Sports

Nayo courts first pro basketball contract

Coldstream’s Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, playing with the senior women’s national basketball team, directs on-court traffic in a game against Puerto Rico at the Super Four International Tournament, in August, in Brazil. - Brazilian Basketball Federation
Coldstream’s Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, playing with the senior women’s national basketball team, directs on-court traffic in a game against Puerto Rico at the Super Four International Tournament, in August, in Brazil.
— image credit: Brazilian Basketball Federation

Every level of women’s basketball Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe has played at, success has flowed like a sweet three-point arc.

Whether it was earning provincial MVP at B.C. senior AA girls championships with the Kalamalka Lakers, or racking up all kinds of college records with the Simon Fraser University Clan, she has not only excelled, she has been a game changer.

Raincock-Ekunwe, 21, has taken her act to the professional level with the Esperance Sportive Pully of Switzerland’s Ligue Nationale de Basketball A (LNA). The 6-foot-2 forward, who is represented by Toronto-based Slan Sports Management, is playing with the Lausanne-based club on a one-year deal.

Success probably came a little easier for Raincock-Ekunwe in high school, and she has had to work to stay ahead of the curve. She has also had to develop a mean streak, something that is far from natural for the soft-spoken Raincock-Ekunwe.

“It takes a lot of commitment to the game to achieve success at higher levels,” she said. “In the past two years, my competitiveness and aggression in games has really improved. I’ve come a long way since high school and my first year of university.”

Raincock-Ekunwe ended a four-year career at SFU as an NCAA II All-American after finishing the season first in field goal percentage (65.3), fourth in rebounding (12.4 per game) and third in double-doubles (22).

After just three seasons in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (SFU played in the Canada West Conference her freshman year), she holds the conference record of 63 career double-doubles, as well as the single-game record of 24 rebounds. She also has the highest career rebounding average in conference history with 12.52 per game.

Those are the kinds of results that get an athlete noticed, and Raincock-Ekunwe soon earned an invite to audition for Team Canada at a camp in Hamilton.

She spent last summer travelling with the national team as a member of the practice roster. She visited France, Czech Republic, Serbia, China and Brazil to play exhibition games and tournaments.

“I was quite surprised when the coaches told me I would be a part of the team,” said Raincock-Ekunwe. “There is no greater honour for an athlete than representing their country.”

However, there is one not-so-insignificant obstacle standing between Raincock-Ekunwe and a spot on Team Canada. The national coaches feel she is undersized to play her customary post position, and are instead asking her to brush up on her perimeter skills.

“Its been a huge challenge to develop a three-point shot and improve on my ball-handling skills,” said Raincock-Ekunwe.

“My perimeter skills have improved but they are still nowhere close to where they need to be.”

Forced to play a new position, Raincock-Ekunwe said it took a while to get adjusted to international ball. However, with Canada already qualified for the world championships next year in Turkey, and with the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on the horizon, she has no shortage of incentive.

“I have a lot of work to do improving my game if that is to be a possibility,” she said. “The women are more experienced, smarter, skilled and athletic.

“Playing basketball in Switzerland will help me to continue adapting to the faster pace of international basketball.”

While watching from the bench, Raincock-Ekunwe made a case study of her Canadian teammates in action.

“I was content with watching the amazing perimeter players on the team play and picking apart their game and how they play,” she said.

“I didn’t get many minutes playing with Team Canada this summer, but I was grateful for every second I got to play. My role was to come off the bench and provide a few solid minutes.”

Raincock-Ekunwe expects to handle more of an offensive role with Esperance Sportive, who lost in the quarterfinals of both the LNA playoffs and the Swiss Cup last season.

Aside from having to greet people with the traditional three kisses on the cheek, Raincock-Ekunwe said the transition to Swiss life has been a breeze.

She rooms with the team’s only other foreign player, American Sherrie Session, in an apartment in the city centre.

“My roommate and I both like to explore so we’ve been busy getting to know Lausanne,” she said. “I’m grateful that Canada is a bilingual country because my high school French has been quite useful.”

The team carries sponsorship from an Italian restaurant, so players eat for free, which helps augment a modest salary.

“For an athlete, its amazing to get paid any amount of money to play the game you love,” she beamed.

Raincock-Ekunwe has one year left in her bachelor degree in health science, but plans to keep plugging away at it through online courses.

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