Prior to Poland’s game with Lithuania on Nov. 12, which the Polish National Team would lose in a heartbreaking fashion in overtime, Stephanie Mavunga talked to us about her experiences in Zimbabwe, the United States and Poland. The 28-year-old debuted for Poland during the EuroBasket Women 2025 Qualifiers and immediately made an impact on the team.
Quite an official debut for you on the Polish National Team. How do you feel about playing for the country and how far do you think you guys can go in EuroBasket?
I love playing for Poland! It’s been the most fun I’ve had playing basketball in a while! I’m really grateful to be able to play with the team! I can’t say how far we’ll go, but I know I believe in us… and I know a lot of people believe in us, too. We’ll go as far as we believe… and as far as we push ourselves!
You left Zimbabwe as a three-year-old. Do you remember anything about your family’s life there?
I remember very, very vaguely. It’s hard because I was so young!
How did you handle the move to the United States? Moving from Harare to Brownsburg, Indiana, must have been a big leap.
It was tough at first! We first moved to Indianapolis. It wasn’t until I was in 3rd grade that we then moved to Brownsburg. It was difficult on all of us—new jobs, new friends, new home, new culture, new lifestyle… the list is endless. But my parents made sure to provide and never let us feel like we were struggling no matter how hard it ever got for them. To them, I’m forever indebted! Moving to Brownsburg was then also difficult because I had kind of gotten used to Indianapolis and made a few friends there, and had already adjusted a bit. It was a huge shock when I first got there! It was hard to try to fit in for the first couple of years. My brothers and I leaned on each other and eventually we all made our own friends throughout the years!
You played for UNC and Ohio State. Let’s settle it once and for all! Would you call yourself a Tar Heel or a Buckeye?
I’m a Buckeye for sure! I’m a two-time alumni. But there was always a quote we said in my time at UNC: “Once a Tar Heel always a Tar Heel.” So it doesn’t just go away. I still have love for Carolina! I still hope they’ll win when playing their rival Duke. I still wear my UNC gear. And the fans and my former classmates still speak to me and root for me, check on me every once in a while. So you don’t just stop being affiliated. So I’d say I’m both, but, of course it’s different. I have deep love for Carolina, but I’m also a proud Buckeye alum.
A day after your debut for Poland, Brianna Fraser made her debut for Azerbaijan. Do you guys tease each other? Is there a friendly competition going on?
Not too much! Of course, you always want to see your teammates doing well, so I keep up with the results! I remember her sending a message in the team chat after our Belgium win that said: “Congrats! Now Belgium is gonna beat us by 100.” And we laughed so hard. When we got back to Polkowice, everyone was joking with her about the games, but not too harshly—in a kind way. She and I joked mostly about some of the guard-like skills she showcased in that first game against Lithuania!
What kept you going when dealing with the arm injury you suffered last winter? Was it playing in the EuroLeague or playing in the EuroBasket Qualifiers?
Neither to be honest. Of course, I wanted to play in both and thought about it… but it was my closest people around me [that kept me going]. My family was huge, Julia Drop and Anna Makurat were also huge. They all saw me at my lowest and made sure they were there for me. They constantly sent me messages of support and love and were there with me through it all. When times got hard, none of them ever let me quit. Then, also at the beginning, I had one of the kindest men as my physical therapist. His name is Łukasz! He always pushed me telling me I’d one day be back on the court and to keep going. God helped a lot, because I’m a believer. I’d pray all the time. Cry to Him all the time and pray for strength and guidance to keep going. It was a lot; and not just because of the injury, but there was so much more to it along the way. It was the hardest time of my life. And those closest to me saw it and saw me through.
It’s always good to have that support system around you, regardless if you are an athlete or anybody else.
Another thing that kept me going is my competitive spirit... wanting to be back on the court. Hurting seeing my team lose to Lublin in Game 5 [of the Polish championship series] last season, seeing people workout, seeing old pictures or old game results and knowing I currently couldn’t play. I really love basketball. Not just that, but I love to compete in general. So I missed that aspect. The competitive nature of the game and the adrenaline you get in a close game. Then seeing messages from my friends and fans, and just seeing how much they supported me and hearing their words of encouragement and having little kids ask when I’ll be back and tell me they miss me… it’s different. You do it for so much more than yourself. To hear your teammates say that the game has changed without you and that they miss playing with you. To hear it from your coaches, too. It’s heart warming.
The timing of the injury was also unfortunate. You were just named the EuroLeague MVP in December.
When I got injured I was playing at one of the highest points in my career, so it was devastating and I wanted nothing more than to get back and play at a high level again. I had worked so hard over the years trying to get better and better each year and with the injury I didn’t want there to be a drop off. I wanted to pick up where I left off. Don’t get me wrong, everything along the way was super, super hard and at times I had days where I didn’t even want to see a ball or go to PT. But I knew if I wanted to ever play like “my old self” again or create a new version of myself, I had to keep going. I stayed in Poland for most of my rehab. I credit Julia [Drop] the most because she was physically there with me the most—well, mentally too—and she saw more dark moments than anyone else and took it upon herself to carry my burden on her shoulders when I felt like I couldn’t go anymore. I have a really great support system around me… great friends, great family, etc., etc. I can’t thank everyone enough. There were so many things that kept me going. And even more, so many people. God takes you through trials and tribulations for a reason. We may not always know why. But I felt like once I figured out why, or part of the reason… then that also kept me going.
A special thank you to Maxym Lejeune of LBM Management for arranging the interview.