When it comes to women’s basketball, there are inspirational stories to be found all over the world. The global nature of the game — which is fueled in part by the unfortunate scarcity of professional opportunities in the United States — brings with it a treasure trove of information just begging to be unearthed by passionate sports fans.
But it isn’t just the fans who can benefit from following overseas hoops. There’s plenty for other players to gain from following their peers’ journeys, too.
University of Illinois product and veteran professional basketball player Rebecca Harris has made it her mission to not only share her own story, but to connect with other players in hopes of helping them navigate the overseas life. Her credo: There’s plenty of professional women’s basketball to be watched beyond the WNBA, and the more it’s talked about, the more the game itself will grow.
Swish Appeal recently caught up with Harris to discuss her basketball journey, including her collegiate experience, her professional career and her best advice for young and aspiring hoopers.
It all started at an early age for Harris, who felt the thirst for competition familiar to most professional athletes when she was still just a child.
“I knew that I wanted to take basketball as far as I could take it,” Harris recalls. “I wasn’t even truly aware of what that all meant, but I can remember times as early as me being about five or six, loving the game so much and wanting to play at the next level.”
A self-described military brat, Harris was born at March Air Force Base in Riverside County, Calif. Her father was a referee, which Harris credits for her initial love for the game of basketball, and though she lived overseas through her early teens, she didn’t let that stop her from trying to compete at the highest level she could, seeking out bigger kids to play against in her quest to improve her game.
Harris eventually returned to the United States, attending high school at Mascoutah near the city of Belleville, Ill. and Scott Air Force Base. There, she first experienced the fruits of her labor: College coaches were frequently in attendance to watch her play, and by her senior year, the recruiting letters were stuffing her mailbox. It was a time Harris remembers fondly:
“It’s an interesting feeling because you don’t even know what you’re asking for. You don’t know what that first letter is like until you get it ... I remember in high school when these letters started coming in and I’d plaster these letters around my room. They became my wallpaper.”
Despite the widespread interest, Harris wasn’t presented with the opportunity she was looking for at the time, so she first decided to attend Rend Lake College, a community college located in Ina, Ill.
It was a move Harris doesn’t regret one bit, and she never hesitates to clarify misconceptions surrounding junior college (commonly referred to as “JUCO”) — specifically, the quality of the athletics.
“There are so many stereotypes that go with playing at the junior college level,” Harris says. “Just like there are high-, low-, and mid-majors at the Division I level, there certainly are at the JUCO level as well. Some of these junior colleges are literally run like Division I programs! Coaches are paid like Division I coaches, and the expectations are high ... it’s a great option if you’re looking to continue to climb the ladder.”
And climb the ladder she did. In the long run, Harris’ decision to play JUCO ball paid off; she transferred to the University of Illinois for the 2006-07 NCAA season, citing the “different looks” she got at Rend Lake compared to her senior year of high school as helping her prepare for Division I basketball and calling her JUCO years “a blessing in disguise.”
“It’s about doing your research to understand what’s best for you and how you can get to your ultimate goal in the end,” Harris explains. “What works for one person might not work for the next person — one, because of connections, but two, maybe your work ethic isn’t the same or your game isn’t the same. Some people go Division III, Division II, NAIA, and those are all great options, but if you’re trying to make it to the highest level, the numbers aren’t the same unless you touch Division I.”
Harris’ ultimate goal, of course, was to play basketball professionally. Fifteen years later, it’s safe to say she accomplished that goal.
“You’ve got to remember why you’re playing”
Take a look at Harris’ Twitter account and one thing that’s bound to stand out is the number of different flag emojis in her bio — one for each country she’s played in. The Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey, Poland and Germany are all included, each one contributing to a wealth of professional basketball experience and countless words of wisdom.
Among those words of wisdom: Prepare yourself.
“You don’t know what certain countries will provide you with,” Harris says. “I want to know the type of place I’m staying in, pictures of my apartment and the neighborhood. I don’t want any surprises when I get there.
“Speaking to the people who have played for the team before me, how was it? How was the coach? How was the system? How was the surrounding area? How are the fans? Because all of that makes a difference. Someone else’s experience may not be mine, but I want to know what their experience was so I have an idea of what to pay attention to.”
Such communication with other American players is something Harris emphasizes. She makes it a point to keep herself in contact with as many of her colleagues as possible (“Every season, there’s something!”) in case one of them encounters a crisis or simply needs another American to share experiences with. It’s especially important from Harris’ perspective because she says this kind of camaraderie wasn’t a factor when she first began playing overseas.
Reaching out to fellow players isn’t the only research that should be done before going overseas, however. Harris insists that agents are just as big a part of the game, perhaps even more so:
“You can’t be afraid to talk about your overall goals [with your agent]. If you’re just in this business to make a ‘steady’ paycheck, if you’re fine with making the same median income, then fine, someone can find you a job for that. It may not be the best competition, but if that’s your goal, then you can find that.
“However, if you’re trying to build your resume, maybe in hopes of getting a WNBA tryout one day, then you’re gonna want to be in great company and play with great competition. These are conversations you want to have with your agent.”
Harris points out that just as players can outgrow certain levels of competition in their quests for improvement, they shouldn’t be afraid to swap agents if they feel their needs aren’t being met. An agent may not have the connections necessary to put their client in a certain league, for instance, and bad blood between agents and those running overseas teams isn’t uncommon.
On the positive side, Harris notes that the typical relationship between player and agent has been changing — and it’s good news for her fellow athletes.
“Before, if an agent got you a deal, they got a percentage of whatever the deal was from the club. If the club is paying them, they are tied more to the club and are going to work harder for the club,” Harris explains. “Now — this just started on Jan. 1 of 2022 — most of the time, agents are getting paid by the players they work with. Everything is negotiable, but if you’re paying your agent, you’re more in charge of everything you want out of your deals — where you want to play and what you’re looking for. And it’s up to you to stay on your agent about finding different leagues and meeting people to get into certain networks.”
Another year, another medal Congrats to @BecBec8630 on finishing 3rd in the top league of Ukraine. She closed the season with her career high in points and a near triple double –– 41 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. Can’t wait to see her back in a Surge jersey ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/85KZugWr0s— St. Louis Surge (@stlsurge) April 28, 2021
Meticulous planning and networking aside, Harris credits both her upbringing and her mentality for her professional success, which includes winning several silver and bronze medals in international play and competing in EuroLeague Women — commonly referred to as the most competitive international basketball league in the world.
“You never get too high and you never get too low,” Harris says, referring to her time spent in JUCO and her ensuing transfer to Division I. “You’ve got to remember the reason you’re playing. Are you willing to work your way up?
“My first two seasons, I knew I was at the bottom of the barrel, so I told myself, we’re gonna keep pushing, we’re working towards something bigger, so just go up. Every season, go up in pay, in the things you ask for within your contract, and talk to the vets in your league.”
There’s also her inner competitor, which remains just as fierce today as when she was in high school. Seeking out the strongest competition (which usually involves going where the most WNBA players are) landed Harris spots in Poland and in Turkey, which she cites as having some of the toughest teams to play against.
“I love to travel and getting to play against the best of the best. I’ve seen teams get bigger and better and WNBA players come through and build it up. At one point, Poland had four EuroLeague teams and EuroCup teams, so every day you were battling somebody.
“When I got [to Turkey] it was another notch in my belt. A lot of WNBA players go there, so a country that has more WNBA players than not, the level of competition is high. Also, Turkey pays pretty well, and the economy itself is cheaper. So you get more bang for your buck there.”
The WNBA isn’t the end-all, be-all of professional women’s basketball in the United States, however. That’s something Harris wants to make abundantly clear. And as fate would have it, she’s been presented with an opportunity back home to prove it.
Surging in St. Louis
Early in her professional career, Harris would play pickup basketball to stay sharp during what she describes as “her offseason” — essentially the reverse of that of WNBA players and fans. During one summer, a conversation with a fellow player alerted Harris to a new women’s basketball team close to home: the St. Louis Surge.
“I went and checked it out, but I was the only player there who had professional experience at the overseas level,” recalls Harris of her first impressions of the Surge. “I played with them for two or three weeks, but it wasn’t run properly. I am 5-foot-7 and a half and they were putting me in the post! I didn’t want to be stressed with this during my offseason.”
A fellow Surge player, however, had a long-term vision — one that involved Harris. Khalia Collier, at just 23 years old, bought the team from its previous owners and began an ambitious and comprehensive overhaul that included a rebranding of the team, the hiring of a dedicated coaching staff and a move to the University of Missouri-St. Louis for the Surge’s home court.
Collier’s efforts to build the Surge’s credibility weren’t lost on Harris, and when the two reconvened years later, Harris decided to give it another shot.
“[Collier] said, ‘listen, it’s completely different. I made a conscious effort not to contact you until it was up to a certain standard,’” Harris says. “It was one of the best summers I’ve had as an adult.”
That summer, which included playing in front of thousands of fans per game and culminated in a national championship won in New Orleans, was more along the lines of what Harris was used to as a professional, and she recognized the work Collier was putting in to continue to build the team. The Surge even won diamond rings thanks to Collier’s network of connections in other professional sports — namely with Major League Baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals.
Since then, the Surge have become a part of the Global Women’s Basketball Association (GWBA), which has further cemented its legitimacy as a professional basketball organization. In the GWBA, certain standards must be met, such as the payment of players and the playing in college-level gymnasiums. It’s these standards, Harris believes, that make the GWBA marketable, as well as another option for American players who may not want to head overseas or are looking for professional competition during the summer.
“She’s trying to change the narrative and give professional women’s basketball another outlet,” Harris said of Collier and the Surge. “If you can’t get into the WNBA, here’s something comparable to playing overseas or playing in the WNBA, as much as we can make it right now. And with our growth, that’s inspired some other teams to sprout up and try to copy our blueprint to compete with us.”
The key word, in Harris’ eyes, is “professional.” While she encourages people to research the GWBA and attend games (“There could be a team in your backyard”), she pushes back against any lesser labels.
“The WNBA only has so many teams and so many roster spots. There are so many skilled and talented players,” Harris says — something countless fans of women’s basketball surely agree with. “If you put everyone who was just cut from a training camp roster into a league of their own, are you telling me that’s not professional? The competition is there, and so is the money for the most part, and we’re still working on getting more. And anyone who works in the WNBA, you know they’re still trying to get more revenue and backing [as well].”
At the moment, Harris hasn’t yet signed for the 2022 GWBA season, but there’s another professional league in the United States she’ll soon be participating in, and she’ll be competing against plenty of recognizable names in the world of women’s basketball.
A player-centric league
Harris will soon be taking the court in Las Vegas, Nev. as a part of Athletes Unlimited, a league that has been gaining momentum prior to its inaugural basketball season, which starts later this month.
The league, which will feature several prominent WNBA names such as Natasha Cloud, Odyssey Sims and Jantel Lavender, will take a player-first approach; there will be no coaches, and players will swap teams weekly, with captains choosing new teams throughout the five-week season.
New to AU? We got you pic.twitter.com/mQZYowtQVA— Athletes Unlimited (@AUProSports) January 7, 2022
Harris believes Athletes Unlimited will have a positive impact on basketball overall, especially when it comes to visibility of athletes. She’s quick to point out that while many WNBA players will be participating, it’s far from a WNBA-exclusive league, and if all goes well, it will be yet another option to showcase the skills of some of the best athletes in the country.
“I think it will open people’s eyes to the fact that there’s so much talent out there,” Harris said. “It puts people on notice. It might provide someone with an opportunity, possibly, if the WNBA didn’t know they existed before, here’s an opportunity to be seen a little bit more.”
Is there anyone in particular Harris is looking forward to playing against?
“I’ve played against Sydney Colson a number of times overseas, and this will be another battle between us that I’m looking forward to.” She also mentions Lavender, who she last competed against during their college days in the Big Ten, as another player she’s excited to play with and against.
Harris, Colson, Lavender and their fellow athletes will kick things off on Jan. 26, with games being streamed on YouTube and broadcast on CBS Sports Network, FS1, FS2 and Bally Sports RSNs.
“I just want people to go after their dreams”
Just shy of her 36th birthday, Harris still seeks the strongest competition, whether it be overseas or back in the United States. Her goals, however, have changed somewhat; she’s making more of an effort than ever to connect with people off the court. Harris recently wrote a book titled “How Bad Do YOU Want It?!” which focuses on uplifting others and helping them to achieve their own goals in the face of adversity.
“I still want to win championships for sure, but I want to make an impact while I’m still playing by letting people know you can still play,” Harris said while discussing her book. “You can use your platform as an athlete to teach other people to go after their goals ... I get to do what I want on a regular basis. And I’m still living this first dream. I just want people to go after theirs.”
Harris also has some words of advice for those running professional sports teams, emphasizing the power of social media:
“Give fans extra. Give something that stays on people’s minds. When we talk about women’s sports, I feel like people are lazy with that, and it’s hard as the athlete. There’s so much that could be happening on a regular basis: players’ stories, player trivia, player takeovers, a special sale for players’ jerseys ... but where are these conversations being had?
“My inbox is full of fans and people who want to talk. Where can I get this? Why isn’t that up? How come we don’t see anything? Clubs, owners, teams, you’re missing out on some fan interaction and some money. Are you making the choice to be lazy about it? Are you making the choice to not listen?”
Harris cites former player Jacki Gemelos as a good example. Gemelos, who famously overcame numerous knee injuries to earn a roster spot on the WNBA’s Chicago Sky in 2015 and served as an assistant coach for the New York Liberty in 2021, was recently named Director of Client Services and Marketing for sports and entertainment agency Disrupt The Game. Harris hopes that putting more former players — especially those who have overcome significant adversity and are coming off extensive overseas careers — in agency positions will help Americans land in ideal international situations, as well as front office positions to help the voices of players be heard.
In the meantime, Harris will continue living her dream while encouraging others to chase theirs.
“I can’t fault the way things have turned out. I wanted it really bad when I was younger, and I’ve been able to accomplish so many hopes, goals, and dreams, and I’m still doing it! It excites me every day that I’m still doing it.”