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Meesseman: Fun fuels success, a WNBA sacrifice and lessons from Taurasi
BRUSSELS (Belgium) – It doesn’t matter if you are a coach, a teammate or a general fan of women’s hoops, if you draw up a wish-list of attributes for your dream player, you would find that Emma Meesseman ticks the boxes.
From her skills, outlook and ethos, to her personality and dedication, it’s little wonder the Belgian standout has made positive waves on both sides of the Atlantic and is now a bonafide global big-hitter within the women’s game.
HAVING FUN FUELS THE SUCCESS
Meesseman and her fellow Belgian Cats are heading to the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2019 with a deafening level of praise still ringing in their ears. The plaudits are fully deserved, having made history two years ago in Prague with a first ever podium finish as they took bronze in the Czech capital – booking a maiden appearance at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in the process.
Yes, they may be one of the ‘Low Countries’ geographically, but after taking their first global outing by storm by making the Semi-Finals in Tenerife and only just missing out on another bronze, they are soaring to dizzy new heights – not only because of their accomplishments, but in how they are achieving them.
Such was the buzz around their stylish and entertaining outings on Spanish soil last year, it led to one prominent women’s basketball observer to herald their demolition of neighbors France as ‘The Day Belgium Saved Women’s Basketball’.
To be able to consistently put on one of the biggest and best shows in basketball town, the chemistry must be crystal clear and those taking part must scream fun, fun, fun – a fact that Meesseman was quick to highlight.
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She stated: “It makes me proud to be able to wear that jersey and especially the way that we do it now. Because we show what a real team is and we have a lot of different kind of players who really get along well.
“Every year we see a huge evolution and that just makes me curious about where we're going to end. I hope it is never going to end. It's up to us to keep working and the fact that I can be part of the team at this moment is just amazing.
“It is so much fun. We don't see it as our job. We want to practice and want to be together on the court, because some beautiful things are happening that don't always happen a lot.
“We're careful about the show (part) but it just happens because we know each other so well,” continued Meesseman.
“We know where someone is going to be on the spot and we just have some players who are a little bit crazy in the head too - but that's good.
“As much as other people laugh at our highlights - we do too. I am telling you, we are a fun team and the more fun it is, the more fluent it is and the better the result is.”
A LONG TIME IN THE MAKING
For those who point out that Belgium have burst onto the scene from stage-left and suddenly barged their way into the spotlight, it is worth noting that this has been a long time in the making. A very long time.
It’s now around a decade since Meesseman and several of this generation started collecting medals at youth level and appreciating that a dazzling transformation of the senior team could be a possibility.
“Most of us already knew we could do something a few years ago. For me, is started at U18 when we had the gold,” recalled Meesseman.
“It just happened like that and now everything has to come together at a good moment. That's what it did (at the last Final Round) - it just clicked, everybody got to their level and we realized that if we take our responsibilities we can do something and really enjoy it.
“As players, it didn't come as a surprise - it's just nobody else was paying attention to it. Now we are just going to keep working like we always did.”
So having thought about feeding from the top table of the women’s game for so long, which of the two recently celebrated feasts have been the most enjoyable for Meesseman?
“Those were different moments and both where when we were the underdog,” she reflected.
“We knew that step by step, we were looking at the team we were playing against and thinking that if we played our game, we could win.
“It was like that every time. There was no team where we thought we were going to lose. Even against Team USA (last year), we knew we could make it hard for them and that's what we did.”
NO CHANGE IN MENTALITY – EVEN WITH OLYMPIC AMBITIONS
Infamously drawn in the so-called ‘Group of Death’ along with Russia, Serbia and Belarus for this next mission, the destination may be different, but Meesseman is adamant the approach is not going to be radically different for this tournament.
Indeed even if it is a gateway to Tokyo 2020, where a first Olympics outing would nicely complete a tournament hat-trick for the Cats, taking their eye off the ball or getting caught up in the hype and excitement is the last thing they want to do.
“I can't say I was too happy about it [the draw], but it's a challenge and it will make it more beautiful if we make it,” commented Meesseman.
“Also if we don't make it, we're going to learn from it. It's up to us I think.
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“There are some beautiful teams in our group and I think everybody has already started for it mentally, but we are not going to change anything in our preparation. I know that our players this year have had a great evolution. The team will not quite be the same as last year, but that can only be good.
“To get through the first round is the goal. Our motto is always step by step - so game by game. We can't think about anything else. We can't think about the Olympics as only one thing has to go wrong.
“We are just a realistic team that just does not want to skip any steps,” she insisted.
SACRIFICING THE WNBA
While Meesseman has been stacking up EuroLeague Women titles with UMMC Ekaterinburg, indeed also taking the Final Four MVP title during 2018, she had to push the pause button last year on her WNBA career with the Washington Mystics, in favor of her beloved Cats.
From the outside looking in, skipping the WNBA last year, and in particular, considering the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup wasn’t until late September, looked a big call to have to make. But, in Meesseman’s mind, it was clearly far less complicated.
“Going to the FIBA Women's EuroBasket and the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup was on my bucket list to do,” she emphasized.
“If I was not to do it, it would have not been smart.
“I want to experience as much as possible in my career, so I was willing to sacrifice that. It was a good decision. I have been 100% behind that decision and would do the same again.”
LEARNING FROM TAURASI
As she continues on her seemingly unstoppable journey to the top of the basketball tree, Meesseman is not only racking up team silverware, but also individual gongs. She was on the All-Star Five in Prague and Tenerife – underlining just how much of a colossus she actually is for her country.
Continuing to evolve into a legend in her homeland way ahead of time, it’s interesting to hear the Belgian ace to announce the best teammate she has played with.
“I would say Diana Taurasi, because she has this mindset of a real winner,” declared Meesseman.
“You just have to go with it. Her energy comes to you. I learned a lot from that mindset and tried to bring it to the Belgian team - but in my own way.
“I think I got a lot from her.”
Not that Meesseman is necessarily cut from the same basketball cloth as Taurasi of course, making sure to add her own flourish and expand on her assertion of doing it ‘in my own way’.
She added: “It is about the result, but winning also means playing beautiful basketball. Good basketball. Simple basketball.
“Having that good feeling afterwards, that you did everything you could. That you brought the best to the team and for yourself. When that happens, I am really happy. Even if you don't win, I can know that we played good.
“You can lose of course, but you can also learn from losing - so it is not always a bad thing.”
Only at this Final Round, with those additional Olympic dreams in the balance, a learning experience would provide only the very smallest crumb of comfort.
It’s why neutral supporters and not only fans of the Cats, are probably hoping Meesseman and Co can serve up more delicious basketball treats - just like they did in Prague and Tenerife.