Natural born winner Mavunga taking EuroLeague Women by storm
MONTPELLIER (France) - You would be stretched to find any player who's hit the heights in EuroCup and EuroLeague Women quite like Zimbabwe-born Steph Mavunga during these past two seasons.
Her displays with Enisey Krasnoyarsk were sensational and she has continued her exploits into EuroLeague Women with BLMA. Yet behind the big numbers, the Indiana Fever forward is a searing self-critic and arguably yet to get the credit her production deserves.
Nicknamed 'Princess', Mavunga is also not the only athlete in her family and so we caught up for an in-depth Q and A to find out more.
Something really clicked at Enisey and you seem to have carried on in BLMA in the same way?
I'm doing some good things, but being a huge self-critic and holding myself to a very high standard, I see all the mistakes in the process. I played better in EuroCup Women and I'm a bit disappointed in my current performance. I haven't been myself and I'm making things difficult in games and moving so quickly, I'm making costly mistakes.
"AS OF LATE, I'VE BEEN LOSING IT AND HOLD MYSELF FULLY ACCOUNTABLE." - Mavunga
It's time to slow my game down. It's fast paced and against high-caliber talent, but I must not rush. I'm working on trusting the process and letting the game come back to me. My hope is to pick it up down the stretch as I want my team to be able to count on me. My reasons for coming to BLMA were to grow and be out of my comfort zone.
As of late, I've been losing it and hold myself fully accountable. I must not stick to the game I've been playing and turn it up a notch! My biggest goal is to never get complacent. It's not just about the most points or rebounds and with some terrible shots I've taken lately, it's probably hard to believe that from the outside looking in. I'm big on efficiency in all aspects. My percentages haven't been as high and neither have my rebounds. I'm continuing to play back the mistakes in my head as I'm a much better player than I've been showing.
One thing that shouldn't change is being smart on court, taking the right shots, finding teammates in the right situations, having enthusiasm, crashing the glass, being consistent, getting over any frustrating calls and not letting an individual or the game flow get under my skin. Thankfully I've people in my corner always there for me and I'm allowed to vent and they combat what I say with positive things. It's important, since being a competitor, you can be so hard on yourself, you fail to see how well you may be playing.
Coming back to last season, Siberia is not somewhere you might have expected to have started your pro-career overseas, is it?
I remember telling my agent I wanted to challenge myself. I heard what he had to say about each team and their respective countries. The next day, I told him I'm going to Russia, so send me the Enisey contract. I didn't want to be comfortable as I wanted to grow, to be free and to play. Maybe to also be isolated and see who I was. Some days were harder than others and I had the power of prayer, while the fans there were lovely and I still speak with some of them via social media.
One of the most important things was going somewhere where I could succeed, help the team win and grow. Plus, I wanted to play EuroCup Women, with the goal of EuroLeague Women. Overall, it was a good experience and although everything wasn't perfect, I grew as a player and a person. I didn't fold in a tough situation at times.
How much does having your roots in Zimbabwe resonate with you, both as a person and basketball player?
I love where I'm from. I'm 100 percent Zimbabwean by birth and my parents sacrificed so much for us to go to the USA. We never left home and forgot about our roots. I grew up learning my native tongue (Shona) and it was spoken around the house. I grew up in America around many Zimbabweans. I have never been back since leaving as it's always tough with the timing as I play basketball all year round. My older brother and I mention it often because he's also playing basketball in a foreign country.
"I LOVE WHERE I'M FROM. I'M 100 PERCENT ZIMBABWEAN BY BIRTH" - Mavunga
I love it when people from 'Zim' reach out to me telling me how happy they are to see someone from the same place they're from chasing their dreams and doing well. I love the support I'm shown from my fellow Zimbabweans - simply because of where we come from. It's a blessing. I'm American too, but I was born in 'Zim' and I’ll never forget it.
You've just mentioned not being the only basketball player in your family?
I have six siblings in total, but five now that my older brother Tatenda has passed away. I grew up in America with Jordach, my younger brother, and also Julian, an older brother. It's a unique situation and I once had an article written about us titled 'Bonded by blood and basketball' - though it's even deeper than that.
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Basketball gives us something to bring us even closer. I love their respective games and take from both. My older brother's game is insane and he's a 6ft 8in (2.03 m) position-less player who led Japan's league in assists last season. I remember looking at his stats earlier this year and he was averaging almost a triple double and shooting over 60 percent. If I could model my game exactly after him, I would and I'm working on this.
"OUR FAMILY'S COMPETITIVE DRIVE ISN'T SOMETHING YOU CAN MEASURE. WE'RE A THREE-HEADED MONSTER..." - Mavunga
The work ethic of my little brother is unmatched. I truly admire his drive. We're about the same height, but he plays more guard-like. He can still play bully ball with those taller than him and can shoot the three at an alarming rate. He has the most pride I have ever seen in a player. You cannot tell that boy what he can and cannot do. The sky is the limit for him. He doesn't care who you are and has so much confidence he truly believes he'd beat anyone in the world.
When you see us all and how we play, it all makes sense. Our family's competitive drive isn't something you can measure. We're a three-headed monster ready to compete with the best.
Your first game as a pro and in the WNBA, what are your memories?
I just went all the way back via the Indiana Fever Instagram account as the only thing I remembered initially was my 18 points versus the Chicago Sky and the win. I was so shocked after the game and it was surreal. Just a few weeks prior, I'd been playing in the same arena, but in a different jersey. I had just won the Big 10 title with my collegiate teammates and now I was living out my dream in the same gym, for the home team - playing with my sister-in-law (Janette Pohlen-Mavunga).
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She's the one I rode with to the game in my older brother's Dodge Charger. We spoke briefly and she asked me if I was nervous. Truth is, I'm not sure if nervous was even the word to use. I was kind of stuck - frozen if you will. I didn't know what to think or expect. I was happy in the inside and excited, but just not wanting to mess up. After all, I was still in training camp. The final roster wasn't set, so I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and prayed what felt like a million times. Once I walked into the arena, I started smiling, looked down the hall and whispered to myself 'well, this is what I prayed for'.
"I'M NOT SURE IF NERVOUS WAS EVEN THE WORD TO USE. I WAS KIND OF STUCK - FROZEN IF YOU WILL."
I went in the locker room and acted 'normal'. I spoke with my teammates, text my mom back after I read my pregame text. I listened to my music and treated my routine the way I always had. It was important to lock in and focus at this time. I wanted to be ready when my name was called, to block out all the noise as best as I could. The game finally started and I was watching, cheering on my teammates. All of a sudden, I remember Coach Chatman pointed at me and said my name and told me who to get. Instant chills! I could feel a few goose-bumps as I ran to check in.
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But after I checked in, I just played. I didn't think too much as that's when the mistakes happen. I played as I always had - with the goal to win - with the goal to do anything my team needed me to do. It wasn't just about points. I wanted to play good defense, to show I wasn't one dimensional. I wanted to rebound the ball, since that was one thing I always prided myself in. The final stats read 18 points, 8 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal. We were 79-65 victors and it was preseason. Nevertheless, that was still my rookie debut.
Who helped you the most during those first important steps?
My sister in law Jeannette was there for me all training camp. She was a veteran and at the time and the person I felt most comfortable seeking guidance from. She's very textbook, so I knew I couldn’t go wrong if I followed her. Another season vet in Candice Dupree always made sure I was in the right places. She isn't necessarily very talkative, but when it comes to assisting, she will speak up when prompted or when questioned.
All of my teammates helped me in their own right, but I remember being very thankful to those two on my WNBA debut. My sister helped take some off the pressure off and assured me it wasn't by mistake that I was there. She told me to just play, while Candice simplified everything.
You also played for USA at the Pan-American Games earlier in your career. Tell us about that experience.
I was blessed to wear those three letters proudly across my chest and remember being so excited when I heard my name called, because I was in such elite company. Despite not playing a lot, I enjoyed myself and made lifetime friends, girls I still talk to. I love to see how everyone is still tied into basketball, with many scaling great heights. I also loved meeting many other athletes from many different countries and being able to speak with them and becoming friends regardless of the fact that we all spoke different languages. The only disappointment was the silver medal, since USA is gold standard. That fact that we didn't achieve that was a bit of a bummer.
Stephanie Mavunga, the non-basketball player/athlete. Who is she?
More than a baller and a God-fearing individual first and foremost. A sweet, kind-hearted young lady with the most energy many have ever crossed. Outspoken and confident, wanting to positively impact those I come across and leave a lasting impression on them. It transcends hoops and I want to excel in everything I put my mind and heart into. I'm a competitor in all aspects. I'm a winner and don't take shortcuts. I like to be creative and think outside the box, to be different in a fun-loving way. My smile is what stands out the most - even if you never hear me utter a word and a smile is worth a thousand words. It leaves a lasting impression.
I take a lot of pride in my faith. I was raised by two very strong, God-fearing Zimbabwean individuals who instilled in me early the importance of kindness, honesty, loving, caring and many more important qualities. I was raised to give the utmost respect no matter who I came across and to kill them with kindness.
"I'M A COMPETITOR IN ALL ASPECTS. I'M A WINNER AND DON'T TAKE SHORTCUTS." - Mavunga
Early, they instilled morals that I still take with me today. My culture, my faith and my family shaped me into the individual I am and you see today. I hope no matter who you are, if you ever meet me, I touch you - in a positive manner. But, I'm also a competitor with a hard-nose mentality. I want to be great on the court, compete and beat others. I want to come out on top, people to feel me, to remember me and what I put into it.
I want to help others and impact lives. I've always wanted to work with children in foster care and with the urban youth, or student athletes at the collegiate level, helping them figure out their lives after sport and how they can get ahead to become more than an athlete . My fear is leaving anyone or anywhere without them remembering me - without that impact . Without them 'feeling me'.
And, the nickname 'Princess'?
It comes mainly because I wear lip gloss 24/7 and hold myself to a very high standard. I want to avoid settling by all means - in every aspect of my life. I carry myself in that manner and people tend to see that - which I'm happy about. I always laugh and smile and I can be a bit 'extra' at times - in that I am a bit loud when I'm voicing something I care about.
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I have a lot of passion and I like to be girly, to get dressed. I love to get my hair and my nails done. I like to keep my toes, lashes and eyebrows done.
Finally, we heard something about you and banana puddings - is that truth or fiction?
It's something people reach out to me for - and often. I love being in the kitchen and coming up with recipes. It's my passion. It's an art in a way. It's expressive in its own sense and I always enjoy making them for people because I love to see their reactions.
As for the banana pudding recipe? There won't be any sharing of any kind (laughing).