Life in Transition

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Amanda Zahui B, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

The only thing I knew about basketball was Michael Jordan.

I didn’t know the game. I didn’t own a basketball. Forget basketball shoes.

That all changed when I was 10.

My family stayed in Stockholm. My father was from the Ivory Coast in West Africa, and my mother was from Sweden. They met in a club, fell in love, got married and started a family. We’d lived in the same area since I was three. We were an active family — my little brother played soccer, and I tried it, too. I also tried tennis. But I refused to play basketball.

I took a couple of years off from sports. One day, my parents were like, “Amanda, just try to do something.” I was tall for my age. Really tall. My mom worked at a school with a basketball team. She asked them, “Do you have a spot for a girl who’s 10, and 5’11-ish?”

“Oh my god, yes! Bring her here!”

I remember that first practice. It was raining. My dad drove me to the gym. I didn’t own shoes or a ball. We got out of the car to walk in, when my dad walked around to the trunk. He pulled out a leather basketball, and some red and black AND 1 shoes. I’ll never forget those shoes; they were super heavy. Imagine running around with cement blocks on your feet. But they were mine.

I’ll never forget those shoes; they were super heavy. Imagine running around with cement blocks on your feet.

I walked into the gym. Everyone was so much shorter than me — and they were my age, maybe even a year older. My god, this is so awkward, I thought.

They started with layups. I couldn’t even do those. The most basic of fundamentals — passing, shooting, dribbling … nope.

I don’t know how I survived that practice. I guess it’s good that I was tall because I was awful. But I was in love with the game.

After that day, I practiced every single chance that I could. Layups. Jump shots. Bounce passes. Defensive stance. Footwork. I wanted to be good at everything. Slowly but very steadily, I was. Or at least good enough to start attracting some attention. When I was 13, I got asked to play for the national team. Even more people started to talk about me and my game. It was surreal. I couldn’t even do a layup three years prior and here I was — good.

I wanted to be great. I wanted to be the best in Europe. I hadn’t even thought about being the best in America, or playing in the WNBA. I didn’t even really know anything about it. Or even college basketball. But they knew about me. I started to get recruited. One person who was really influential during that whole process was Daniel Prince. He practically introduced me to college basketball. Because of him, I decided to visit a handful of American colleges. If I was going to travel that far away from my family and my home, wherever I ended up, it needed to feel like just that: home.

Amanda Zahui, Andreona Keys

Just like I fell in love with the game of basketball, I fell in love with Minnesota. The university, the faculty, the coaching staff, the team — I felt like I was a part of the family right away. Do you know how rare that is? Especially for someone moving around the world to a place with a completely different culture and language.

American culture is so different from European culture, and I didn’t really know much about it. That twisted me a little.

I’m mixed-race; we had a lot of different cultures in our home. Because of that, my brother and I understood diversity and respected differences in people. I looked like a lot of African-Americans in Minnesota. People didn’t even notice I wasn’t from there until I spoke and they heard a small accent. Still, there were some adjustments. American culture is so different from European culture, and I didn’t really know much about it. That twisted me a little. My freshman year was also my redshirt year. I’m not a person who’s used to sitting on the bench. I hate it. On the court is where all of my passion really comes out. I’m a very reserved person otherwise. Take away the game and you take away some of my expression. I lost myself a little bit.

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As terrible as it was for me to sit on the bench, I learned a lot in practice. I had to transition to the American game. The most shocking difference between the American style of play and the European style was the physicality and speed of the American game. I wanted to play like that back home but couldn’t — I was too big or too strong or too aggressive. That was to my disadvantage; I’d follow my instincts and get called for a foul. When I went to Minnesota, and girls started playing me as hard as I wanted to play them, I had to adjust my game. I got hit so many times in American games. I’d stop and be like, “That’s supposed to be a foul!” — that’s what I had been taught. But they weren’t fouling me; they were using their bodies to their advantage. I learned that I could actually push back in the right way.

My body changed a lot when I moved. I came in as a really big girl. I thought I looked good. But I started changing the way I trained — I’d never had a strength and conditioning coach who laid everything out for me. The American game is so fast-paced. Running up and down the court at that speed every practice, every game was tough. But I lost weight and built muscle. I still thought I looked good — now I just performed better.

Liberty Minnesota Basketball

I also started watching the WNBA. In Sweden, I was a Euroleague person. But suddenly, I had a path to play professional basketball in America. I watched every WNBA game possible. I quickly grew to know all of the players; I’d literally sit and scout. My friends would be like, “Amanda, this is ridiculous. You’ve been watching four games back to back.” I was like, “You don’t understand, this is crazy. Imma be there one day.” I looked up to Erika de Souza from Brazil, who plays for the Atlanta Dream, and Janel McCarville from the Minnesota Lynx. Janel’s name is huge in Minnesota. I couldn’t believe it when people would talk about us in the same sentence. We have similar body types and play with the same physicality. I look to both of them — the way Erika moves and uses her body, and Janel’s defensive play.

I learned so much through all my transitions at Minnesota — the game, my body, the culture. But above all, I learned how mentally strong I could be. Don’t get me wrong — I knew that I was a strong person. My parents raised me like that. Nothing can break you but yourself, they would say. But when you’re in the middle of the season and you’re exhausted and you’re in a new country, it’s hard. And after games, when all of your teammates are going home to see their families and you can’t, it’s hard. I’d be like, OK, I’m just going to go home and sit in my room. I didn’t have my family. I just can’t go see my mom whenever I want to.

Twelve years ago, my mom called a school, asking if they would allow a tall, 10-year-old girl with no basketball experience, no ball and no shoes to play.

Let me tell you about my mom. My mom had a really difficult background and childhood. She’s been open about it with me and my brother. I see how strong she is. She didn’t have anything and then all of a sudden, she has this amazing family and kids who are successful. She works hard. She’s very humble. She doesn’t take anything for granted. She’s also kinda goofy. I see a lot of those things in myself.

I went almost a year without seeing her during my final season at Minnesota. I declared myself for the WNBA, and she was going to meet me in Connecticut for the draft. She was supposed to land about nine hours before me but her flight got delayed. I didn’t know that. I landed and went to meet my driver. I was waiting on Jewell Loyd, my friend and Notre Dame guard who was also a part of my draft class. I texted her like, Where are you? Your flight has landed. Let’s go. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I want to go see my mom. I look up, expecting to see Jewell, and I see my mom, waving. I’m thinking, This is not real life. I lost control. I couldn’t stop hugging her. I remember saying, “Don’t let me go.”

Twelve years ago, my mom called a school, asking if they would allow a tall, 10-year-old girl with no basketball experience, no ball and no shoes to play. And earlier this month, my mom was there to see me drafted No. 2 overall in the WNBA to the Tulsa Shock — the biggest day of my life. Sometimes dreams you didn’t even know you could dream come true.

Amanda Zahui B., Laurel J. Richie

I stayed up in her room talking every night until the jet lag put her to sleep.

It’s been two weeks since the draft and here I am, facing another series of transitions. I’m moving to Oklahoma, and jumping from the collegiate level to professional. I don’t know when I’ll see my family again. But I still want to be the best. Not just the best in the WNBA. Not just the best in Europe.

I want to be the best in the entire world.

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