In Senegal, where I grew up, I guess you could say girls look up to me. After all, I’m six foot three (190 cm) tall. I also won a professional basketball championship in the United States, worked my way through graduate school, and am now a successful working mother.
Sure, I was a natural fit for the sport of basketball. But there was a lot more to it than just the rebounds and my jump shot. The skills I learned playing the sport have led to my success off the court as much as on it.
Recently I was back in Senegal to share this idea with hundreds of my compatriots at the launch of a new partnership that brings together the development expertise of USAID and the global cachet of the National Basketball Association.
The project, called Live, Learn, and Play, provides opportunities few of us had when I was growing up. As an alumna of the WNBA, the women’s counterpart to the NBA, I was happy to support this new project, which trains young people between the ages 13-18 in leadership, gender awareness and equality, and community participation through basketball.
Basketball opened a huge door for me. After touring the world with Senegal’s national team and later winning a championship with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, I became a coach as I completed graduate school, before eventually becoming a hospital administrator in Oklahoma.
Not everyone who loves basketball is going to have the good fortune to become a professional. But the skills that it takes to reach for the top in sports, the discipline to stay in school, out of trouble, and lead a healthy lifestyle, can inspire thousands of young people to leadership in any field.
I firmly believe sports have a tremendous value in building character and values in young people. What you learn on the court can apply to any aspect of life. I still live it every day, as I continue life’s journey through sports, having kids (triplets!), coaching, finishing school, and settling into a career. Sometimes you need something to reach back to. To me, that’s sports.
Growing up in Dakar, I didn’t lack for the basics despite growing up in a very large household. Believe me, with 20 brothers and sisters, there wasn’t a whole lot to go around; I always had to fight for my share. But my mother always emphasized the importance of a good education and I wanted one, but I had to find a creative way to pay for it.
This led me to basketball. From the age of 13, I practiced all the time, in the rain, and even through Ramadan, when I couldn’t get a drink of water till sunset. Luckily, some great coaches showed me that excelling in basketball was something positive that could lead me to better things down the road. Mentoring is critical.
A few years later, I made Senegal’s national team and began to meet people from different places. It wasn’t too long before I figured out my game could open academic as well as professional doors, and I was soon enrolled at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma on an athletic scholarship.
After four years of studies and sports, I graduated cum laude, and was drafted into the WNBA, where I was part of a championship team with the Detroit Shock in 2003, the same year I had the triplets. After several more years and a few new teams, I knew basketball wasn’t going to last forever. In 2008, I retired from the sport to become a coach while pursuing a graduate degree in Human Resources. I eventually settled back in Oklahoma to work with the state Health Care Authority.
I know that my natural athletic gifts and supportive upbringing gave me a greater chance of success than many girls in Senegal. Still, I am convinced the principles I learned on the court led me to where I am today. If you understand early that hard work will pay off, everything else “comes around at the boards,” as they say in basketball. That means stay healthy, pay your dues, and know nothing will be handed to you.
Back in Dakar for the Live, Learn and Play launch, I had a chance to speak to a lot of the kids in the program. I told them that only a few of you at most will ever rise to the big leagues. For the rest, dedication to basketball teaches the toughness and resilience you need to find a pathway to a bright and successful future.
What’s great about Live, Learn and Play is the development of a network of skilled coaches, mentors and role models who will help thousands of kids become solid, productive citizens and active community members, whether they continue with sports or not.
All this contributes to strengthening women in Africa, an issue close to my heart. Senegal is among the more forward-thinking countries in West Africa, but women there still face significant hurdles because of their gender.
Wherever I go, I encourage women and girls to push themselves to the forefront in whatever they do. Get out there and own it. Because when women get that, their country scores big.
JSI implements the Live Learn Play project in Senegal. In addition to building the basketball—and life—skills of youth through coach training and a peer mentoring network and coach-to-youth mentoring, the program is also building the institutional capacity of local partners in management, administration, leadership, advocacy, and resource mobilization to improve their sustainability.