SAN PABLO -- As the buzzer sounds to announce the substitution, a handful of Mission College basketball supporters chant: "Gabbi! Gabbi! Gabbi!"
Most of the 50 or so onlookers in the dingy, yellow-tinted gym briefly look up from their chili-cheese nachos and smartphones, and then back down. A few whisper and point at No. 42, marveling at her size.
It was the debut of Gabrielle Ludwig, and at 6 feet 8, 220 pounds, with tattoos on her arms and legs, she stands out in the Contra Costa College gym. At 50, the Fremont resident is about three decades older than her Santa Clara community college teammates and opponents -- and much taller.
What many at the 19th annual Comet Classic did not know was Ludwig had only been a woman since July, when she had a sex change operation. They didn't know the long path traveled by the father and Desert Storm veteran, and how she may be the first transsexual athlete to play college sports as both genders.
While her coach, athletic director and supporters applaud Ludwig's addition to the team, opponents and their followers question whether it's fair.
As a young man, Ludwig briefly played at an East Coast community college and in pregame warm-ups before the Dec. 1 tournament championship game, she displayed a natural shooting touch.
"In time," said Corey Cafferata, her coach, "she will be the most dangerous player in the state."
Ludwig declined to comment for this story, but spoke to a USA Today reporter.
"If the example I can set for the kids who are transgenders in high school, for the people who hate transgender people and for those learning to deal with transgenders, transsexuals, if they see me as a normal person and we are not the boogeyman and love life and raise kids just like you," said Ludwig, a scientist at Roche Molecular Diagnostics in Pleasanton, "maybe some of this mystery of who these people are will be taken away and there can be more blending into society. People are afraid of what they don't know. I am willing to put myself out there. It was not like that before. It was just about playing basketball. It's about more because I see an injustice."
Coach Cafferata knows how to persevere and overcome challenges.
The diabetic, who injects himself with five insulin shots a day, took over the Mission College women's basketball team in 2009, a program that had folded three times in seven years and was enduring a 90-game losing streak. He has led the team to two straight playoff seasons.
It was at a team fundraiser in August when Cafferata learned of Ludwig's interest in playing basketball again. She had briefly played for Nassau Community College as Robert John Ludwig in 1980 but was not sure if she was eligible as a woman.
With the help of athletic director Mike Perez and Cafferata, Ludwig enrolled and the trio learned California Community College Athletic Association bylaws had a clear policy that gender was determined by birth certificate.
To change one's birth certificate in California, one must petition the court and show medical confirmation of a sex change. On Nov. 30, an Alameda County Superior Court judge declared Gabrielle Monika Ludwig a woman and ordered her a new female birth certificate.
She could not only play women's basketball, she got her full two years of eligibility reinstated because her 1980 season counted only to her male basketball tenure.
For the athletic association, which oversees 14 state conferences, Ludwig was not the first transsexual player to suit up.
Two years ago, a Cosumnes River College woman, formerly a man, played a season for the Sacramento-area women's basketball team with little fanfare.
Dale Murray, commissioner for the Coast Conference, which oversees Mission College and other South Bay community colleges, said he was alerted of Ludwig's efforts to play in August and has seen little controversy.
"She just happens to be a bit taller than everyone else," he said. "What if she was born a female and 6-foot-5? She's a little older than other community college players, so that's probably to her disadvantage."
Logan McKechnie, an attorney and commissioner of the Central Valley Conference, said competitive fairness has nothing to do with her eligibility, but it's a tough question.
"That's an awfully large women and I'm not sure how to answer that because all sports have unique individuals in them. Is it fair that all professional sports athletes have to face Peyton Manning each year?" he said. "I don't think, frankly, fairness enters into it."
Helen Carroll, sports project director for the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, helped the NCAA craft recent amendments to its eligibility bylaws for transgender and transsexual athletes to incorporate testosterone treatments.
"I just see it as a squad with a low post player over 6 feet," said the former national championship University of North Carolina-Asheville women's basketball coach. "There are hundreds of female basketball players that tall. My opinion is that people making comments about it being unfair don't understand the transgender athlete."
Is it fair?
Competitive fairness was a hot topic during Ludwig's debut.
With 7:59 left in the first half, Ludwig checked into the game to the elation of Mission College supporters.
Ricardo Thompson, 45, of Silver Lake, follows the team around the state to watch his niece Alexis Madayag-Thompson. The guard is deaf and draws inspiration from her transsexual teammate.
"I think it's great. It revolutionizes sports a little bit to open-mindedness," Thompson said.
Girlfriend Maryann Pondevida, 42, of La Palma, said Ludwig has rights like all the other players.
"If she's cleared to play, what's the problem?"
Three rows down in the stands, Ray Galli, 58, of Folsom, watched the game with a friend whose daughter played on the opposing team.
"It ain't right," Galli said. "For one, she's 50 years old, and No. 2 ... come on, these girls out here are young. Start your own league if you want to do that."
Galli said he would pull his daughter off a team if Ludwig tried to join it.
"I don't want to see a 50-year-old man in the locker room," Galli said. "I mean, you're born a guy, right? I'm not sure if all the parts are there or what.
"I don't support gay rights, but I'm not going to condemn them, it's their own choice," Galli said. "But this isn't about personal rights, this is a team."
In about seven minutes of action that night, Ludwig made three free throws, while missing all five shots from the field. A foot above than the tallest competitor, she grabbed three rebounds in her team's 69-62 loss.
"Obviously, she's a very good player and she's going to be a force as things go on," said Tom Powers, College of the Siskiyous head coach for 30 years, after the game.
Is it fair for her to play?
"That's a hard question. It's one of those things; if she wasn't good or tall, would it be such a big deal?" Powers said. "She's definitely changed things."
The Mission College women's team plays its next game at home Dec. 8 against Lassen Community College.
Ludwig was the biggest player 5-foot-5 sophomore Siskiyous guard and captain Shyanna Ashworth had ever played against.
"She's real physical. We knew what we were going to get," she said after the game. The team had its 6-foot-4 coach pretend to be Ludwig in practice to prepare.
When asked if it was fair for Ludwig to play, Ashworth smiled and paused for a few seconds.
"I'm not sure it's the fairest thing. No judgment," Ashworth said. "I do give it to her for taking this on. It's a lot."
More to come
While exceedingly rare, Ludwig's quest is not unprecedented.
In 1977, Renée Richards, born a man, sued the U.S. Tennis Association to allow her to play as a woman.
She won the case.
Richards, who underwent sex reassignment surgery two years earlier, played for four years, ranking as high as 20th overall and making the cover of Sports Illustrated.
South African middle distance runner Caster Semenya grabbed headlines during the London Summer Olympics after years of competitors claiming she was a man and protesting her participation in women's events. She won a silver medal in London.
Ludwig's coach said he only expects controversy if Ludwig becomes a star.
"If she plays like she played (in her first game), nobody will give a hoot because she wasn't a factor," Cafferata said. "If she starts going 20 points, 20 rebounds, playing 30 minutes a game, that's when it's going to happen."
Two years ago, the NCAA received 35 inquiries from potential transgender and transsexual student-athletes. Because of privacy laws, there are no firm statistics.
"I do think we'll see more of that," Carroll said, "especially as transgender athletes know they will be invited to play on those teams."
As for Ludwig's potential?
"I think at 6-foot-8, if she does some work," Cafferata said, "I don't see why the WNBA wouldn't draft her and give her a shot."
There is no requirement, a league spokesman said, for a WNBA player to be born female.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
NCAA gender rules
While Gabrielle Ludwig's California junior college association uses a birth certificate as the determining factor of gender for athletic eligibility, the NCAA loosened its requirements in August 2011.
The new policies state:
A trans male (female to male) student-athlete who has received a medical exception for treatment with testosterone for gender transition may compete on a men's team but is no longer eligible to compete on a women's team without changing the team status to a mixed team. A mixed team is eligible only for men's championships.
A trans female (male to female) student-athlete being treated with testosterone suppression medication for gender transition may continue to compete on a men's team but may not compete on a women's team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one calendar year of documented testosterone-suppression treatment.
"As a core value, the NCAA believes in and is committed to diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators," NCAA Director of Inclusion Karen Morrison wrote in a memo to the NCAA membership. "Since participation in athletics provides student-athletes a unique and positively powerful experience, the goals of these policies are to create opportunity for transgender student-athletes to participate in accordance with their gender identity while maintaining the relative balance of competitive equity within sports teams."