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An “Unforgettable” Experience for Multi-Nation Basketball Visitors at WBHOF

Basketball players from Lithuania during icebreakers. Photo credit: Jaron Johns

Basketball players from Lithuania during icebreakers. Photo credit: Jaron Johns

Unforgettable. Informative. Fun.

Three of the many words used by the 2015 Multi-Nation Basketball Sports Visitors to describe their experience at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame during their second day in Knoxville.

The 20 girls, representing Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania and Georgia as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls through Sports Initiative, were welcomed at the WBHOF by President Dana Hart and her staff, and taken on an extensive tour of the WBHOF facilities. The group also participated in a panel discussion with two-time U.S. Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler, and leadership and Title IX workshops with Drs. Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace, & Society.

“The most important thing for us as the Hall of Fame is to share the history and story of women’s basketball,” said Hart, who has welcomed 115 women and girls from 23 countries to the WBHOF through this initiative. “Just as these girls may be trailblazers in their countries, taking the sport back and growing it, it’s important for them to see the history of the game in the U.S. and internationally from 1892 to the present.”

After finishing the tour, many of the girls shared their hope to see women’s basketball grow in their countries. During a workshop drawing exercise on the topic of ambition, Tiko Chichinadze of Georgia drew herself winning a WNBA championship, while Lina Putriute of Lithuania depicted herself and teammates celebrating on the court together after hitting a game-winning shot. Many of the other girls also drew themselves wearing medals and hoisting trophies.

However, when asked to name their own female basketball heroes, few were able to name any, even though they spoke knowledgeably about past and present NBA superstars like Michael Jordan and Derrick Rose.

One of the Polish Sports Visitors during the drawing exercise. Photo credits: Jaron Johns

One of the Polish Sports Visitors during the drawing exercise. Photo credits: Jaron Johns

Donatas Slanina, a coach and chaperone for the Lithuanian group, said the reason for this is simple: there is a good chance many of the girls, aged 14-17, have never actually seen a professional women’s basketball game.

“There is no female basketball on television in our countries,” said Slanina, a former Lithuania men’s national team player and Olympian. “They’ll show the men’s leagues and on satellite you can watch NBA and NCAA, but not the WNBA or any other female leagues. That is why it is also hard for our girls to see themselves getting to that level because they don’t physically see it on screen.”

Ziegler, who competed in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics and is training at UT for Rio 2016, reminded the girls that despite these obstacles and others, they have the power to persevere and create real change in their societies through basketball.

“There are no guarantees in sport,” she said. “You must keep pushing forward and face your adversities, find your empowerment and embrace new opportunities.”

U.S. Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler with the group. Photo credit: Jaron Johns

U.S. Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler with the group. Photo credit: Jaron Johns

After the WBHOF and two days of visits and workshops at UT and other local sites, the girls travel to Tampa, Florida for the 2015 NCAA Women’s Final Four.

Hart, who will be with the group again at the tournament, said the best part of the group’s visit for her was watching the girls realize that they were at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

“They walked in the door and saw the statue in the center of the rotunda and their eyes lit up. On the tour, they were looking and learning and they got so excited about what the game represents to a lot of different people.”

And, from what the girls had to say afterward, it’s an experience that will last long in their memories.

The entire group with their coaches outside the WBHOF. Photo credit: Jaron Johns

The entire group with their coaches outside the WBHOF. Photo credit: Jaron Johns

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