing people put down the women’s game.

You see the disrespect in how people dismiss women’s basketball as “boring.”

You see it in your Instagram feeds and Twitter mentions, where comments about women’s basketball players get really ugly.

The stereotypes, the put-downs, the jokes. We’ve all heard them.

This culture of disrespect fuels the perception that the WNBA game is somehow inferior to the NBA game.

After four years of sharing friendships, memories and the same court with the women’s team at Notre Dame, to hear those stereotypes and see that culture was upsetting.

Maybe it starts with a lack of understanding of the women’s game. That used to be me.

When I got to South Bend as a freshman, women’s basketball wasn’t on my radar at all. I was 18, and I thought I knew everything I needed to know about basketball. I was blessed to come from a family where basketball was always the go-to dinner table conversation. My dad and uncle both played in the NBA. My older brother, Jerai, plays pro ball overseas and my younger brother Jerami is currently a Sixer. Over the dinner table, my brothers and I used to argue about the best players in the NBA. We’d watch Bulls games and imagine ourselves in the league some day. Basketball was in our blood. So I thought I knew everything about it.

Because I went to an all-boys’ high school, I didn’t watch a women’s game before I got to Notre Dame. The only thing I really knew about women’s basketball was from kids at school, when some of them would make fun of it. I remember that I knew, at some level, that their put-downs were wrong, but as a kid I never spoke up.

That changed when I got to Notre Dame.

My freshman year, one of my teammates invited me to go to a game. My first women’s game.

I remember him saying to me: “We go to all of their games. You’ve gotta see them play.”

So I went.

It seemed like the whole city showed up for their games. The Joyce Center was live. I mean, we got good crowds, too, but even when the women’s team played Division II teams, their stands were packed. Little boys and girls from South Bend would wait after games for autographs. It would take our team playing against North Carolina or Louisville to get the stands were anywhere near the level they got for literally any women’s game.

Even the way the media covered women’s basketball in South Bend was different from anywhere I’d ever seen. Local TV and the newspapers covered the women’s game the same way they covered our team. One of the coolest things about the culture we had at Notre Dame was that it was normal to see women’s and men’s basketball as being equally important.

Winning has that effect. Winning brings attention and it also brings respect, and the women’s program has won a lot. Every year I was at Notre Dame, the women went to the Final Four. Their coach, Muffet McGraw (who became a friend and advisor to me as a student) has won more than 800 games in her career. Eight hundred.

Like I’m saying, winning is a tradition for them.

The women’s team set the tone for the entire program. We shared everything. We shared practice time at the Joyce Center. We both got the same gear and the same respect from the school, from the top down. No one got treated differently. What we got, they got. If they had a game the next day, they’d be on the main court and we’d be in the practice gym.

More important, we were all friends.

Skylar Diggins, Jewell Loyd, Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa. They became some of my best friends. But they were also some of the nation’s best players — and stars on campus. They had more random fans coming up to them than we ever did. The first time I saw Skylar wasn’t even in person. Her picture was all over the front page of The Observer, our student newspaper. It was a story about a preseason game, and I remember thinking, Wow, this is on another level.

Sometimes I would give the women’s players a hard time about being more recognizable on campus than we were. They’d laugh and rub it in our faces. But it was funny because it was true.

Football Saturdays were the best. In the morning before the games, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams would show up for open gym. Our team would have the court, and then the women’s team would play right after. We’d stay around to watch them practice. Afterwards, both teams would walk over the the football stadium to tailgate together. It was such a sense of community. Some of the best times of my life.

The women’s game is highly skilled. It’s exciting. The ball movement and understanding of the game is just as good as in the men’s game. I’d actually argue that women play a style of basketball that’s more sound fundamentally. Simply put, it’s good basketball. It’s the same game I love.

Back in college, Jewell Loyd and I used to have these epic ongoing games of H-O-R-S-E after open gym on Saturdays. We got after it. Jewell was the star player for the women’s team her junior year and we became close friends. But on the court, our games of H-O-R-S-E could get kind of heated. I talked trash, she talked trash. We must have played a hundred games.

I’d like to say our lifetime record is even, but I know Jewell would say she won like 60% of the games. She is a great player, just as good — and just as athletically gifted — as anybody that I’ve ever played against. I’ve got a ton of respect for her, and we’ll always be connected because we got drafted the same year.

During the WNBA season last year, a few of my Knicks teammates and I made it a routine to go to New York Liberty games. We were courtside for one game when the Chicago Sky visited MSG. It was me, Langston Galloway and Cleanthony Early. We had a great time watching Elena Delle Donne, the league’s MVP, go up against Tina Charles (sorry Irish fans, I gotta give UConn some love). There was such great energy in there.

There will probably always be people who point out the differences between the men’s and women’s style of play. There will be people who say they only watch basketball for dunks and alley-oops.

Yeah, the women’s game isn’t often played above-the-rim. There are obvious differences in speed and strength between men and women. But if you say women’s basketball is “boring,” or if you want to repeat ignorant stereotypes about female athletes, I’m gonna stop you right there.

You must not be a real basketball fan.

If you were, you’d already know what I found out in college. I’m not saying Notre Dame was some kind of perfect place, but I know this: When men’s and women’s players support each other on and off the court, basketball is better.

With the WNBA season coming up in May, I know I’ll be back at the Liberty games with my teammates. The women come to ours, so we go to theirs. Simple as that. It’s only my second year in New York, but I’m hoping to make it a tradition.