In Senegal, where I grew up, I guess you could say girls look up to me. After all, I’m 6-foot-3. I also won a professional basketball championship, worked my way through graduate school, and now manage a successful career while raising three kids.
Sure, I was a natural fit for basketball. But there was 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.
I was back in Senegal last year 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 uses basketball to train youth ages 13-18 in leadership, gender awareness and equality, and community participation.
Basketball changed my life. During the course of my career it opened doors, exposed me to new experiences, and taught me a lot about the world and myself.
But in any capacity–professional or not–getting involved in a sport means mastering skills, having the discipline to stay in school, keeping out of trouble, and leading a healthy lifestyle. These little things give young people the inspiration and ability to become leaders in any field. What you learn on the court can apply to any aspect of life.
Growing up in Dakar, I was fortunate to not lack the basics. However, with 20 siblings you can bet I learned to fight for my share. My mother always emphasized the importance of a good education–when I had to find a creative way to pay for schooling, those lessons in “fighting” paid off.
From the age of 13, I focused all of my strength and toughness on basketball. I practiced all the time: in the rain, and even through Ramadan, when I couldn’t get a drink of water until sunset. Luckily, some great coaches showed me that basketball was something positive that could lead to better things down the road. Mentoring is critical.
A few years later, I made Senegal’s national team. When I figured out that my game could open academic as well as professional doors, I took advantage of an athletic scholarship to go to university, where I graduated cum laude. After being drafted into the WNBA in 2003, I not only had the joy of having triplets, but also of being a part of the Detroit Shock championship team.
Basketball careers can’t last forever, so in 2008 I retired, became a coach and pursued a graduate degree in human resources. I’ve settled down now, and work with the state Health Care Authority in Oklahoma.
I know that my natural athletic gifts and supportive upbringing gave me better chances 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 the kids in the program. I told them that the odds of making it to the big leagues are tough, but that’s okay. Dedication to basketball–at any level–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.
This program can help empower girls 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, they are the real champions.