After spending a year abroad playing professionally in Finland, former Mountaineer Madina Ali has returned to Morgantown after accepting a two-year graduate assistant position with the women’s basketball program.
The environment itself may be familiar to Ali as she will be working with the same staff and some of the same student-athletes she played with during her time as an athlete at West Virginia.
But for the first time in a very long time, she will not be competitively playing the sport that has opened so many opportunities.
“I do feel like I still want to play right now and I wish I could be playing but at the same time I’m thinking ahead for the long run,” she said. “I’m thinking about building a stable career and money. I’m okay with needing to build for the future and not just now.”
Being able to continue an athletic career at the professional level is every collegiate student-athlete’s dream, so having the opportunity to live abroad while playing the sport she loved seemed like the perfect fit for Ali.
But it also provided her with some pretty challenging experiences.
For one thing, she had to adjust to the culture shock of living in a different country and being over 4,000 miles away from her hometown of Williamsport, Pa.
“It was a pretty cool experience,” she said. “But it was very different. I kind of got on people’s nerves a lot in the beginning because I was alone in my apartment. There was a men’s team also so I hung out there a lot at first to try and get used to everything. The people were really nice though, and the town was nice and small and the team has a really good support system there.”
For another thing, she had to adjust to playing for a coach who didn’t speak English well, and to playing with a team where players as young as 15 were allowed to participate as full-time team members.
“They’re junior players,” Ali explained. “In Finland, they have a bunch of different teams at all different levels but depending on talent level they can play with the professional teams. Only five of us got paid; the rest of them just played for fun. They had gear and their meals were paid for when we had away games, but other than that they weren’t getting any money.”
And some of those junior players were unbelievably talented.
“They really emphasize ball handling over there,” she detailed. “They do stuff with the ball that I didn’t even know could be done and 10 and 12-year-olds were doing it. I was actually really embarrassed because I got exposed my first day by the younger kids. They lined up on the baseline and did all of these drills and I just thought to myself that I couldn’t do it.”
Coach Carey and the rest of the West Virginia women’s basketball staff didn’t leave Ali unprepared for some of the obstacles that would be thrown her way during her time overseas, however. She still retained the vocal style of leadership and discipline that she grew into while playing as a Mountaineer, an important role as oftentimes other athletes, especially the junior players, would need a push to stay focused.
Her time at West Virginia also prepared her for practicing and working with the men’s squad, which her team did regularly, starting with the very first day of practice.
Ali also had help from Kenya Robertson, the team’s oldest and perhaps most skilled and physically fit player at 42-years-old. Robertson took Ali under her wing and helped her adjust to the European style of the game.
“She (Robertson) was my mentor and she was really good,” Ali said. “Don’t let her age fool you, she ran me up and down the court like it was no one’s business.
“I looked up to her while I was there because she knew all of the ins and outs and always tried to help me with my game and footwork.”
Outside of basketball, general life in northern Europe was also something that Ali had to adjust to.
“It’s very expensive to live there,” she said. “Being as it’s so expensive you don’t want to buy too much of anything. I spent a lot of my funds on food because the food was very different. And everyone rides bikes. If you’re not driving you’re on a bike because it costs 2,000 Euros ($2,651) to get your license. My teammates and I would call a cab for everything.”
Any time spent living in a new and unfamiliar place, whether at home in the United States or abroad, offers a tremendous opportunity to learn more about both yourself and other cultures.
As far as playing professionally in Finland, it was the skill level and overall European style of play that made the biggest impression on Ali.
“They emphasized offense on my team,” she explained. “Coming from West Virginia where coach is all about defense and then going somewhere else where they’re just about offense was very different. Here, you’re always thinking defense creates the offense, but it’s different there.
“I took a lot of skills from West Virginia, and tried to take them overseas and show them that style of play rather than take their style of play and bring it back with me.”
Ali feels comfortable knowing she made the right decision to take a break from playing professionally to come back and further her education. She will be pursuing a master’s degree in social work while working as the basketball program’s graduate assistant.
And with five years of collegiate basketball experience and one year of professional experience overseas, she knows that she can continue to fulfill a leadership role for the program.
“It’s just a comfort level,” she explained. “I know that coming back here I’m going to get my master’s degree and with being around the staff here I’m going to learn so much from all of the different areas.
“I wanted to come back to West Virginia because it’s my home,” she ended. “It’s family. I’m seeing all these different sides to Coach Carey and I still love everything about him. He’s really a father figure. Why wouldn’t you want to come back here?”
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