Recently, Mystics forward Emma Meesseman gave an interview to Paul Cobbaert of De Zondag, a Belgian newspaper based in Roeselare (pronounced Roo-sel-lah-ruh), West Flanders. She spoke about a number of topics which include her life in Russia vs. the USA, her favorite place, and who her NBA idol is. The article is in Dutch, but we’ve translated some excerpts below.
The competition level of Russian basketball vs. the WNBA
WNBA fans are aware that there are Eastern European superteams that pay a lot of money to the best players in the world. Meesseman is on UMMC Ekaterinburg in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Though the best WNBA players on UMMC earn more in Russia than they do in the United States, the WNBA has better competition. Meesseman explains why in her own words:
Cobbaert: What is the difference between American and Russian competition?
Meesseman: The WNBA has more media coverage and the level of play is higher. All players are among the best in the world and the teams are evenly matched. In Russia, there is a big gap between the Top Three teams, who may very well be the best in Europe [UMMC, Dynamo Moscow, and Nadezhda], and the rest. But you don’t go to the WNBA for the money. The salaries in Russia are higher. Another difference is the schedule. In America, it is very irregular, sometimes we play three or four times per week. However, in Russia the [domestic] games are in the weekend and European competitions are on Wednesdays.
It’s important to note how how things are different in Europe than America — namely, how we look at the competitive structure of our sports leagues.
In America and the WNBA, all teams remain in the same division, no matter how good or bad they are. We have drafts to pick up young talent. And we trade players from one team to another midseason. We believe that every team deserves an equal shot to be a champion — at least on the surface.
In Russia and most European countries, the top teams are in continental leagues (EuroLeague is the first tier, EuroCup the second). Winners of the leagues get spots in those competitions. The worst teams in Russia’s top league get relegated to a lower tier league. And trades don’t exist here. There are transfers when one club buys out the rights to a player. Finally, teams have youth clubs that feed into the senior team.
Ultimately, competition in domestic leagues isn’t very equal. So when UMMC plays a bottom tier Russian team, they’re going to win almost all the time. That’s the balance of play Meesseman is alluding to here.
All in all, Meesseman confirmed what most women’s basketball fans believe: the WNBA has the best overall league. The competition from top to bottom is much more even than you will find in European leagues where there is a system of promotion and relegation.
Meesseman likes Ieper more than Washington. But she likes Washington more than Yekaterinburg.
In sports, we like seeing key players say that their favorite city is where they play and adopt it as their hometown. Meesseman however, is honest that she likes Belgium more than America.
Cobbaert: Where do you prefer to live the most, in Ieper, Yekaterinburg, or Washington?
Meesseman: In Ieper, no doubt. The day I stop playing, I’m coming back. I’ve had a happy childhood. I wouldn’t want to stay in Russia. I already know how nice the culture is. There, I live in a typical big apartment. I also have a driver. Washington is also a beautiful city. It’s not so busy, nothing like New York. You can walk right through there. In Washington, I live in an a building around a park with other players. I also have a car from the team. If I’m free, I prefer to drive anywhere without a GPS. It’s very fun. I like seeing the tourist attractions along with my family.
I don’t blame Meesseman for her opinion here. She’s just honest that she likes her hometown. That said, let’s be happy that Meesseman likes D.C. more than Yekaterinburg, all things being equal. :)
Meesseman believes Belgium can make the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo
Last summer, Meesseman publicly stated that she wanted to play in the Olympics. I wrote that that is a tall order. Cobbaert asked Meesseman about her dream to play in the Olympics, as early as 2020:
Cobbaert: You said in interviews that your dream is to play in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Why?
Meesseman: Isn’t playing in the Olympics a dream for every athlete? I get that there’s a gap between that dream and reality. But 2020 is the moment for this generation [for the Belgian women’s national basketball team]. In June, Belgium will play in its first EuroBasket Women tournament in 10 years. There we have to prove ourselves the first time. If we perform well there, then we could get better draws in the 2018 FIBA World Cup and the Olympics.
Once again, we see a more assertive Meesseman drive home a point that American media hasn’t really done. She doesn’t want anyone to tell her “Hey, the French, Spanish, and Eastern Europeans run European basketball. Your dream isn’t happening.”
And to her point, Belgium won their group in preliminaries convincingly. They split a pair of games against 2016 Olympic participant Belarus and swept Poland convincingly. Belgium’s performance in the preliminaries didn’t give anyone the impression that they just sneaked into EuroBasket Women. They have more than a fair shot to make the quarterfinals in this thing.
That said, it’s still an uphill battle for Belgium to make it to the Olympics given how strong the traditional powers in Spain, France, and Eastern Europe are. Then again, Meesseman and the Mystics have a knack for making me eat crow, so who knows?
Meesseman particularly admires former Spurs great Tim Duncan
We also learn which NBA player Meesseman particularly looks up to. For her, it’s recently retired Tim Duncan. She added that, “I would like to have someone like him on my team.”
Without going too deep into comparing Meesseman to Duncan, I think he is one NBA superstar Meesseman can emulate. He was a two-time MVP, five-time NBA champion, an elite defender and had solid shooting range throughout his career. However, Duncan also stayed in great shape throughout his career. It also contributed to his longevity. Duncan was also a soft spoken player during his career. Meesseman isn’t unlike him, in particular with her soft spoken nature. I think she could be a modern day version of him when her career is all said and done.
- Meesseman was asked some questions about visiting the White House. She did so twice, including last year. However, she didn’t meet then-President Barack Obama during either of her trips. Though she isn’t a fan of President Donald Trump, Meesseman mentioned that she would not decline an invitation to meet him in the White House, presumably if the Mystics win a championship.
- When Meesseman went to Mystics training camp for the first time in 2013, she was attending the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Brussels where she was studying physical education. The Dutch language VUB should not be confused with the larger French language Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) because both universities are literally the “Free University of Brussels” in English.
- After her basketball career is over, Meesseman would like to be a physiotherapist. Her father and younger brother also are physiotherapists.
- Meesseman also admires Belgian paralympian Marieke Vervoort (pronounced Mah-ree-kuh Ver-vohrt). Vervoort won the gold medal in the 2012 London Paralympic Games in the 100m and silver medal in the 200m wheelchair races. She also suffers from a degenerative disease that will ultimately take away her sight and her movement. This column from BBC has more on Vervoort’s life story.