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Basketball star's journey brings her home for launch of new camp

Natalie Achonwa hoops star excited to launch her Ace of Hoops basketball camp at the U of G this weekend
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Natalie Achonwa playing for the Canadian national women's team. FIBA Americas photo

Natalie Achonwa doesn’t get much of her mom’s home cooking these days.

The most prolific basketball player ever to come out of the Guelph is usually earning her keep playing professionally in the United States or China, or, when called upon, in one of the many ports of call the Canadian women’s national team might be competing in.

“I don’t get home much. I don’t get back to Canada much,” said Achonwa, 26, from her home base in Indianapolis, where she plays for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever.

When the WNBA season is over, she heads overseas to play in the off-season. Most recently in China.

“Fortunately, my family and my friends do travel across the world to see me, but it makes it easier when I’m coming home and I get to see everybody. I’ll make my stops around, because I won’t be there very long,” she said.

Achonwa will be in the Royal City this weekend to catch up with friends and family but also to pass on her basketball knowledge to youngsters at her first ever basketball camp.

The two-day Ace of Hoops Basketball Camp will run at the University of Guelph Friday evening and Saturday for players in Grades 4 through 10.

“Ace” is Achonwa’s nickname.

“This is actually my very first camp, we just started Ace of Hoops, so I thought it would be good to start it at home,” said Achonwa.

“Eventually we want to expand to one or two other cities and provinces in Canada and eventually have one or two in the States as well.”

Achonwa is keeping the numbers at this weekend’s camp down to around 30 a session to make sure the campers get as much instruction as possible.

“I’m really focused on giving the kids an opportunity to get better,” she said of why she wants smaller groups.

“I also want them to interact with me. I’ll be there the entire time. It’s not a sticker camp with my name on it, I’ll be there through the whole process. It’s my little baby and I’m very excited about it.”

Achonwa, now six-foot-three, was an 11-year-old soccer goalie when a coach encouraged her to give basketball a shot because of her height and athleticism.

She quickly rose through the ranks of the provincial club scene, starred for one year at Centennial CVI high school before moving on to an elite program offered through St. Mary’s high school in Hamilton.

She was quickly immersed into the national program as a teenager and landed an NCAA scholarship to Notre Dame.

After sitting out 2014 recovering from a serious knee injury, Achonwa has played the last four summers playing with the Fever.

When the WNBA season is over she plays overseas, most recently in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association with the Jiangsu Phoenix.

Achonwa has played the past two season in China and the two before that in South Korea.

“We have to go abroad to make money. We make three to six times as much money playing overseas as we do in an WNMA season,” Achonwa said.

“The financial side isn’t there in the WNBA, but that’s part of the conversation we’ll be having with the new CBA (collective bargaining agreement).”

“Hopefully it gets to the point where we can just play in the WNBA and not have to go to play overseas … our career would last longer if we didn’t have to do all that additional travel and all that additional play.”

The 18-team Chinese league allows teams to carry only one foreign player and it can be a lonely but necessary road.

“The only person that spoke English was my translator. I have an interpreter that spoke to my coach during games,” she said.

On the horizon are the most important games of all, as the Canadian national women’s team goes through qualifying for the 2020 Olympics. Canada is currently ranked fifth in the world.

Qualification tournaments take place later this year and early 2020.

It would be Achonwa’s third Olympics.

“Just being in that environment and being with that team will always have a special place in my heart. It gives me that extra spark and reminds me why I do this and why I put my body through this and why I play year-round.

“Just being able to put on that Canada jersey … I’m smiling just thinking about it.”