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Genes of a Bear, mind of a nerd – Jespersen opens new chapter for Denmark
CORK (FIBA Women’s European Championship for Small Countries) – Beginning a basketball career, most people dream of the day they will play for their national team. But what if, there is no national team for you to play in?
That was the stark reality facing recent University of South Florida graduate, Maria Jespersen. Having completed an accomplished youth career for Denmark in 2012 at the FIBA U18 Women’s European Championship, Division B, the Aarhus-native packed her bags for college, unaware that it would be another four summers before she was back in FIBA competition.
The beginning of a new era
It was not injuries, college commitments or her level of talent keeping her out of national selection. Rather, it was the fact that Denmark did not have a senior women’s team competing in FIBA events (Denmark formed a national squad in 2017, but outside of official competition). Now, however, they are back, and Jespersen is proving they belong.
"When they announced this year that we would play at Small Countries, I called all my friends, 'yeh this is happening now.' We were all excited at the idea of putting on our jersey and singing the national anthem.
"We all wanted to go. I was writing to them saying, you better be coming," enthused Jespersen, who admitted to being envious of some of her college teammates, such as Latvian standout Kitija Laksa, who got to go away and play with their national team each summer.
"We actually have a high level in Denmark and it's so amazing to actually showcase what we can do and convince people we deserve a chance in the FIBA Women's EuroBasket Qualifiers (for 2021). That is what we are playing for. My personal goal was to come to this tournament and show Denmark that it's a mistake not to have a women's team. We have a lot of talent on this team and we are showing that."
Indeed they are. Through the Group Phase, Denmark won their three games by an average margin of 77 points and in many people's books, are odds-on favorites to go on and win the tournament. Consider as well, a potential five other players missed the selection process, with injury.
"We have 12 players on the team who are really good. We all play 20 minutes, and we have a further five players back home who could have been on the team but got injured. I think our coach was a little surprised," admitted Jespersen in reference to her side's winning margins.
Jespersen is not mincing her words when she outlays her hopes for her time in Cork, making it clear there is only one clear goal, which she in turn hopes will give Denmark the foundations to retain a competitive senior team. "I have been straight up, we are here to go home with gold. I am not here to lose any games.
"Before every game, we talk about this on the team: this is the new era of Danish women's basketball. We are fortunate to be a part of it and start it from the beginning and build it up. We had the youth national team, and you just go and play without thinking about it…up until you have three years without it…it gives you so much more pride," she added, laughing at the suggestion it is like a child only wanting a toy once they cannot have it.
"I am so excited with the direction Danish basketball is going. Someone mentioned recently to me, that we only have 4,000 girls playing basketball. We have a lot of talent in those 4,000, so us getting a shot now…it's a big passion for me."
The genes of a Bear
Spending a few minutes with Jespersen, it is clear she has a sharp basketball mind, with an eye for the smaller details in the game, admitting to "getting a little nerdy" about analyzing opposition before games. This comes from her basketball pedigree, both her parents – Poul and Dorte – are former national team players, her father still involved as a board member of FIBA Europe Cup Semi-Finalists, the Bakken Bears. However, she makes it clear vehemently, that basketball was not always for her.
"The first time I went to practice, I hated it, I absolutely hated it. I couldn’t dribble the ball, the ball didn't want to go in the hoop. So, I went away and played other sports, but then one of my friends asked me back after a couple of years." That time around Jespersen stayed put. "I stuck with it because of the friendships you can build. The girls I played with back then when I was 12 years old, they are still my best friends today. That mattered for me, to take basketball this far."
Inadvertently, Jespersen's return offered a particularly poignant moment for her father. "I was 8 years old. I don’t remember it, but apparently it was my dad's birthday. He said it was the best birthday gift I could give him."
Given her dad's involvement in the Bakken Bears ("the Bears and golf are his passion"), Jespersen was closely following their historical run through the FIBA Europe Cup this past season, and believes their successes could go a long way to raising the profile of basketball in the Scandinavian country. "I have been away so I have not picked up on it that much, but you can still feel, that all of a sudden, we have the big TVs coming to the games. One game sold out in a day! That is crazy. I think it is growing."
That is something that was further confirmed on Thursday night, when a record crowd was in attendance as Denmark's men's team qualified for the Second Round of the FIBA EuroBasket 2021 Pre-Qualifiers.
Sellout crowds in record time, became the norm for the Bakken Bears this past season, a club Jespersen follows intently
From running drills, to working on drills
Despite showing an astute basketball mind that would one day lend itself to coaching, Jespersen, who in the fall begins her professional odyssey in Barcelona, playing for Sant Adria, insists that her life following playing will be away from the gym. Instead, she will be pursuing another passion: civil engineering.
"You never know what happens. I could get injured, I could lose the passion, I might not be good enough to get paid," she offers, knocking on the wooden table in front of her.
"I love playing basketball but I think I see myself with a more normal future, than being in the gym all the time. I knew before going to college I wanted to be an engineer. They were like, don't do it, don't do it. It is going to take your focus away from basketball.
"But one of my three brothers would always say, you can do anything you want if you just set your mind to it. We always teased him about it, but I thought about it a lot during college. And it’s true. If you want to get an engineering degree and play basketball, you can do it.
"If that is where your passion lies, do it. It does not matter what your gender is, I didn't even think about it. I just knew that is what I am going to do.