Donating My Birthday!!

Since I am way past the period of my life where I expect gifts or get excited about adding another year to my age, I decided take the day and celebrate it by donating my birthday to one of my favorite charities!!  I have been a founding spokesperson with NothingButNets, and witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of malaria as well as the unbelievable joy expressed by mothers who are given this life-saving net for their children!!

I’m donating my birthday because I believe every child should have the chance to experience the joy and excitement of a birthday. But every year, more than half a million African children affected by malaria don’t make it to their next birthday – that’s one child every 60 seconds. Malaria is a disease spread by a single mosquito bite.  Every 60 seconds, a child dies from malaria — which is easily prevented through the use of an insecticide-treated net.  A net costs just $10 to purchase, deliver, and educate the recipient on its proper use.

If you want to make a $10 birthday donation, just log on to: NothingButNetsBirthday and all proceeds go directly to NothingButNets!!!

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Retirement

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Success in life is never an individual accomplishment—it is always a culmination of those who inspire you to chase your dreams, encourage you along the long road of achievement, and who impart the necessary knowledge.  There are also those who give you the physical tools, who grant you the opportunity, and last but not least those who work along side you every day in pursuit of mutual goals. What started in the 4th grade with a little orange ball, a lot of height, a tad bit of coordination, and a huge dream of playing in the Olympics has transpired to an amazing journey from Macy, Indiana to some of the greatest stages professional basketball has to offer.

While I have cherished every moment of preparation and competition that this game I love has allotted me, my life as a professional athlete has always been about something greater than the sport itself—it is the bond that I built with my teammates, the experiences of living in foreign countries, and the platform to make a meaningful contribution to this World.  As I think back over all my years playing basketball, I see the faces of my teammates, hear the voices of my coaches (some louder than others), feel the love and encouragement of my family, friends and fans, and I am consumed with gratitude. Reflecting over my career, my mind wonders back to the summer of 1997, I was sitting in my living room in our little farmhouse outside of Macy, IN, watching the inaugural game of the WNBA.  About to head off to Notre Dame for my freshman season, my class was unique in the sense that we were the first class to enter college knowing there was the opportunity to play in the WNBA after we graduated.

If I had to come up with one word to describe my entire career, it would be “blessed.”  On that initial trip from South Bend to South Beach, there was no way I could have scripted how the next 13 years would unfold.  It is impossible for me to thank everyone personally, but I will do my best to try. There is a sisterhood that is organically created when you go through the grind of a professional season. It is this unique intersection of collective expectations and goals, met by the constant preparation and competition, all lived out through this inevitable rollercoaster of successes and failures.  To all my teammates here in the WNBA and around the world, I am so grateful for the opportunity to not only battle along side of you on the court, but to also share this season of life with you.

I recognize that I was never the most athletic player on the floor, so I relied on my work ethic, skill development and understanding of the game—and for that I want to say thank you to all the coaches who helped shape and influence my growth as a player!  One of the first things people notice when attending a WNBA game, besides the incredible talent of our players, is how unbelievably passionate our fans are!  Whether you have cheered for me or against me over the years, I applaud your dedication to our sport! From my high school days, to Notre Dame, to every team I have played for in the WNBA–I have received such amazing support from men, women and families, and for that I am truly grateful.

My rookie year, I remember driving to American Airlines Arena and I was amazed that they had a special parking spot with my name on it.  I quickly learned that there was more than one “Riley” with the organization and one that drove a much nicer car than me, but as the president of our team, Pat and the Miami Sol set the bar for what would eventually be a list of great organizations for which I would have had the pleasure of playing.  Starting with David Stern’s vision,  Adam Silver’s continued commitment, and the leadership of Val, Donna and now Laurel, I have to say that ALL the men and women who work in the league office are truly the best in the business! To all our WNBA Chaplains who have helped me stay grounded in my faith throughout the chaotic schedule of our season, I am very grateful!!  I would be remiss to not thank all the officials for not fouling me out of every game I played, I am sure you will miss holding up the 00 to the scorer’s table! :-)

Lastly, I want to thank those who have been supporting me the longest, and that is my family!  While my brother has been my sounding board and my toughest 1 on 1 competition and my sister has been my constant source of support and encouragement, it has been my mom who has impacted my career the most.  At a young age, she deposited within me the ability to dream big, and her unwavering belief gave me the confidence to focus on my vision.  Through tremendous personal sacrifices, she always found a way to give me the necessary provision to chase after my dreams, and each and every day she modeled the level of work ethic that would eventually be the leading characteristic of my success.

More than the championships and the accolades I have received over the years, I hope that my career helped impact the sustainability and growth of our league as the 1st Vice-president of our players union.  I hope that my support, friendship and mentorship have been an encouragement to the players I have played with, and last but not least, I hope that every city in which I have played knew that I truly cared about not just our fans, but the community as a whole.

Retirement just does not seem to be the appropriate word to use at the age of 34, because I am not getting out of the game, just changing my association to it.  I am excited to take on a new role as a NBA/WNBA Cares Ambassador, continuing to globally utilize the platform of our sport to address important social issues.  For the first time since elementary school, I will be a student and not a student-athlete.  I am looking forward to heading back to grad school at Notre Dame, where I will be starting their Executive MBA program this fall!

In high school, I ran the relay in track, and right before you were going to pass off the baton, you would yell “stick” so the person in front of you would know to reach back to grab it.  Grateful for the race I have run, I now yell, “stick” and look forward to passing the baton on and cheering on the next generation as they continue to build upon the progress of the first 17 years of the WNBA!  For all this game of basketball has given me, I humbly and gratefully sign off by saying “thank you” in the language of every country I have been blessed to play this game in!  Gracias, Xièxiè, Paldies, Ευχαριστώ, 감사합니다, and Dziękuję

Veterans Day at Walter Reed & Quantico

As we pulled up to the gate at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, my mind began to trace back in time to December 2006 when my family found out that my sister would be transported back there from Iraq. She had left months before, armed with her Arabic language skills, her ability to fly Black Hawks and her strong patriotic spirit. Walking through the rehabilitation facility, I had an opportunity to meet a lot of amazing men and women who shared my sister’s same unwavering devotion to this great nation. Patriotism like theirs is hard to describe, it is a belief that goes beyond words. It is a commitment and conviction that not only invokes action by every fabric of their being, but it is a mindset that acknowledges that very action is also accompanied by a willing sacrifice.

David Robinson, Buck Williams and I walked through the facility as representatives of our Hoops for Troops initiative that was designed to show the NBA and WNBA’s gratitude to our armed forces for their service to our country. Many of the soldiers were in there working with their trainers to develop the strength and balance needed to walk and eventually run again on their new prosthetic legs. I met an amazing young man who lost his hand, but due to advances in technology was able to still unassemble and reassemble his weapon for us in remarkable time with the help of a prosthesis!!

Our entourage traveled from Walter Reed to Quantico Marine Corps Base, were I had the opportunity to hear former NBA Official Bob Delany deliver a powerful message to some of the soldiers about his personal experiences with PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Trauma is not a popular topic in our society, and especially not among the strong defenders of our nation. Bob talked about a healthy way to deal with PTSD, by becoming knowledgeable about it and by discussing it in a safe environment amongst peers, so the detrimental effects of silencing and suppressing those emotions no longer have power to breakdown our brigades!

By the end of the day, I was filled with such mixed emotions. I sympathized with the families, who like mine, would spend the following months and years trying to help their loved ones heal and re-acclimate to civilian life or if they chose to stay in, they would be supporting them as they processed through serving in a different capacity than they were used to. I also felt guilty for the times when I have personally and when our society as a whole has taken for granted the freedoms we enjoy in this great nation. Lastly, the images of the wounded warriors we visited evoked an overwhelming sense of appreciation, the kind that gets you choked up once you realize you have been given an extraordinary and very costly gift that you can never repay. So from the depths of my soul, I extend my gratitude to all those who have and are currently serving and to their families. I am very proud that the NBA and WNBA are equally as passionate about extending their gratefulness as well!! God Bless the U.S.A.!!

Back to South Africa

At first glance, my height, skin color, and even my accent screams a foreigner has come to the Nkomazi region of South Africa near the Swaziland border—yet my 4th trip back to this area ensures that I am not greeted as another Umfati Wemlungu (white woman), but rather I am embraced as a coach, sister and friend. This last installment of my African blog is about the most fulfilling part of my trip. Traveling to this remote region in 2006 helped ignite the passion for my humanitarian work. It was then that I learned about all the multi-faceted challenges that my friends faced every day of their lives because they were born in a place where the unemployment rates, HIV prevalence, and poverty levels rank amongst the highest in the world.

When involved in any grassroots effort the key to success is sustainability. I remember coming home from the first trip feeling an enormous ache in my heart to help, coupled with this sense of overwhelming inadequacy of not knowing where to begin. I knew I could not solve their problems myself, but what I could do was be a consistent force helping them move in the right direction. One of the most glaring needs I recognized was that there was a complete void of leadership within their community. Everyone was in survival mode, and therefore they were completely focused on how they personally were going to make it to tomorrow, with little forethought as to how to create a better future. Without someone to inspire and guide them in a different direction, the community was stuck in this hopeless cycle of desperation.

Now I want to introduce you to three amazing young men: Zola, Sabelo, and Scratch. Known as some of the best basketball players in the region, they were participants in my first ever skills camp over six years ago. As some of the older players in the area, they were required to perform the dual duty of coaching and playing. Zola has recently decided to sacrifice his love for playing and in turn spends all of his time investing in the younger generations. He (with the help of his friends) are organizing thirteen and under teams for both girls and boys at the local elementary schools. They spend every afternoon teaching them not only basketball, but most importantly life skills. These men are putting Gandhi’s words to action as they are trying to “be the change they wished to see in their communities.” This time my flight home invoked a few different emotions than my first trip. Yes, I was once again extremely passionate about doing what I can to help, but instead of being overwhelmed by the complex problems, I had a sense of hope. For the first time, this community has young men who are willing to lead, and that is the initial step of making progress sustainable!!

Here is a video of the work we were doing!

Basketball in Panama!

Each year I am amazed at the places I travel to, the people I meet, and the experiences I have all due to a little orange ball. Panama is now the newest stamp in my passport as I have had the opportunity to spend this past week there working along side two of the NBA’s best camp instructors, Donnie Arey and Antonio Perez with the Orlando Magic. Jump Shoot Basketball Academy was started in 2004 by two brothers, Luis and Victor Julio, who possessed an equal love for the game of basketball and vision for helping develop the sport in their native country. With this dream in mind, they started their own basketball academy and have spent the last 8 years teaching the fundamentals, developing coaches, and creating teams to compete in various national and international competitions.

The differences in the camp were evident at first glance, as the gym was filled with girls and boys from 6-17 years old, of various nationalities and skill levels. The similarities were equally evident though, as they were all hard workers who were very eager to learn!! The focus of this week of camp was to teach drills that were both challenging and fun and that would develop both foundational skills and a love for the game!! Donnie, Antonio, and I not only spent the week teaching the 100 plus kids that enrolled in our camp we also had the opportunity to work along side the Jump Shoot Academy coaches, passing on knowledge so that they are better equipped to instruct the kids the rest of the year.

My travels have always provided me with a first-hand history lesson, so it was only fitting that the first place I visited was the Mira Flores Panama Canal. The United States helped construct this amazing engineering waterway system in 1914, making it a lot faster to transport materials and goods between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. After an incredible private tour, where we were able to walk over the locks, we had the chance to watch an enormous Chinese cargo ship navigate through the various locks with only 2 feet to spare on either side for a bargain price of $400,000!!

Living in Miami, it was an easy transition to go from one tropical city to the next. Founded by the Spanish in 1519, Panama City still has some of the remains for the Old City, or Panama Viejo along with the new city which is being restored to show its stunning architecture as it outlines the coastline. Panama is one of the fastest economically developing countries in Central America and is one of the top 5 retirement destinations in the world!! What I love more than the sun and the landscape is the people that I met. Victor, Luis and their amazing wives and children truly made me feel at home as they welcomed me to not only their country, but also their family! I have so much respect for the Julio family for their devotion to the Panamanian Youth, when we see our first Panamanian WNBA player, without a doubt it will be because of Jump Shoot Academy!!

Gracias a una pelota de baloncesto cada año me sorprendo con las experiencias, los viajes y la gente que la misma me permite conocer. Esta pelota de baloncesto me da oportunidades que nunca soñé poder disfrutar. Panamá es ahora el nuevo sello en mi pasaporte ya que he tenido la oportunidad de pasar allí una semana trabajando codo con codo con dos de los mejores instructores campamentos de la NBA, Donnie Arey y Antonio Perez que pertenecen al Orlando Magic. La Jump Shoot Basketball Academy fue iniciada en 2004 por los hermanos Luis y Víctor Julio, que de la misma forma que sienten pasión por el juego de baloncesto tienen interés de ayudar a desarrollar el deporte en su país de origen. Con este sueño en mente, comenzaron su propia Academia de baloncesto y han pasado los últimos 8 años enseñando los fundamentos del deporte, desarrollando los entrenadores y creando equipos para competir en varios concursos nacionales e internacionales.

Se notó la diferencia en el campamento inmediatamente, el gimnasio se llenaba de niños y niñas de entre 6 a 17 años de edad, pero con diferentes nacionalidades y niveles de habilidad. ¡Lo que si tenían en común todos ellos, eran las ganas de aprender! El enfoque del campamento esa semana era enseñar ejercicios que fueran desafiantes pero divertidos, mientras que al mismo tiempo los jugadores encontraran la oportunidad de desarrollar los fundamentos del juego y sentir pasión por el mismo. Donnie, Antonio y yo no solamente pasamos la semana enseñando a los más de cien niños que se inscribieron en nuestro campamento, pero también tuvimos la oportunidad de trabajar con los entrenadores de la Jump Shoot Basketball Academy quienes se dedicaron a trasferir sus conocimientos a los entrenadores locales pare que ellos estén mejor equipados para instruir a los niños el resto del año.

Mis viajes siempre me han servido para proporcionarme una lección de historia a primera vista, así que era lógico que el primer lugar que visité, fuera el Canal de Mira Flores en Panamá. Los Estados Unidos ayudaron a construir este sistema de ingeniería único en navegación en 1914, haciendo mucho más rápido el transporte de materiales y mercancías entre los océanos Atlántico y Pacífico. ¡Después de una visita privada, donde pude caminar sobre las cerraduras del canal, tuvimos la oportunidad de ver un enorme carguero chino navegar a través de las varias cerraduras con sólo 2 pies de sobra a ambos lados por la pequeña cifra de cuatrocientos mil dólares!

Para mí fue muy fácil pasar de mi vida en Miami, una ciudad tropical a otra muy similar en el país de Panamá. La ciudad de Panamá fue fundada por los españoles en 1519 y todavía cuenta con los restos de esa estructura original o Panamá Viejo que junto con la nueva ciudad está siendo restaurada para exhibir su impresionante arquitectura que traza la línea de la costa. ¡Panamá es uno de los países de Centroamérica con más rápido crecimiento económicamente y es uno de los cinco principales destinos que buscan las personas de la tercera edad para disfrutar su retiro en el mundo! Lo que me gustó aún más que el sol y el paisaje fueron las personas que conocí. ¡Victor, Luis y sus esposas e hijos me hicieron sentir como si realmente estaba en mi casa al acogerme no sólo a su país, pero sino también a su familia! ¡ Me siento tan honrada y tengo tanto respeto por la familia Julio y por su devoción a la juventud panameña, que tengo la certeza que nuestro primer jugador panameño en la WNBA, será sin duda una graduada de la Jump Shoot Basketball Academy!

South African Basketball


This past month I have witnessed yet again just how powerful the platform of sports is as I traveled throughout South Africa and Namibia conducting clinics for various ages and using basketball as an avenue to teach valuable life lessons and build communities. In order to more accurately depict my experiences, I am going to break my travels into a 3 part series. The first section will be my time spent with our NBA personal over in South Africa, followed by my travels throughout Namibia, and lastly with the small NGO that I have worked with back in South Africa near the Swaziland border.

Upon landing in Johannesburg, where the NBA Africa office is headquartered, I was quickly brought up to speed on the “State of Basketball in Africa” especially in regards to South Africa and Namibia. Three things impressed me about how the sport has progressed since my last visit in 2009. First, I was encouraged to hear that the NBA games are now being aired on an ordinary national TV station, making it more accessible to the average population in South Africa. It is a country that joins the rest of the world in their love for football (soccer), add to that an infatuation with rugby and cricket, and basketball naturally takes a back seat in their sports realm. Having games on TV raises the awareness for the game that leads to an increase in participation, which brings me to my second point: the increase in organized leagues, especially for the youth. The growth of any sport has to be done organically and with a huge emphasis on grassroots development. Providing more structured leagues for children to play in at an elementary level will translate to better high school players, more competitive national teams and most importantly a greater pool of the population to become coaches and invest back in the next generation.

My final notable observance was the extraordinary increase in the number of young girls now playing basketball! The globalization of women’s basketball is quite fascinating to me, and South Africa holds a truly unique chapter in that book. Since the invention by Naismith in 1891, American women went from playing 3-on-3 in bloomers to the universal game, uniform and rules we know today in the WNBA. The South African Basketball Federation, on the other hand, was not even established until 1953, a time when the country was torn apart by Apartheid. During this period, women were encouraged to play in the similar, yet very different sport of netball, and even then it was limited to “whites only” excluding a majority of the population. Nelson Mandela utilized the platform of sport to unite the country during the 1995 Rugby World Cup and since then opportunities and equality have been on an upward journey.

One thing I love about Basketball Without Borders and the NBA’s dedication to the grassroots development of the game of basketball is that girls are included in their vision! Our two-hour drive took us outside the metropolitan district of Jo-berg, passed the platinum mines to a beautiful outdoor court where I was greeted by an entire group of young, energetic girls ready to participate in our skills clinic. Historically my time in South Africa has been working with only the boys and maybe a girl or two speckled in, so I could barely believe my eyes when I saw an entire court filled with the Platinum All-Stars of the Royal Bafokeng National, the select girls from the north region!!

Like many of the girls attending, Elri Liebenberg, has only been playing basketball for a few months because previously netball was her only option. At 6’8” she played the “goal shooter” position her whole life, so shifting over to basketball she already has a naturally good shooting form. Had she been born in the States, she would have been groomed since elementary school, filtered through the AAU system as she grew up, and by now be getting scholarship opportunities from every major university, but instead she was raised playing netball, started playing basketball at the age of 16 where scored 42 points in her first game, and can still potentially get a scholarship to play but it will be a much longer journey for her to get there.

I am not discrediting the kids that I work with back in the United States, but there is just a different energy and enthusiasm that accompanies being given an opportunity that has historically never been afforded to someone before, and the pure passion that these girls displayed captured that ideology! The exciting thing about working with these young girls right now is that they are on the cusp of a learning curve to establish success on the national level at a rate that exists in few places in the world. If you wanted to see a tremendous return on your investment in coaching, spend a little time in Africa. Going from nothing at all to anything, by sheer definition you will see growth at exponential rates! Right now, the country in Africa whose President and Minister of Sport commits to investing in girls basketball will quickly dominate the sport on the continent, I know a lot of young girls who are hoping that will be South Africa!!

Beauty + Basketball = saves lives!!

What does a globally acclaimed cosmetic company and Chicago’s own WNBA team have in common? They each have an unbelievable passion to use their respective areas of influence to make the world a better place!! My coaches and teammates joined me at Amazing Cosmetics’ studio in Libertyville for a wonderful day of food and fun where all the proceeds went back to Nothingbutnets. Basketball and beauty combined to offer Amazing mini-makeovers, chair massages, games for kids of all ages, shooting clinics and much more . . . proving once again that saving lives is not only a worthy cause in itself, but people can also have a lot of fun in the process!!

Malaria is still one of the leading killers of children in Africa, but Nothingbutnets is working hard to change that statistic. A simple $10 donation will send a net and save a life!! It’s not to late to help out, by purchasing a $15 ticket for our upcoming game on August 17th, $5 of your ticket price will go directly back to Nothingbutnets!! (please add link or information for the ticket package here) So come out this Friday night as we make a push for the play-offs and you will not only experience world class basketball but you will make a global difference doing it!!

No Kid Hungry Campaign

Most people have mental pictures of starving children in Africa when the issue of poverty and hunger are raised—you might be surprised to learn that there are actually more than 16 million American children who do not have reliable access to the nutritious food they need to lead healthy, active lives.  Recently I had the opportunity to represent the NBA/WNBA in Chicago at the Illinois No Kid Hungry Campaign launch.

There are two reasons why I am compelled to write about this issue.  First of all, I want our WNBA/NBA fans to know about this program and how they can either benefit from it or support it.  Secondly, I want families, especially the kids, to know that some of their favorite NBA/WNBA players know exactly how they feel.  We understand that it is not always easy to admit that you need help, and that as kids any time you are different whether it is your appearance or social-economic status, you are subject to being to being made fun of.  We want to encourage our youth to understand that nutrition is just as important to them as it is to us as professional athletes.  Getting enough healthy meals is essential for kids to be successful in school and in life.

As you have noticed over the years, I try to be authentic and transparent about my life’s journey, because sometimes people just need to know that they are not alone in their struggles.  This is an issue that hits close to home for me, because my family benefited from free and reduced lunch programs when I was growing up.  I shared with the students that my mom did everything she could to raise my brother, sister and I, often working two jobs while raising us on her own, but sometimes there just was not enough money to go around.  The free and reduced lunch program at my elementary school made sure that my siblings and I had a nutritious meal that my mom could not always afford herself.

Share Our Strength is a national nonprofit committed to ending childhood hunger in America by making sure that children in need are enrolled in federal programs, it invests in community organizations fighting hunger, teaches families how to cook healthy meals on a budget, and builds public-private partnerships to end hunger on a national and state level.  The NBA/WNBA are committed to working with Share Our Strength to connect more than 50,000 youth to free meals this summer across the United States. (http://www.nba.com/caravan/nokidhungry.html)

There was a common theme to the messages of all the speakers, and that was that there is not a shortage of food in America or a shortage of programs, but rather there is a shortage of access.  The focus is to increase participation in all federal child nutrition programs, to connect eligible children and families to all available assistance programs (only 39.3% of the students who receive free or reduced lunches are taking advantage of the free or reduced breakfast programs and only 14% participated in summer programs in Illinois), and to invest in innovative programming that strengthens communities’ infrastructure and systems to get healthy food to children and their families.  We want our kids to be strong, we want our kids to be smart, and we want our kids to be successful, so please find out how you can help end childhood hunger in your community!!

NBA All-Star according to me . . .

For most people, the NBA All-Star weekend is a time where their favorite athletes showcase their talents in the various skills competitions or the game itself.  All-Star is a weekend to me is a little of everything, business and pleasure, catching up with old friends and making new ones, watching the various games and participating in events myself.  Here is my brief synopsis of this year All-Star weekend, according to me!

Thursday: My weekend started out in typical “Ruth” fashion, as I somehow managed to lock my keys in my car before heading off on my drive from Miami to Orlando.  Upon arriving, the day was filled with various interviews and photo shoots as well as a reception that night.   It was exciting for Swin and I to have a visible reminder of the fact that we will once again be playing together as we posed for some photos in our new Chicago Sky uniforms!! It proved to be a great day of catching up with some of the players and staff from around the league.

Friday: One event I always look forward to at All-Star weekend is the Technology Summit.  There are always interesting and entertaining panels that discuss the latest advances in technology and how they pertain to our sports world.  I am a huge fan of the NBA’s TNT crew, so I was especially excited to see that Ernie Johnson was leading the panel with Barkley, the entertainer Common, and various executives from Coke, ESPN, IMG and Tencent.  It was a fascinating discussion on social media, where it is now, the role of it in the future and whether Barkley will ever jump on board and start a twitter account!!

From there it was off to NBA Cares Day of Service, where Swin and I were joined by NBA Legends, Clyde Drexler and Dominique Wilkins as we were given the task to prep and paint one of the children’s rooms at the homeless shelter.  It was very entertaining listening to those two guys share stories from “back in the day” as we were working!!  From there it was off to Jam Session where I met up with my friends from the UN Foundation and the Nothingbutnets and Girl Up campaigns.  We had a great time doing a clinic with the kids as well as giving them a brief idea of some of these global social issues.  I topped off the day by signing autographs with Indiana Fever’s Briann January and the Orlando Magic’s Ryan Anderson.

Saturday: Saturday morning came a bit too early, as we met in the lobby at 8:00 to head to the Newsmaker Breakfast, where one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists, Brian Greene, was our keynote speaker.  I will have to give him credit for being a very engaging communicator, but at the end of the day it does not matter how energetic you are, when you are using words like “inflating cosmology” and “multiverses” you are definitely going to lose me!  The rest of the day was filled with receptions, and a few suite visits during the various All-Star events.  Of course we were there to cheer on our fellow WNBA girls taking part in the Shooting Stars Competition . . . congrats to Cappie and her team for winning it all this year!

Sunday: The highlight of my weekend was definitely the opportunity to meet and play with the Special Olympic athletes who were taking part in the Unity Sports Game.  Saturday night I had the chance to meet and interact with all the athletes at a reception, so we felt like old friends as we took the center stage at Jam Session on Sunday afternoon.  The teams consisted of both men and women from all around the United States.  I was on the East team along with Lindsey Harding, Dikembe Mutombo, Sam Perkins and our fellow Special Olympians.  The West was the rest of the Special Olympic athletes accompanied by Sophia Young, Marie Ferdinand-Harris, Chris Mullins and Clyde Drexler.  I was so impressed by the talent level of these athletes!  The highlights of the game were: Dikembe blocking one of the athlete’s shots and giving his signature finger waving as he told him to “get that outta here” only have the same athlete come down the lane the sequential possession and score over him with an amazing floater!!  The game finished in dramatic fashion as the West had the ball with 8 seconds to go in a tied game.  They called a timeout to draw up a play and I am going to chuck it up to Chris Mullins always being used to being on the floor in crunch time, as to why he was on the floor at the end of the game which game the West 6 players vs. our 5!  After the officials got that sorted out and kicked Chris back to the bench (for the first time in his career J), the East came up with a huge defensive play and the game fittingly ended in a tie!   Following the game we headed over to the NBA Fit court to do a clinic for some of the local Special Olympic Athletes with the help of our new teammates!  The event was a wonderful reminder that it does not matter what your race, age, gender or skill levels are, sports are a perfect avenue to encourage unity and bring people together!!

The night ended with the actual All-Star game itself, where most of the players are pretty loose and having fun until the 4th quarter rolls around and the game gets a little more serious.  As I was leaving the game, I ran into Common, who I had not seen since we participated in the Celebrity Game together at a previous All-Star.  Unfortunately for him, his boys remembered that I blocked his shot at the buzzer to secure a win for my team, so they had a lot fun reminding him of that!!  Overall I had a wonderful weekend watching some of the best athletes in the world perform, participating in various community service events as well and making new friends along the way!

My Chinese Experience

Playing the last two years during my WNBA off-season in Athens, Greece where life is a party could not be more opposite to my current experience in AnShan, China, where their mantra is more like “all work and no play.” I have always embraced new experiences, and have been pleasantly surprised by my time here and what I have learned from the Chinese people.

At first glance, the opposites are blatantly obvious, from my sheer physical stature to my democratic thought process. In all fairness, I have to admit that I am uncertain whether my experiences with Chinese culture is applicable to the masses or just the small percentage of which after having their talent recognized, were forced to drop out of school at a young age and practice twice a day every day of their lives up until the point where I now know them as my teammates. Our days are like those in the movie, “Groundhog’s Day” where Bill Murray wakes up and experiences the same day over and over again. To an outsider who is so used to having passion associated with sports, one would naturally question their stoical behavior on the court, until you realized that it is a natural defense mechanism where freedom is absent and perfection is required.

As I walk though the streets of AnShan and some of the other smaller cities we play in, I am well aware that I am the only American some of these people will ever interact with in their lifetimes. Initially, people stare with what seems to be a very hard, expressionless face, but then a simple hello (nihao) and a smile will melt away the misconstrued harshness and very genuine greeting is returned. Once this preliminary barrier is broken I have found most Chinese people to be unbelievably kind and hospitable. When it comes to the Western world, the Chinese culture possesses a very dichotic reverence. On one hand you find there is high level of fascination and attraction and quite equally on the other you are greeted with the same level of mistrust and abhorrence.

Overall you will notice there is very little pretense in their culture from their mode of communication, to the content of information, to their social interactions. Americans have championed the ability of talking a lot while really saying nothing at all, meanwhile, the Chinese words will be few, but they are spoken with an immense amount of intent and meaning. What is deemed “socially acceptable” in conversation varies greatly as well, as it is not uncommon for one’s personal information like their salary to be spoken with the same ease that Americans discuss the weather. With regard to relationships, most of the Western world has a wide social web of friends where interactions range from very intimate to extremely fake. The Chinese culture places more emphasis on depth and authenticity, so you will find that most people will have a tight circle of very close friends and they do not waste any effort trying to maintain pseudo relationships.

More than any country in Europe that I have played in, China has remarkably preserved their history and tradition over the years and there is an unmistakable air of pride in their heritage. This is physically evident in the ancient temples, it is obvious in the knowledge of their countries historical events and figures and it is also evident in their unwavering adherence to traditions. Some might argue that this preservation has come at the steep price of communism and lack of modernization. Just as heartbreak increases ones ability to understand their capacity to love, witnessing the effects of socialism has allowed me to more fully comprehend the freedoms we enjoy through democracy. Please know that I am presenting my reflections with immense respect to the people who have so graciously welcomed me to their country, it is not my intent to come off presumptuous or egocentric.

Surrounded by such devotion to their customs, I cannot help but contemplate how our country compares in this category. With the words of our founding documents constantly under scrutiny and the key values of our country seemingly negotiable, I find myself questioning how much if any of our heritage as a nation do we adhere to? It seems as if we are defined by the simple ideals of democracy, the freedom of thought and action and speech, but those principles by pure definition are constantly evolving with time. There is and will always be an overwhelming sense of patriotism and respect for those who fight to defend our freedom, but I cannot help but wonder if we have anything in our heritage that is concrete and static or are we and should we be defined simply by our freedom and ability to progressively evolve that???