SEATTLE—Once the invitation was extended, there was no way Noelle Quinn was going to say no.
Some time ago, her friend Monica Rogers, who leads NBA Elite Basketball women’s operations, approached the Storm coach about travelling to Senegal for the NBA Academy’s women’s camp — to teach basketball and leadership skills to 25 of the top female high-school age prospects from 11 African countries.
“It was a no-brainer for me to come and impart the knowledge that I have to the younger girls,” said Quinn, who was also an assistant coach with the Canadian women’s team at the last World Cup. “I honestly didn’t know about the opportunity to actually work at the NBA Academy, specifically with the girls. But going to Africa was always on my bucket list and a dream of mine.”
The four-day camp in December also included a WNBA contingent featuring Dallas Wings all-star guard Arike Ogunbowale and Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas, as well as former players Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Astou Ndiaye and Hamchétou Maïga-Ba.
“The state of basketball in Africa is amazing,” Quinn said in a phone interview from Saly, Senegal. “We have to continue to bridge the gap and connect and pour resources into the young girls. Continue to hold clinics and teach them not only about basketball, but about life lessons, leadership, confidence, teamwork and all those things that basketball teaches you.
“I hope to continue to be a part of this. I’m very touched by my experience.”
Since 2001, the NBA has expanded its footprint through Basketball Without Borders, whose alumni include stars Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
In 2018, the NBA Academy’s women’s program started hosting camps in Mexico, Australia and Senegal while sending 36 participants to NCAA Division I schools in the U.S.
“To have a WNBA presence is important,” Quinn said about global programs. “You ask a lot of these young athletes what their dream is, and most of them say they want to play in the WNBA. (This) makes it tangible for them.”
Prospects from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia took part in the latest African camp alongside Ndiaye, a Senegal native who won the 2003 WNBA title with the Detroit Shock, and Maïga-Ba, who was born in Mali and was a WNBA champion in 2005 with the Sacramento Monarchs.
“It’s not only a dream,” Quinn said. “It’s not only seeing us on TV, but seeing us in person and knowing that it is possible to be a head coach, be a player, manage a team and work in the league office. I think that’s very important.”
A typical day at camp began at 8:30 a.m. with warm-ups, followed by Quinn directing full-court drills. Campers spent hours working in smaller groups while receiving training from the former WNBA players before dividing into teams for games in the afternoon.
To be sure, making the WNBA is one of the most difficult challenges in professional sports with just 12 teams and 144 roster spots.
“The pipeline can become going to prep school, high school, Division I universities and eventually overseas professionally or the WNBA,” said Quinn, adding 11 African camp participants went on to attend or commit to NCAA schools.
“I think they’re showing me just how far basketball brings you, but also what passion looks like and what love and dedication and dreaming looks like.”
In a 13-year playing career, Quinn played professionally in Russia, Lithuania, Israel, France, South Korea, Turkey, Poland, Italy and the Czech Republic. She also became a naturalized Bulgarian citizen in 2007 and played for the national team there. This past year, she was also an assistant coach with the Canadian team that finished fourth at the Women’s World Cup in Sydney, Australia.
Quinn knew her first trip to Africa would have a profound impact on her in unexpected ways.
“For me in a deeper way, coming to Africa and being an African American, it is important to know our history and know where we’re from,” said the 37-year-old Quinn, who grew up in Los Angeles and starred at UCLA. “That part of our life isn’t necessarily known. When I touched down to Senegal, I felt an immediate connection.”
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