"Basketball," wrote George Will, "is a game for big, fast men" {op-ed, Oct. 19}.

I play basketball. In fact, the most important thing I do every week is ride my bike to the local courts and play in pickup games. In no other aspect of my life do I incite such anger, derision and distrust simply because I am a woman.

As a graduate of the high school class of 1979, I was part of the first great wave of women that had the opportunity to play organized sports from grade school on. Title IX had worked its magic -- uniforms, equipment and coaches were everywhere. But after years of playing on courts in countless cities, I know that was not enough. The surface changes did not shake the bias both sexes have against strong, agile women. They did not halt the cries of "dyke" or nurture the current crop of teenage girls, most of whom can't even do a pull-up.

Every time I take the court, I pay the price for America's failure. When I am better than my male adversary, he usually either tries to overpower me by pushing or holding me, or he becomes nonchalant, hoping that his indifference will show I'm only scoring because he doesn't think I'm worth guarding. Recently I've had to suffer the ignominy of having two men switch places on defense because one steadfastly claimed he "wasn't going to play against no girl." (I'm 29.)

Why am I the object of such wrath? When I whiz by for a lay up, am I threatening the social order?

Only the best women players feel it's worth standing up to such antagonism just to play a game, be it softball, volleyball, soccer, rugby or basketball, which partially explains why women are rarely "weekend players" in sports that require refined coordination. The other reason is that most beefed-up women's programs only worry about gifted athletes. Little is done to encourage the average Jane. I have never met a woman playing in a pickup game who hadn't played at least some high school varsity basketball. Yet most courts are crammed with men who have never made a team but can still shoot a decent jumper.

Boys are encouraged to play complicated games like basketball and touch football. Catching a pass or a fly ball becomes an essential social skill. Girls, on the other hand, only bother with these things if they are "tomboys," a term which effectively neuters them.

But American men certainly can't be held completely responsible for the fact that most women rarely assert their athletic rights. While most women have at least a surface interest in staying fit, few know anything about long-term conditioning, stretching or proper (not stylish) equipment. They exercise to lose weight, or because it makes them look good. Few women I know have the raw appreciation for physical exertion that most men have. Few reach that level of physical conditioning where movement becomes an end unto itself.

The bottom line is that most Americans still believe a woman's place is not to sweat -- or in the case of Boston Herald sports reporter Lisa Olson, not to see sweat. Generalizations like that in Will's column only aggravate the situation.

Ultimately, this phobia against women who enjoy rigorous sport spawns sexist behavior and discourages young girls from attaining full vigor. The primitive prejudice that only men can be well versed in physically challenging games (or military exercises) must die. Only then can America become a robust society.

-- Mary Collins