Bittersweet Experience of how I became a Professional Hooper
Basketball has taken me a long way. The journey has been bittersweet. 15 years ago, if a person would have told me that I was going to be where I am today; I would laugh and ask “how is it even possible?” it has been an experience that I’ve never even imagined. From being the skinny kid that loved to play different types of sports (but was not good at any), and aspiring to become a model, to becoming a professional basketball player was such a blessing in disguise. Let me share my story on how this all came apart.
At the age of 15, a freshman that attended August Martin High School in Queens, NY. I was walking in the hallway one day and ran into Joel Asher, the varsity girls’ basketball coach. His first impression was “WHOA!! You have very long arms!” I laughed and said, “yes I do”. He joked and said “can you wear long sleeve shirts, or do you have to cut fabric and sew it on?” I didn’t find it funny, but he was ecstatic. He asked if I ever played basketball? At the time, I played it for recreation, but nothing serious. Coach Asher suggested I come to one of the practices and work out with the team.
The next day I attended my first ever basketball practice. I was so nervous, the girls were very good and I was terrible. I couldn’t catch the ball, it would hit me in my face, I shot air balls and over the backboard; it was bad, I was just a long body on the court. After this experience, one would think that I would have quit and went back to being a normal super tall girl aspiring to become a model, but I didn’t quit. I said to myself; this is a sport that I can actually be good at because of the disadvantage I have on the court (6’1 with a 7’0 wing span).
With that being said, I told coach Asher “I want to learn how to play this game, and be good at it, and will do whatever it takes to do so”. he asked “are you sure? because there are a lot a sacrifices you may have to make to become the player you are telling me you want to be, for example quitting modeling for a little while, less hanging out more working out, main focus is books and basketball, you won’t have much time for friends.” I accepted the challenge, and I said “I’m ready to work”.
Coach Asher took a chance with me, being that I was a freshman and was supposed to play for the junior varsity team coached by Mark Williams (who later became my trainer, but that’s a later story). I began training early mornings before school, and practicing with the team after school. I saw progress as days went by, I was able to catch the ball, my shot was more aligned, I even started to dribble the ball more. I was excited, I felt like I was ready to play against Michael Jordan.
The first game of the season was underway, and I was nervous; my hands were sweaty and I couldn’t stop shaking. In the start of the game, the point guard passes me the ball, I catch it, shoot it, and it goes in off the back board, I was so happy! The nervous jitters started to fade, and I just had fun. I finished with 4 points and 11 rebounds. I was so happy, that I even made a basket.
As the season ended, I started to play on a summer team coached by Lakeisha Smith. Coach Smith was tough; her trainings were 3 times harder than the ones in school. She disciplined me on and off the court. It was a way harder experience with her. I still did not quit. It began to be a drug for me, just continuing to work. Now with this summer team we only played local tournaments in New York, so I wasn’t exposed to the national level. I knew in order for me to be recruited by colleges, I would have to join a AAU team. Walter Welsh, coach of the AAU powerhouse NYC Gauchos (he coached nationally ranked players such as Matee Ajavon , Iasia Hemmingway, and many more) saw me play in a local tournament. He approached me after my game and told me I was good and he wanted me to travel and play for the NY Gauchos. I started to play for the Gauchos for about 2 months, my mom did not like the idea of me travelling on the train to the Bronx as much, so I went on and played with NYC Exodus another top powerhouse AAU team coached by Apache Paschall. It felt good to be on a team with great players that were ranked nationally in the country such as Anjale Barret, Kia Vaughn, Epiphany Prince and more.
Starting at a late age, from not even knowing how to catch the basketball to playing with nationally ranked players was such an amazing experience for me; I then noticed that all my hard work was paying off; and it was only the beginning to what I wanted to become. After playing one year of AAU basketball, I began to receive multiple letters from division I colleges. Recruiting was such an amazing experience for me because I was able to visit some of the schools that I was interested in. At this moment basketball has gotten so big for me I became overwhelmed, I went from a 15-year-old girl shooting the ball over the backboard; and at this moment I am 17 years old. I have over 200 letters from different universities, I become nationally ranked, and I’m getting so much attention that I’ve never imagined I would get. It brought me to a point where modeling no longer mattered; nothing else mattered but basketball because if I can achieve that much in such a short period of time; what can I do in the next step of this journey; which is four years in college. How much harder can I work and how much more relevant can I make myself to become a great basketball player. I pretty much put myself in a position where I had the option to attend any university I wanted. So at this time, I asked myself do I want to go to a university where the women’s team is nationally ranked and I will be playing alongside some of the best players or even sitting on the bench for possibly two years because of the players that all already there playing my position. Or did I want to make an impact and start right off the bat my freshman year at a good academic university playing in one of the best conferences in the country and stamping my name in the history of the program? I’m sure I could’ve done the same at a nationally ranked University but I didn’t want to get too big headed ; I’ve only been doing this for three years. I decided to attend Syracuse University; where I played four years Division I basketball under Coach Quentin Hillsman. Throughout the four years I managed to break multiple school records and become the all-time leading scorer and rebounder.
After college I received interest from multiple agents to help me continue my career professionally. My dreams were starting to come true, after making that decision on deciding to work on my game and become a better player, I never looked back, to be at a point where agents were contacting me left and right to represent me was a blessing. I chose Lorenzo Gallotti, an agent based out of Italy, who was passionate about basketball and worked hard for his clients. My goal was to play in the WNBA after college, I believe because I experienced an injury at the end of my senior season I was not drafted, but that is my own thoughts; maybe the staff of the WNBA thought I wasn’t good enough. With that being said, I continued my professional career playing overseas. Signing my first concert overseas was one of the best feelings in the world, I made it! The excitement was over the roof, I laughed and cried in same setting. Wow.
I am currently in my seventh season overseas, and it has been a rocky road. There are pros and con that is dealt while overseas. I’ve been able to experience different cultures and travel to so many different places around the world. Traveling around the world help me to network with different people and learn about them. Playing with teammates from different countries and building friendships was also an amazing experience for me. I received multiple awards, was invited to play in all- star games, played on good historic teams, enjoyed the atmosphere, and also won championships. When you’re in a good situation it’s like easy money, because you are making a living by doing what you love. But not all situations are good and at times it makes you just want to quit.
I’ve been in situations where I was not receiving my salary on time, coaches relied on me to do way more than expected as an athlete, different injuries occurred, I dealt with selfish teammates, dealt with harder practices and less physical therapy ( coming from the University where I had access to every type of treatments, machines, therapy’s, etc. in terms of taking care my body to going overseas we’re some teams don’t have much access to certain treatments and certain therapies they rely on ice and tape and that’s just not enough to keep your body healthy) , I cried, I wanted to quit numerous of times, and the list goes on.
Many people believe that this job is easy and that everything is given to you, they believe it’s like you’re not really living in the real world; but they have no idea, this business is just as hard as any corporate business in the world. It’s cut throat, if your team wins they love you, if your team loses they find ways to get you out of your contract, or they treat you as if you’re not a human being at times. And it does not help knowing that after practices you are going home to an empty apartment, and living with the fact that your family is on the other side of the world. These are the tough situations you face alone being overseas. I’ve been through those hardships throughout my career. However, as an athlete overseas you have to put your foot down and make sure that you are doing what’s best for you in a situation when or if it becomes bad, and this something I learned later in my career. With that being said, you learn a lot playing basketball. You learn life issues, you learn how to be independent, you learn how to handle situations, you’ve manage being alone for a long period of time, you learn how to be more vocal, you’re aware of everything that’s going on around you simply because you are in a different country or even if you’re playing in the WNBA nine times out of ten you are in a different location of where you’re actually from. It has been such a blessing to play this sport, because of the many things that I learned from experience. I am grateful to continue to do what I love and thankful I’ve been able to learn how to overcome hard situations.
My advice for the younger generation that are considering playing basketball professionally in America and overseas; make sure this is what you want to do. There are many sacrifices you may have to fulfill and there will be hard situations where you may want to quit. Most of you have been playing basketball for so long that you believe that the next level will be just as sweet as the fun you had growing playing the game, it will be less fun and more business. This is your job, this is how you take care your family, this is how you eat. Therefore, you must take on the professional role do your job if not 100%, then 200% because pressure will be put on you to get the job done. Never stop working hard, continue to work on your weaknesses and get better; because every season you meet a new American and they will be working twice as hard because they want to get the next top job, so don’t get comfortable in this field. I don’t want to scare anyone but I am speaking clear facts about this job. Don’t let no one tell you that this is not a real job, because it is.
Nicole Slinky Michael