Natalie Achonwa: 'We are ready for a team, we are ready for a league'
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
TORONTO – Natalie Achonwa is tired of waiting.
Drake recently made headlines for posting on his social media that Toronto needs a WNBA team, joining a long list of Canadians who have been asking for a team north of the border and now Achonwa wants to see action taken.
“We are ready for a team, we are ready for a league, we are ready for something domestically where players don’t have to go overseas, where they can compete on home soil,” said Achonwa. “We know we will have the crowd and the support so it’s just a matter of who is going to put their money where their mouth is.”
Canada has been described by Toronto Raptors head coach, and Team Canada senior men’s team coach, Nick Nurse as being in its “golden years” of basketball. Yet the country still doesn’t have a domestic league for women.
In 2019, the Canadian Elite Basketball League played its first game. A league made up of seven men’s teams from across the country.
In 2021, there were only three Canadians who made it onto a WNBA roster, two of those being Minnesota Lynx teammates Achonwa and Bridget Carleton, with the other being Kia Nurse.
“Right now I am not going overseas, I am just at home trying to train and get my body healthy,” said Achonwa, who missed several weeks of her season with the Lynx after spraining her MCL in her right knee. “I want to have a full year on the court where I am healthy and not missing any time. I suffered that knee injury last year so I'm just trying to focus on my body on the court and off the court and working on my range a little bit so you might be seeing that three-pointer a little bit more next season.”
Most WNBA players play overseas almost immediately after the WNBA season is over, joining dozens of Canadians who are playing overseas almost 12 months of the year.
“Most European countries, a lot of countries in Asia and even Australia, all have their own leagues in their own countries,” added Carleton, who also played in France earlier this year. “There, players can stay and play year-round with and against each other. We don't have that luxury yet, but hopefully one day in the future while I'm still playing that happens.”
Denise Dignard, who is the general manager and executive vice-president for women's high performance with Canada Basketball, was one of the first Canadian women to play professionally in Europe, has been pushing for a WNBA franchise and domestic league for decades.
“We need a domestic league in communities where people can rally behind the players and can have a full-time staff that can make a living working in basketball because we have such passionate people. I’ve seen first-hand the power that a pro team has on a community, it is just unbelievable and so that is my dream and my wish for Canada and I’m hoping we will have people rally behind the women’s side.”
Dignard, Achonwa and Carleton are all in Toronto at the moment for a national team training camp that’s running from Nov. 7-13, and while the dream of a WNBA team in Canada or just a domestic women’s league in the country, in general, was discussed, top of mind for many involved in the camp is the direction the program is heading in.
Achonwa, who is turning 29 later this month, has seen and done a lot over the course of her basketball career. She has represented Canada in basketball at three different Olympic games, has played in the WNBA for six seasons and has traveled the world representing the country, but participating in a Canada Basketball camp without knowing who the coach is, is a new one.
“This is definitely a first for me,” she said.
In late September, just two days before her contract was set to expire, Canada Basketball and long-time senior women’s basketball head coach Lisa Thomaidis mutually agreed to part ways and have yet to fill her spot.
“We have so much wisdom on this court and in this gym that when the coach does come we will be prepared.” said Achonwa. “So, whenever they make that decision and find out who that coach will be and hire them, they will know that they are coming into a space that is committed and passionate.”
Added Dignard: “We have got a global search that we have initiated and a call for applications that will be going out in the next few days. It’s part of the process of being able to select and name a new head coach for the program that is going to take us to the next level.”
The mutual parting of ways came after a disappointing run at the Tokyo Olympics where they failed to advance out of the group stage.
With most of Team Canada’s roster playing in Europe, the WNBA, or across Canada, weeks like these are important for their growth so that when it’s time for the 2024 Paris Games, the team will have a better outcome.
“Playing for Canada Basketball is something that is ingrained in me,” added Achonwa who was a member of the 2015 Pan American Games team that won Canada’s first-ever gold medal. “The time we put in now is what is going to translate in three years when we play in Paris.”
And, hopefully by the time the Paris Games roll around, she and other Team Canada teammates, such as Bridget Carleton – who flew in from Israel, where she’s playing for Ramat Hasharon for the week-long camp – won’t have to try to jet-set all around the world just to get a chance to play professionally, too.
“It’s a little crazy. I feel like we are all over the world at all times, but it’s always good to come back to Canada. I’m happy to be here. I'm a little jet-lagged and I'm adjusting but it’s good to be here.”
And it would be even better if she could just stay here after the camp, playing domestically until the WNBA season resumes.