A month and a half into my first season playing basketball overseas – give or take – and I already have an abundance of stories and experiences to share.
Uprooting my life and moving to a foreign country – even one as beautiful as Italy – was a tough concept for me to grasp before i made the journey across the water Aug. 27, and it is still a little crazy to think about. Sometimes I stare out of my fifth floor apartment window and think, “do I really live in Italy?” As I watch the people walk around Piazza Santa Rita below me, I think, “heck yeah.” Then proceed to go get some pizza and gelato.
Although I have had more than enough pizza, pasta, and gelato to make a carb-lover shed tears, that isn’t quite all I have been up to over here.
My days consist mostly of working my butt off in the gym. Since arriving in Turin, Italy, my teammates and I have had two-a-days consistently, with an off day or a friendly scrimmage sprinkled in weekly. Two hours of practice in the morning, a few hours of rest in between, and another two hours of practice in the afternoon is the schedule.
Outside of those four total hours of practice a day that we have, we are free to do as we please…for now, at least. For my fellow American teammate, Kahlia Lawrence, and I, we spent the first week and a half in Turin going to “driving school” between practices. In Italy, and a lot of other European countries, most cars are manual. For Kahlia and I, the thought of driving stick shift never even crossed our minds. Between the two of us, we have probably been honked at and cursed out in Italian hundreds of times in the short time we have been here – me more than Kahlia. We have had a number of laughs over our experiences driving around Turin (I’m sure my mother will enjoy reading this part). I do, however, feel a little sense of pride and accomplishment knowing that I can drive a stick shift now if necessary. Can I consider that a survival skill?
Maybe even more difficult and hilarious for us than driving around the city has been communicating with its residents. That sometimes includes our teammates.
Our coach speaks little to no English, and most of our teammates are limited to saying “hi,” “how are you,” “see you later,” and “no worries” in English. Our trainers, physical therapists, general managers, team president, managers, and other staff members often have to use a translator app to even understand what we are asking them or saying to them. During practice, I usually have to sprint over to either one of my teammates, Valeria or Ilaria, to hear a quick translation of what my coach has said between drills and reps before he shouts, “Vai!” or “pronto!”, meaning “go!” and “ready!”.
Once we leave the gym, it is even worse. Most places we walk into, such as a clothing store or restaurant, we are greeted with Italian dialogue, to which we usually respond with a blank stare and a shrug. If we are lucky, someone in the establishment speaks some English. If not, then it becomes an epic game of charades in order for us to accomplish whatever it is we came there to do.
Strictly from a basketball standpoint, overseas life is much different from college basketball, and even what I experienced during my short time during Los Angeles Sparks training camp last spring. OK, let’s put the actual on court stuff to the side for a second and focus on the things that we usually take for granted in the U.S. Two words: laundry loop. I never thought I would miss looping all of my clothes together and tossing them down a laundry shoot until I started doing laundry every day to make sure my practice clothes and game jerseys were clean for every day and every match.
Treatment for any nagging injuries and aches and pains is not as easy as walking into the training room a few feet down the hall from the gym or locker room. For my teammates and I, in order to do any type of treatment other than a massage, we have to set an appointment with our physical therapist and drive to his office. Luckily for me, I do not get taped, so that has not been an issue. But most of my teammates know how to tape their own ankles. When it comes to ice, good luck finding it. Ice is a rarity in Italy, and in order to even get some in large amounts in order to ice our bodies, Kahlia and I usually have to walk into one of the cafes below our apartment and ask if they have any in the back that we can throw in a bag and take with us. I never realized before how truly fortunate we are to have so many resources at our fingertips in the United States that players here in Italy consider novelties.
On a more serious note, our cultural adjustment has not been all jokes and intrigue. Both Kahlia and I are African-American women, and in Turin, we stick out like a sore thumb. Not only are there not very many black people in general in Italy, but there are not many black women over six feet tall walking around in athletic clothing. Although we have been greeted with smiles and polite responses, the majority of people stare at us (literally, STARE) with looks of disgust, complete confusion, or fear as we pass on the street.
A number of people have commented on our “crispy” – meaning curly, I guess? – natural hair and often touch without asking or question how we get it to look like that. I guess this is when we would use Beyonce’s famous line, “we woke up like this.”
During a night out having dinner with our teammates in Piazza Vittorio, we saw a man in the midst of his Bachelor Party half naked and completely lathered in dark brown paint and showing off a fake male extremity. Imagine how uncomfortable Kahlia and I were to see a man walking around in black face as a joke with his buddies to celebrate his upcoming marriage. As the people around the square laughed in approval of his costume, I felt a mixture of anger, shock, and discomfort. The man and his friend made their rounds around the square and happened upon our group. They were asking people to take pictures with him, I am sure to post on social media. As he asked Kahlia and I, we answered in a harsh tone in unison, “no.” Looking back at the experience now, I guess an average Italian person would have no idea of the cultural and historical context of how that moment made both of us feel, but it was something I do not think I will ever forget.
At this point in time, we have officially kicked off the season as we played our first game this past Sunday. Not only was it our first game, but it was the “Opening Day” weekend. So every single team in our league – 12, including ours – traveled to the city of Turin to play their first games of the season. Three games were played on Saturday, and then that evening there was a gala in which all of the teams and their staffs, along with all of the other administrators and people involved with the Italian league, attended.
Although the gala consisted of an hour of staring at people speaking in Italian trying to figure out what they were saying, it was my favorite part of the weekend, because I got to see a few of my other American friends that play in the league. I spent time catching up with Dearica Hamby, Courtney Williams, Gabby Williams, Izzy Harrison, Sophie Brunner, and Bashaara Graves. This was one of those moments where you think back to those days playing AAU or playing college and realize just how far we all have come, and how women’s basketball has a truly special community that brings women together all over the world.
We started the season strong with a win – 1-0, baby! Our team is very young, and is actually the youngest team in Italy’s top league. So here I am playing professional basketball, and most of my teammates are the same age as a freshman in college would be, or even younger. Kahlia and I are the third and fourth oldest on our team. As first-year players, we are already some of the most experienced veterans that we have. To quote Drake, “I’m the rookie and the vet,” literally
I’d say it has been interesting, and I am sure it will be even more so for us as we take on teams such as Familia Schio and Venezia Reyer at the end of this month. However, my dream of playing basketball at the absolute highest level has been the same since I was 13 years old, and the only way to become the best is to play the best and beat the best, right? You have to start somewhere.
I am looking forward to making this year one to remember, both on an off the court, and sharing these memories with you all every step of the way.
Taya Reimer played at Notre Dame, and as a graduate student for Michigan State before graduating last spring. She tried out for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. This is her first year playing overseas, as it is for her teammate, former Mercer standout Kahlia Lawrence.