Whether in the United States, South Africa, the Philippines or Saudi Arabia, I have witnessed how sports not only breaks down barriers, but is also a powerful tool to build young women up.  The ball in and of itself has no bias.  It knows not the hands or feet by which it is being guided.  The rules of engagement are without prejudice or partiality.  Sports simply set the stage for girls to gain confidence and develop leadership skills.  Young women had for generations been excluded from performing on this stage, not because the script was only written for their male counterparts, but because men were the only ones allowed to try out for the part.  Be it culture or custom, blatant inequality or narrow-mindedness, girls and women were relegated to the sidelines for far too long.

In the United States, arguably one of the most progressive nations in the world, it took the legislative measures of Title IX in 1972 to establish the athletic framework that girls and women experience today. The ramifications of this extend well beyond the enjoyment of participating in a particular sport; they are being played out in the boardrooms as well. We have seen a direct correlation between the benefits of girls and women playing sports and success in the business world.  A recent EY/espnW report shows that 94% of senior women business executives played sports and more than half of the women in C-suite positions played at the university level.

Over the years, I have traveled to 42 different countries where I have witnessed the sport of basketball being played from the Olympic level to a grassroots orphanage in the Philippines. Through organizations like Peace Players, conflict zones are using sports as a vehicle for peace. The developing world serves witness to how sports can be an equalizing force and a much needed platform for inspiration and empowerment.

My recent trip to Ethiopia allowed me to work with over 80 young girls who exhibited an infectious energy and passion to learn.  Their daily struggles were beyond what most of us can comprehend, yet their joy for playing the game of basketball seemed to transcend them from the hardships of their reality to a place where small seeds of hope could grow.  As I shared my journey with them, I could see the paradigm of what women are capable of in the world expand right before my eyes. It was as if I validated the dreams they had dared not verbalize. Beyond any skill that I could teach them on the court, I wanted them to leave with an unwavering belief in the potential that lies within each of them.

Confidence is defined as: sureness, freedom from doubt, belief in yourself and your abilities.  Regardless of age, socio-economic status or ethnicity, the reality is that we all have insecurities.  They serve as our ever present shadows, waiting for opportune times to convince us that some misguided allegation is truth.  So many young girls today are fighting messages of unworthiness, be it their body types, intellect or passions.  Sports provide a vehicle to combat these messages by building their character and teaching discipline, perseverance, teamwork, and, yes, confidence.

The Evolution of Africa’s Basketball Transformation


Honoring the heritage of former African basketball players, celebrating the growth of the game, and teaching, equipping and inspiring the next generation.

Legends like Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, and Manute Bol overcame incredible obstacles of hunger, poverty, disease and lack of basketball infrastructure to create the first path to the NBA from the continent of Africa. That initial path was very narrow, only wide enough for their tall, lanky frames to forge through. Olajuwon was the first African player to be drafted to the NBA 31 years ago! Perhaps Dikembe was blessed with his 7’2” stature, not just to entertain us with his patented “finger wag” after blocking opponent’s shots, but rather because he was destined to be a trailblazing beacon of light for an entire continent of aspiring athletes to follow. These three foundational players took the initial question of “possibility” and turned it into a conversation about something tangible and concrete. What started with a very rugged, unmarked path has widened to a road that 63 NBA players have traveled down . . . and counting.

With a vision to grow the game, the NBA, in partnership with FIBA, started global camps called Basketball without Borders (BWB) in 2001. These camps are development and community outreach programs that unite young basketball players to promote the sport and encourage positive social change in the areas of education, health, and wellness. In the last 13 years BWB has worked with over 1,000 campers from 31 African countries, with 8 players being drafted into the NBA. The impact has transcended beyond these select few athletes, largely due to the power of partnerships and the commitment to scalability within each country by their Federations. These countries have realized that while there may be an endless pool of interest, potential and talent, there still has to be a system and infrastructure in place to cultivate and grow the game. Courts must continue to be built, coaches must be trained, and grassroots programs must be developed.

There are skeptics who challenge why basketball matters in the developing world where many problems are life-threatening, and sports could seem like a luxury. My answer is simple: it is an empowering mechanism for change. Aside from the pure health benefits and positive character developments like perseverance, teamwork and confidence, sports also provide a much-needed spark of hope. This new generation is desperately seeking a catalyst for change that resonates with them on a personal level. Kids may no longer listen to a generic message of HIV prevention because it has become redundant, but when it is incorporated through the fun and interactive activities of our partners at Hoops for Hope as life skills, it becomes more meaningful.

Speaking specifically about my ladies now, when the girls see their teams are awarded the same opportunities as the boy’s teams in the BWB Camps and with the Jr. NBA program, a flicker of confidence and self-esteem is ignited. They start to insert themselves into a world where girls historically have been dismissed. Although I have no doubt the WNBA will see an increase of African players in the years to come, the reality is that those numbers will still be relatively small. An Oppenheimer study found that 82% of women in executive-level jobs played organized sports growing up. It is my hope that because of the positive experience they have in sports, we see these young women start to aspire to be a generation of leaders on a continent where women in leadership positions are still an anomaly.

This first NBA game in Africa will go down in the history books, not because of its championship implications, but because it is an emblem of the progress that has been made and the hope of what is yet to come. There was so much emotion and excitement in the air as Team Africa took the court vs. Team World. Although all of the African players had their native flags sewn on their jerseys as a symbol of their heritage and acknowledgement of where their journey began, it was obvious that they were all united by their innate sense of responsibility and pride in representing their “motherland.” For the fans, the game was a platform of accreditation and a sign of appreciation for their passionate support of the game of basketball. It was powerful to have the past, present and future of basketball in Africa in the same arena as Dikembe and Hakeem, who made cameo appearances in the game, played alongside our current NBA players, with the young BWB campers mesmerized by the athletes’ every move.

Not only has a continent, once considered an outlier, solidified its place in the world of basketball, we have also seen that single, rugged trail the first NBA players blazed now be paved and widened to accommodate a generation of talented, young athletes! The final destination of that path is not just the NBA. It is a world where leaders are cultivated, equality is more visible, and social changes are championed!

Shining light on the Complex Conditions for Women in Saudi Arabia



Imagine a woman covered head to toe in a loose fitting black robe (Abaya) with her head covered by a hijab so the only part of her body that you can see is that by which she is looking back at you . . . her eyes.  It is against the law for her to drive.  She cannot travel by herself without the consent of a male relative.  Almost every public place of entrance is segregated with one door for women/families and one for men.   Marriages are often arranged on her behalf.   Her only knowledge of sports is that by which she sees on T.V. or on the internet because there are no opportunities for her to partake as a spectator, let alone as a competitor. This image is representative of what we know of Saudi Arabian women.

While I agree that a picture is worth a thousand words, I want to share with you some of the stories beyond that image that we so often evoke.  Stories of the girls and women that I met in my recent Sports and Women’s Empowerment Envoy with the State Department and the NBA/WNBA throughout The Kingdom.  Becky Bonner and I went from the conservative capital of Riyadh to Dammam and finished our trip in the more liberal city of Jeddah conducting clinics with elementary to college age players as well as meeting with some amazing groups of women.

The week before we left, I learned that the King recently passed a law mandating that physical education now be included in the curriculum in the public schools for girls. Similarly, a piece of legislation called Title IX changed the entire trajectory of my life as a female athlete.  I cannot help but wonder how long it will take to turn this decree into a reality.  While this is theoretically a giant step toward progress, it is still an unrealizable gain because the obstacles are far greater than what we faced in the United States.  They are not only challenged by the conservative opposition within their culture, they do not have the facilities, female P.E. teachers or enforcement infrastructure to ensure that it is carried out.

Only within the last year has the government decided to legally recognize gyms for women.  Prior to that, they were denied a license to operate and had to be call “spas” or “health centers.” Even so, only the elite can afford membership to these facilities.  In a country with the second highest obesity rate in the world for women and extremely high percentage of the population with diabetes, one could argue that not providing a culture that promotes women’s fitness starts as a fundamental global health issue, before it reaches a gender equity issue.  Women cannot swim and if they want to ride a bike or go for a jog they must brave the desert heat and do so fully clothed in an Abaya.  Gyms are costly, if available at all.  Beyond implementing the new legislation in schools, public facilities also need to be created to provide women a culturally acceptable environment to physically take care of their bodies.  This is the foundational framework that must be established first, and then sports can be built upon that.

Just like a hologram photo, that changes as one ever so slightly turns the angle by which they are looking, I saw a different side of these Saudi Arabian women than the oppressed females that are constantly being portrayed in the media.  These women are incredibly intelligent.  While their education might be segregated after a certain age, most of the girls will not only complete high school, but many will go on to partake in the largest scholarship program in the world and study abroad at various universities.  One of the most fascinating lunches we had was with a round table of women ranging from the first female lawyer to entrepreneurs, filmmaker to a coach.   The ladies we met were incredibly inspiring not only because of their intelligence, but also their determination, resourcefulness and resolve.  They recognize that the road to progress is paved with passion as well as patience and they are relentless in their pursuit to push forward.

Besides the incredible hospitality that was shown to us everywhere we went, there was another common theme at all of our clinics.  Regardless of age, we found all the players were extremely excited to absorb anything we could teach them.  It would be unrealistic for us to have an expectation of a high talent level in a society that does not openly accept, let alone promote, female sports. Our objective was to grow the game on a grassroots level, and to inspire and encourage as many girls and women as possible.  It was incredibly rewarding to not only see their enthusiasm to learn but also to see how quickly they grasped what we showed them.

These girls truly played because they love the game.  There are minimal opportunities for them to even compete against other teams.  They have no National Federation, which means they cannot compete in any of the international competitions.  Even if they did, it is sad to say that FIBA (International Basketball Association) has yet to follow FIFA’s (International Federation of Association Football) footsteps in allowing girls to wear their hijab (head covering) when they play.  Ironic that the western world is quick to criticize their culture for limiting opportunities for girls, yet we have a very narrow minded, judgmental view of what a female athlete should look like.  We cry for equality, yet we prohibit girls/women from Islamic countries from competing in their culturally appropriate attire?

Change takes a consistent, collective effort. The international community must continue to pressure for women’s rights and equality, charismatic leaders within the country must continue to courageously pursue progress, and endless work on the grassroots level must be conducted to capitalize on the fundamental opportunities as they are awarded. Now, when I picture a woman head to toe in a loose fitting Abaya, I believe she can be a symbol for intellect and resiliency.

Humbled to be named a JCI Top Outstanding Young Person of the World


Looking over the audience at the Junior Chamber International (JCI) World Congress this past weekend in Leipzig, Germany, brought back fond memories of my experiences at the 2004 Olympics. It reminded me of the opening ceremonies, where the beauty and diversity that exists in our world was highlighted by the amazing culmination of countries, cultures, ages and races.

For those not familiar with JCI, it is a non-profit of young, active citizens who are taking action to provide sustainable solutions in more than 100 countries around the world. I was incredibly humbled to be honored as one of their Top Outstanding Young Persons of the World in the category of Humanitarian and or Voluntary Leadership.

In the sports, as a society, we love to idolize the “superstar.” If you ask any coach, or purist of the game, they would tell you that the winning shot does not happen without the rest of the team members playing their role. They are the ones who create space on the court, set the screen, and deliver the ball at the right time, and these “thankless jobs” are incredibly important to the overall success of the team.

I think that concept is evident in our daily lives as well. Take the UN Foundation’s NothingButNets campaign, which I have been a spokeswoman for on behalf of NBA/WNBA Cares since it’s inception in 2006. We would not have had the opportunity to take Stephen Curry to Tanzania a few years ago to help distribute nets if organizations like JCI wasn’t mobilizing people around the world to partner with the campaign. They participate in the BUZZ Tour, advocate on Capital Hill for funding, and just this past weekend I stopped by the NBN 3×3 tournament that JCI Turkey was hosting for the World Congress. The most amazing thing is that NBN is only one of thousands of causes that JCI rally behind globally. It has been very inspiring and encouraging to witness the incredible impact that JCI members are making!

While I am humbled that people admire my achievements and those of my fellow nominees, I hope that everyone can take a moment to recognize and celebrate the uniqueness and greatness that lies within each of you. I love the quote by Gandhi: “Be the Change you want to see in the World.” Our society so often portrays this impossible image that we should strive to live up to. Gandhi truly celebrated the potential that lies within each of us.

I believe our actions should inspire others, not to be like us, but rather to look within themselves and seek out their own unique purpose in life. Each day we are given a virtual pen and paper and how we live out those 24 hours, the time that we invest, the love that we share, the encouragement and resources we provide will inevitably dictate the story of our lives.

Starting in 2012, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving has been named #GivingTuesday. Seeing an opportunity to channel the generous spirit of the holiday season to inspire action around charitable giving, 92nd Street Y and the UN Foundation came together to find ways to promote and celebrate the great human tradition of giving. So as you contemplate your purpose, seek out a charity that you are passionate about and spread a little holiday love this season!!!

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!!!





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!!