Nicole Louden – an inner city girl who’s “got handle” on Prague

17-01-2008

Czech women’s basketball is on the rise. The national team, currently ranking 10th in the world, won the European Championship in 2005. Two teams from the Trocal Women’s League regularly participate in Euroleague, Europe’s most prestigious club competition, and one of them – Gambrinus Sika Brno – even won the entire event in 2006. With more international success, more international players have come to the Czech women’s basketball league – roughly 20 foreigners are on the line-ups of the 10 first division clubs this year. One of them, playing for Sparta Prague, is Nicole Louden, a 24-year-old point guard with a remarkable life story.

I went to see a Sparta Prague home game on a Saturday night in January when the home team smashed their rival 97:37, a game in which Nicole scored 14 points. Nicole Louden, an African-American basketball player with Jamaican roots, has only been in the Czech capital since last October when she came from the Tel Aviv club Bnei Yehuda. What are her impressions of Prague, so far?

“I really, really like it. It’s a big city, I am from a city, I am a city girl. Transportation here is very efficient; it’s very easy to get around. That’s definitely a plus. There are tourists everywhere. I just really like it – minus the cold!”

Is there a big difference between professional basketball here and college basketball in the United States?

“Yes, it’s a big difference. For one, they don’t have the carry rule here, which is new. At home, we can be a little bit more aggressive than here. Here, it’s pretty much no hands at all, whereas at home, you can hand-check for about two seconds and then release. That is a big difference.”

And was there anything that shocked Nicole when she first came to Prague?

“The amount of alcohol consumption definitely shocked me. I was floored by people drinking at 9 AM. I was like, yeah, I’m definitely not at home. Seriously, definitely, the alcohol consumption. Then someone told me that Czechs were the number one beer drinkers in the world. That’s mind-blowing in itself.”

Nicole was born in New Jersey in 1983 to Jamaican parents and grew up in an urban area where the odds of her becoming a basketball star, going to college and even getting on the Jamaican national basketball team, were very small. Her career inspired Adam Zagoria, a journalist for the daily New Jersey Herald, to write a book about her. I asked Adam how he got the idea for his work on Nicole.

“I covered high school girls’ basketball for many years at my newspaper, the Herald, in New Jersey, and in my first year there, I met Nicole in 1997. She was a 14-year-old freshman at John F. Kennedy high school in Paterson, and you could tell she was going to be a special player. Even as a freshman, she was scoring a lots of points she was very composed on the courts. When I interviewed her she had a sense of being much more mature person than her age, she was writing poetry and she was very well spoken. I sort of developed a relationship with Nicole and her family who are from Jamaica. By about her junior year I got a deal to write a book about the growth of women’s basketball and the development of the WNBA. Nicole seemed like a good prism to focus the book on.”

Adam Zagoria’s book on Nicole Louden, entitled She’s Got Handle, describes her journey from a difficult environment in pursuit of her dream of becoming a professional basketball player. When looking back now, how does Nicole see her childhood?

“Growing up in inner city was, let’s see, at times challenging. There were so many negative forces around that you could be easily drawn in. With that being said though, I had core very positive supporters which kept me in a straight and narrow and helped me to be where I am today. And I am very, very grateful for that.”

The concept of inner city is perhaps a little confusing for people of Central Europe. I asked Adam Zagoria what exactly growing up in inner city New Jersey meant.

“In the United States, an inner city environment generally means a large minority population, a lot of African Americans, a lot of Hispanics. In a lot of cases here in the US, it’s cities that were once very proud, strong and industrial have come upon hard times and now see a lot of crime, drugs and gangs, largely because much of the industries left the cities and went elsewhere. Now the job base is very difficult because there aren’t many good jobs. In New Jersey, unfortunately, there are a lot of cities like that – Paterson, where Nicole came from, Newark, Camden, and a lot of really depressed areas.”

What was it about Nicole that made her different from other kids who grew up with such a difficult background?

“Nicole grew up in Paterson, NJ. She was raised by her Grandmother, Euphemia Richman, her mother and her aunt, in a very strong, female dominated household where they were very supportive of her; they came to all of her games; they encouraged her to do well in high school,. Basically, the odds of a young African American girl making it out of the inner city to college, without getting pregnant at a young age, without getting involved in other problems in the street, just doing enough to keep your head on and do well academically and athletically and get to college, is a huge achievement.”

After Nicole finished high school in New Jersey, she went to college in Auburn, Alabama where she played for the Auburn Tigers, a team of the Southeast Conference of the NCAA, a national college sports association. After that though, she did not go on to become a star in the WNBA, the US women’s professional league, but instead went to play in Israel. What happened?

“The thing with Nicole was that she was an incredibly exciting high school player. She averaged about 30 points a game in her senior year in Kennedy high school in Paterson; she scored sixty points in one game, and fifty in another game. Huge crowds of people would come just to watch her play. Coming out of high school, there were a lot of expectations, including by myself as well. We all thought that Nicole was going to go to the WNBA after college and be a big star. In retrospect, I personally think that Auburn maybe wasn’t the best college for her because they used her as a distributing point guard and she didn’t ever become that prolific scorer in college that she was in high school.”

After college, Nicole Louden went overseas and played in Israel for two years before signing a deal with Sparta Prague. Some years ago, this may have appeared seen as a step down in a basketball player’s career as Czech basketball did not have a great reputation. Phillip Parun is the only Czech basketball agent with a FIBA license. I asked him whether Czech basketball, with all the recent international successes, is becoming more attractive even for athletes from the United States.

“I wouldn’t say it’s becoming – in a certain sense, it already is an interesting market. A lot of college basketball players from the United States, they have to start their careers somewhere. If you are coming from a mid-level in the United States, you can choose between the second league in Germany, the bottom of the German first league, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, or the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic is probably one of the better options but again, it depends on how many foreigners play in the league, if there are other good players. But the more successes we will have in the Czech national team, the more cup competitions we play here, the better.”

Nicole has been doing very well in the first Czech basketball division, having become the second best scoring player of the competitions. Does she feel like spending the rest of the season in Sparta?

“Yes, that’s the plan, to be here for the rest of the season. I formed a bond with my team mates, we all get along, we like each other, and I think we play well together. I think we can build on this to make this a very successful season.”

Are you hoping to go for one of the better teams, Brno for example that play Euroleague?

“I think in every aspect of life, you always want to go up the totem pole. So, of course, you always want to rise and get better. That’s definitely the plan, the goal.”

17-01-2008