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11 Valeriane Ayayi (FRA)
24/05/2019
Long Read
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Ayayi: A special connection, the Prague mirror and French horses running free

PARIS (France) - Anyone casually glancing at Valeriane Ayayi stretched leisurely on the sofa in the hotel reception would probably never appreciate the twinkle in her eye and passion in her voice as she talks about family, basketball and inevitably, a combination of both.

A SPECIAL CONNECTION

The best way to put the winger at ease and to guarantee getting a smile from cheek to cheek, is to open the conversation by talking about her younger brother, Joel. The pair are inseparable. Perhaps not so much in the literal sense now that they are both on opposite sides of the Atlantic, but it’s clear that the siblings have an unbreakable bond, which has been welded even more closely together by the fact they are both athletes in the same sport.

 
“We are super, super close,” reveals Ayayi of her brother, who has played for the French national youth teams and is now in the NCAA at Gonzaga.

“We actually have twins in our family, but it is like me and Joel are also twins. With him, I just feel I have something else – something extra. We are always finishing each other’s sentences and thinking the same way.

“I can only explain it by saying that we have this connection and maybe it is because I love him of course as my brother, but I am also a fan of his and even more after he decided to escape from France and see something else.

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“He is not playing as much as he would like yet, but he is still following his dream and I am super proud of him.

“It was a similar story with me – people sometimes people not believing and focusing on other stars and saying how there are other players out there to watch, so I know about this journey,” underlined Ayayi with a nod of the head for extra emphasis.

THE PRAGUE MIRROR

Last summer, Ayayi was on the move as she swapped France for the Czech Republic – to the surprise of many. It was a move that seemed to come out of left field and yet it might just prove to be the making of her. Ironically, she departed Bourges and her homeland with plaudits ringing in her ears and having posted what at the time, was arguably her best ever season. It was therefore a major surprise to many that she headed for the Czech capital to link up with ZVVZ USK Praha.

 
Fast forward 12 months and Ayayi can reflect on making EuroLeague Women Final Four and also posting another red-hot campaign, which at the European club level at least, probably eclipsed her performances at Le Prado. It has also left her feeling vindicated.

She explained: “My experiences in Bourges were crazy good. I loved so much the girls that I played with and also the coach. They are my best friends and we kept winning and it was very hard to leave.

 
“I had wanted to stay in Bourges and I had a 1 plus 1 contract, but then when Praha made an offer and Coach Hejkova came and told me she was going to give me a lot of responsibility, and told me about how the club won EuroLeague Women only four years ago and what the ambitions were, I couldn’t say no.

“I thought I needed to move away from France and to try and find my own way. I’m happy because I think I have been managing to play pretty good and it has proven a good choice for me.”

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The situation that Ayayi has found herself in means she has been able to hold a mirror up to herself. She is brutally honest about her own shortcomings at times, but is at pains to explain how veteran play-caller Natalia Hejkova has really gotten to the core of what makes her tick.

“I really can’t say enough about Coach Hejkova, because she has given me absolutely everything,” mused Ayayi.

“She knows what motivates me and has given me freedom, but also responsibility and that is important. I am super competitive and like to be able to play my own game, but also I understand the needs of the team and have to know when to always do the thing that is needed to win.

“Even in my normal life away from basketball, I admit that I don’t like to be in a small space where there are controls on me and it can be hard for people to understand this and I think in terms of basketball at least.

“Coach Hejkova realizes that I can be trusted and the controls that are needed can actually come from within myself. I know when things are beginning to get out of control, whether it is my attitude or my mood starts to move towards fighting.

She added: “I am honest. Sometimes it can be crazy and I will look at myself and think ‘why did you do that?’ But hopefully I express myself positively almost all of the time and that is the most important thing.”

TIME FOR FRENCH HORSES TO RUN FREE?

Next on the agenda for Ayayi is the not so small matter of the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2019 Final Round with France and trying to turn silver into gold. France have made the last three Finals, but have ended up as runners-up each time. Surely this is a team that needs to be converting silver into gold?

Ask Ayayi about what would deliver a first title for France in a decade and she takes an incredibly deep and sharp intake of breath.

You can sense a reluctance to explain, but she does it anyway. Not least because she knows that ultimately, it is not a criticism at all, it is the desire for her country to seize the initiative and realize their unlimited potential.

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She stresses: “I think that the game we are playing with France is pretty good. We are playing with tactics and we are mostly finding the shots that we want most of the time. We are defending and acting within the rules that we have on the court.

“But yes, I think that sometimes we have to realize that the national team is not what we had before. When I see Marine Johannes now, I realize I did not see Marine Johannes before. This is a new generation that likes to defend hard, to take the steal or the rebound and to run the court as fast as it can and make the first open shot. We have the athleticism and we can also get the offensive rebounds we need.”

Meanwhile, even if Ayayi has not always been a first choice of head coach Valerie Garnier, she defends her national team coach very strongly.

“Personally I would like to play more of this type of game and I think it is important to say that I don’t think the Coach is trying to avoid playing this way,” she insisted.

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“She would like us to play faster and she is also asking us to play faster. I think that we have the mentality that the national team needs to have maximum control and we can’t have more freedom. I think maybe it will be a process over time and people will see that the coaches and players are pushing more and more, to go this new way on the court.

“I think we just need to play our game with the players that we have. We have crazy-talented players in our national team. We don’t use that talent as much as we could. We are super athletic and we don’t use that so much. We should just play faster. I have been playing this way with Praha and I love it,” concluded Ayayi.

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