I thought it was about time I wrote a blog post about basketball.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and while this indeed might not immediately seem relevant to my year abroad planning endeavours, I’m aiming for basketball to continue to be as big a part of my university experience in Ottawa as it has been in Exeter. In fact, Ottawa’s impressive women’s team track record and nationally acclaimed coach was partly what attracted me to the university in the first place. Though I haven’t been playing the sport for long, it has become a hugely positive influence in my life, both physically and mentally.
I guess it makes sense to start at the beginning.
And in The Beginning there was Keith.
Or, actually, in the beginning there was a decidedly unsporty me. Basketball never even featured on my radar growing up, despite a vague awareness of who Michael Jordan was. Netball was the sport at school, and although I am very tall and from sporting stock I was also decidedly Not a Natural. Hand-eye coordination? Not my thing. So in comparison to the girls who’d been playing since the age of 6, I was a lumbering oaf who most certainly did not make the first team. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a particularly motivational PE teacher either, so I wasn’t inclined to knuckle down and learn either. Academia was more me, I decided.
Fast forward to arriving at Uni and aside from tentatively circling the taster session in the Freshers guide, and being mildly and then less mildly harassed by a friend-of-a-friend who insisted I’d be great at it, basketball again slipped into the background. It was only with the resolution (and confidence) going into second year in September 2015 that I was going to participate in a sport goddamnit (and get my hands on some stash) that it finally came to anything.
Halfway through my second Freshers Week then, I decided to make the most of all the free taster sessions being offered by sports clubs and dragged my long-suffering housemate Molly along with me to the women’s basketball trials. Needless to say it wasn’t a huge sporting success. We mucked about and tried and failed some dribbling exercises, and at the very end I think I made a couple of fluke free throws, but that was about it. ‘This seems fun’ I thought, ‘might as well give it a shot.’ Except, as we were packing up I was approached by a middle-aged guy who gave me his card and told me to think about joining the National League side, Exeter Eagles. “There’s a Latvian and an Italian player up in the gallery, there,” he said, “and both they and I think you’ve got serious potential.”
And so I met Keith.
I have never been ‘scouted’ for anything before. I went to the Clothes Show Live a few times as a teenager and I’d remember trying to walk tall, sure to wear plenty of make-up that day, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, someone would come up and present me with a modelling contract that meant my freakish height would finally be justified. It never happened. Being called aside by Keith was slightly surreal, and I remember feeling flustered but mostly seriously pleased. I rang my family and asked for their opinion on taking up training alongside my studies, and they were hugely enthusiastic. My Dad was a Major Sportsman in his youth, and despite his protests to the contrary, I’ve always felt I’ve let him down a little at having not taken part in any sport. Let alone seriously. This was my chance to try something new, meet new people, and actually have a hobby that involved exercise.
At the start, going along to the Eagles training was hugely intimidating. At that point there were no other girls from the uni, so there I was, bumbling and fumbling alongside some seriously talented teenagers and very experienced 20-something year olds. I apologised a lot those first few weeks, for messy passes and even messier catches. It was overwhelming at times, and a real battle to go against the ‘quit if you’re shit’ attitude I’d become accustomed to. Because there’s no doubt I was shit (in many ways still am). Zero sporting experience will have that effect.
But I kept on going to Monday night trainings and Saturday games, because I did, gradually, start to improve. I made my lay-ups and dropped the ball less, and began to make friends and be able to banter with the team. Most importantly though, throughout it all, I kept going because Keith’s faith in my ability and potential didn’t waver one second.
I don’t think I deserved half of the praise he gave me at the start, but the encouragement and positive reinforcement that I was improving was literally invaluable. From the motivational texts (‘Excellent start Tess. Whoever told you that you are uncoordinated is a plonker.’) to the midday phone calls, Keith has been a constant source of support and advice. I’ve said it a number of times, but if the Eagles had had any other coach I doubt that I would have ever found the sport or fallen in love with it to the extent I have. It’s tough joining a group of people who all already know each, have in-jokes and game plays they know backwards, but Keith’s enthusiasm for every scrap of progress I made kept me going. In hindsight of course, gritting my teeth through my constant-screw ups was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made at university. Hell, in life in general.
Because although we are a somewhat mismatched team and training isn’t anywhere near as regular as we’d like, the Eagles are a really great team. We travelled all around the South West playing in the Women’s National League, and the roadtrips to and from were half the fun; filled with dodgy 70s playlists and post-game analysis and generally getting to know each other. Keith always apologised for not giving me game time, but to be honest at the start I was perfectly happy as a spectator. Basketball is an incredible game to watch, and when you learn to play it it reveals so much more to watch for; the plays and the screens and the defensive tactics and neat little reverse layups. Sometimes on the bench when Keith drew plays on the whiteboard out it felt more like we’re playing a violent and exhausting form of chess than an actual sport. So much thought and time goes into the various ball movements and game plays, and it’s as satisfying as hell when the movements you memorise in practice are employed effectively in a game. The match I scored my first point, I was on cloud nine for at least a week. The final match I played for the season, I did a real number and sprained my ankle, but the 4 points I’d made in the 2 minutes previously made the cankle worthwhile.
Most of the time I didn’t even really mind if we won or lost (we had our fair share of both those outcomes), because by the end I was just so grateful to be part of a team bigger and better than myself, having meet new people from across Europe and becoming fitter than I’ve been in a long time. Training became a highlight of my week, even through the deadlines and end-of-term exhaustion, and it was one of the things I was most upset to leave behind in Exeter, and one of the things I’ll be most excited to return to for my final year. (Especially as we’ve been promoted to Division 1! #GoEagles!)
Alongside playing with the National League, it also only made sense that I joined Exeter University Women’s team as well, which I did after Christmas (the featured photo on this post is the first team’s official photo). The team was a different dynamic for sure, and we suffered significantly from not having a coach (it’s a long and incredibly frustrating story) but it was also another chance in the week to play the sport I was rapidly falling in love with and an opportunity to meet new people again. I wish I had started playing with the uni girls sooner, but in itself it has a great experience, and I’m looking forward to joining again in fourth year, especially as Keith is the newly assigned coach.
But to the present day. I’m writing all this because I’d like to keep up basketball in Canada, so it’s inevitably (hopefully) going to be a big part of my year abroad. Keith was thrilled when I said I’d be studying in North America, and the day I got my confirmation for Ottawa he was emailing the coach directly and introducing me in an incredibly flattering light as a player the team might be interested in. Needless to say, Coach Sparks of the women’s team emailed me asking to chat, and after a surreal 10 minute phone call, it was pretty much confirmed I’ll begin training with the team when I arrive in Canada. I’ve been put on the mailing list and everything. It’s half-fantastic and half-terrifying because a quick Google of Canada’s collegiate basketball rankings has revealed that Ottawa’s current team are very, very good. Like, national semi-final good. So here’s hoping that my current summer plan of playing twice-weekly skirmishes with Leicester’s WBBL side means I don’t let myself down completely when I get there and they actually see me play.
Joining a sports team while on a year abroad has a number of advantages. It’s an instant group of like-minded people and potential friends, an excuse and environment to do regular exercise, a chance to really get a flavour of university sports pride (a big thing in North America I am learning), and, of course, a way to keep playing the sport you love. Because not only is basketball pretty much universal, Canada, not the US, is also the country that gave us the sport in the first place. Fun fact for you.
So there we have it; a sport in which I’ve still got an awful lot to learn, but one I really can’t imagine life without at this point, and one I certainly won’t be neglecting while abroad. (And one I can apparently write 1,700 words on in one post without breaking a sweat? I’m sorry this got a tad out of a hand.)