Magazine Article

More than a game

April 3rd, 2012

Global experience and nonprofit work intersect on WAC women’s basketball team

By Darrick Meneken, Managing Editor
Photography by Barbara Kinney

WAC Mag Cover April 2012 Earlier this year, WAC women’s basketball player Jamie Van Horne spent two weeks helping humanitarian efforts in Rwanda. While there, she worked with an all-girls school and visited sustainable gardens created to alleviate childhood malnutrition. It’s important work, the kind that brings improvement to some of the world’s most-devastated places.

Rwanda is “a beautiful place filled with wonderful people,” Jamie says about a month after her return, sipping coffee in downtown Seattle and looking back.

Her trip and her work in the nonprofit arena exemplify the character and diverse experiences of members of the WAC women’s basketball team, which this month competes in the NACAD national basketball tournament.

“They’re an amazing group of women,” says coach Syesha Thomas, who also plays guard on the team. “Having such high-quality and high-character individuals really makes my job easy.”

Three summers ago, Syesha made her own philanthropic journey to Africa, leading a basketball leadership camp for girls in Nigeria. She expected 60 kids to turn up. When a couple hundred did instead, she was stunned.

“We had all those kids and one court with two hoops,”she recalls.

Long-term, she hopes to return regularly for similar camps.

“The idea is to help student-athletes and coaches use basketball to help youth grow into leaders,” she says. “I definitely want it to be a continual process.”

Another member of the WAC women’s team, Lindsey Wilson, has done her own share of international travel, having spent the better part of a decade bouncing around Europe and the Middle East in pursuit of the game she loves.

When she returned to Seattle last year, she dedicated herself full time to Positive Performance Consulting, a company she started in 2009. The company works to help athletes and coaches heighten performance through mental training.

On Sunday nights, Jamie, Syesha, Lindsey and the rest of the team gather in the 8th Floor Gym for weekly practice. The roster represents a potent mix of worldly experience, advanced education and national-caliber athleticism. Syesha believes that last part could lead the team, which played its first tournament in February 2008, to its first national title later this month.

“I think this is the year for us to put a banner in the gym,” she says. “From a coaching perspective, I couldn’t be more excited about where we’re headed.”

Off the court

National tournament aside, the WAC women have some impressive stories to tell.

Start with Jamie, who works on global projects and community engagement for SeeYourImpact, a small Seattle-based nonprofit that partners with organizations in Africa, India, Latin America and the U.S. The group aims to connect small donors with important work and to return personal stories about the lives they’ve changed.

In Rwanda, Jamie visited SeeYourImpact partners Gardens for Health International and Rwanda Girls Initiative. She also found time to shoot hoops with the team at Gashora Girls Academy, funded by Rwanda Girls Initiative, and showed them some new practice drills.

“It was amazing,” Jamie says of the trip. “Being in Rwanda really helped me see the positive impact our work here in Seattle is having on people around the world.”

Jamie played college ball at Yale, where she earned a psychology degree with honors. She set school records for career 3-pointers and games played.

“It was really incredible to be able to represent such a prestigious university,” she says. “Basketball opened that opportunity for me.”

She grew up in Northern California and comes from an athletic family. Her uncle Keith played in the NFL and won Super Bowl XX with the Chicago Bears, and her dad, Pete, won the 1976 College World Series with the University of Arizona.

After Yale, Jamie spent two years in Madrid, where she coached a high school boys basketball team and earned a master’s degree in international relations. Still fairly new to Seattle, she’s at the WAC four to five times a week.

“I’m having a lot of fun playing basketball again,” she says. “For me, it’s a big part of my social life, too.”

On leadership

“Joining the WAC and playing for the team has been the most welcoming and amazing experience I’ve had in a while,” says Syesha, the player-coach.

Coming from her, that’s saying a lot.

Syesha played her college ball at Oregon State and grew up around the sport. Her dad, James Thomas, was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks and played overseas, including in Italy, where Syesha was born. James Thomas later played extensively in Argentina and started a basketball academy there. Syesha’s younger sister and brother both play for Argentinian national teams.

About a year before her trip to Nigeria, Syesha founded Hoopaddict. The nonprofit uses basketball as a catalyst to improve the lives of youth from diverse backgrounds. She also sits on the board of African Basketball Online, a U.S.-based nonprofit that uses the sport to support underprivileged and at-risk African youth.

Syesha met Lindsey Wilson and another WAC teammate, Enjoli Izidor, a former member of the Nigerian national team, before high school. Growing up in Bellevue, Syesha played against them as a youth. When she joined the WAC team about a year ago, she didn’t know much about the Club.

“I love the atmosphere here,” she says during a break from practice.

Syesha hopes to build the WAC women’s program and eventually develop age-group teams much like the men’s program has.

“Playing on the team, you’re representing something larger than yourself,” she says. “It kind brings you back to why you played competitive sports in the first place.”

A Seattle classic

Anyone who’s seen The Heart of the Game, a documentary about the Roosevelt High School girls basketball team, knows Lindsey Wilson.

“That’s a blast from the past,” she says, sitting courtside on the 8th Floor.

Lindsey is the movie’s early star, putting up 41 points and a game-winning buzzer-beater in a performance any athlete would long remember. When it’s captured in a critically acclaimed documentary, others tend to remember it, too.

Following her high school career, Lindsey starred at Iowa State. She was a three-time all-Big 12 player, twice reached the Sweet 16, and graduated as the Cyclones’ second all-time leading scorer and all-time assist leader.

Her career then went global, taking her to teams in Greece, Turkey, Slovakia, Lithuania, Israel and Croatia. She was drafted out of college by the Connecticut Sun and played with the Seattle Storm briefly in 2010 before being released.

“I kind of always had it in my mind that when I came back to Seattle I’d play with the WAC,” she says. “I think I especially appreciate this team because of the camaraderie. It’s not the opportunity everyone gets when they step away from their sport.

“To have that kind of camaraderie and competition—it’s kind of magical, really.”

Team Roster

Jill Bell

Played at UW after winning four consecutive KingCo Conference championships with Bellevue High School • Has played in Madrid, Barcelona and Buenos Aires • Seeking sales or marketing job • Loves travel and cooking • First played for WAC women’s team in 2008.

Courtney Clapp

Loves trivia nights • Played basketball at Kirkland’s Juanita High School and at Western Washington University • Joined WAC team in January 2010 • Works for a local company doing Web design and development.

Mikaela Cowles

Played for Saint Mary’s College of California after Lakeside High School • Joined WAC team this past November • Freelance writer at Making Language Count • Writes blog Baguette Taste—Wonder Bread Budget.

Enjoli Izidor

Past member of the Nigerian national team • Played at Stanford • Led Roosevelt High School to KingCo Conference championship as a senior • Scored her Stanford career high, 22 points, in January 2001 against Washington State • Has played in Israel, Greece, Portugal, Turkey, France and Croatia.

Lindsay LaFran

Hold’s the all-time scoring record at Mount Rainier High School in Des Moines • Played at Regis University in Denver • Joined the WAC team in 2008 • Plays in the WAC men’s C League • Competes in triathlons.

Sarah McDevitt

Works as a program manager at Microsoft • Played at New York University after attending Holy Names Academy on Seattle’s Capitol Hill • Joined WAC team last spring • Loves being active outdoors • Passionate about teaching and education.

Luv Rattler

Played for Kentlake High School, two years for Bellevue College, a year for Cameron University in Oklahoma, and a year at Central Washington University • Still attends Central Washington • Joined WAC Team this past November.

Krystal Robinson

Played at Western Washington University after Kentridge High School • Joined WAC team in April 2011 • Assistant store manager at University Village Starbucks • Coaches junior high school girls basketball.

Syesha Thomas

Team’s coach and player • Played at Oregon State • Born in Italy • Founded Hoopaddict, a nonprofit that works with youth from diverse backgrounds • Daughter of James Thomas, drafted by the Atlanta Hawks.

Jamie Van Horne

Played at Yale • Works at Seattle nonprofit SeeYourImpact • Niece of Keith Van Horne, member of the 1985 Chicago Bears • Made humanitarian trip to Rwanda earlier this year • Set Yale records for career 3-pointers and games played.

Jennie Wild

First-year pediatric resident at Seattle Children’s Hospital • Played basketball at Whitworth University in Spokane after Roosevelt High School • Volunteered with AmeriCorps, working as a doula for primarily Spanish-speaking single mothers • Appears in The Heart of the Game.

Lindsey Wilson

Helped Iowa State to two Sweet 16 appearances • Drafted by the Connecticut Sun • Played in Greece, Turkey, Slovakia, Lithuania, Israel and Croatia • Starred at Roosevelt High School • Appears in The Heart of the Game.

Alicia Heathcote

Played at UW as a walk-on and in Germany • Recovered from torn Achilles tendon in 2008 • Won state championship with Bishop Blanchet High School in 1996 • Enjoys wakeboarding • Has served as a wish grantor for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.