Bringing Belgium Basketball to Chicago

Growing up in Sint-Gillis-Waas, Belgium, basketball wasn’t something Sky Assistant Coach Ann Wauters considered as a future job.

“When I was growing up, there was no WNBA that we could follow,” Wauters said. “Belgian basketball is still not the most popular sport, but for me it was something that I liked and was good at. I wasn’t really envisioning a professional career because I didn’t know that it was possible.”

Wauters started playing basketball at 12 and began her professional career immediately after high school. She was selected No. 1 overall in the 2000 WNBA Draft at 19-years-old, becoming the league’s youngest player and the first ever Belgian-born player. At first, Wauters struggled adjusting to the American game, but she found other ways to stand out amongst the very best.

“I was very tall but I wasn’t strong,” she said. “My biggest weapons were that I was mobile, I had good footwork, ok fundamentals – those are what helped me have a career here. I learned how to adjust to that physicality and bring my type of game.”

Spread across 16 years and nine WNBA seasons, , Wauters became a WNBA All-Star in 2005 and won the 2016 WNBA Championship with the Los Angeles Sparks.

Sky forward Emma Meesseman, a native of Ypres, Belgium, said Wauter’s success opened eyes back home, showing Belgians could compete at the highest level. However, when Meesseman was growing up, the lack of availability and media access to the WNBA in Belgium hadn’t changed much.

“I knew who Ann was, and we played one time together for a week, but because there wasn’t lot of media attention, it was hard to have Ann as an idol,” Meesseman said. “I never saw games on TV, or a lot in newspapers, so there was no way for me to follow Ann.”

Meesseman started playing professional basketball immediately after high school at the age of 16. After three years playing in Belgium and France, she entered the 2013 WNBA Draft and was selected 17th overall by the Washington Mystics. Meesseman was still physically adjusting, which made adapting to the physicality of the WNBA quite challenging. This didn’t hold Meesseman back for long, as found her way to blend her skillset with the way the game is played in the states.

“My coaches were really big on fundamentals, my mom too,” she said. “I actually had the same coach as my mom, and everything they taught me was about keeping it simple. That’s really my game, just keep it simple and it works.”

Meesseman used her fundamentals to make history. The Mystics won the 2019 WNBA Championship, and Meesseman was named Finals MVP- the first second round pick to win the award, and the first winner coming off the bench. She and Wauters brought a whole new level of celebrity to Belgian basketball, something that Sky guard and Liège native Julie Allemand says can’t be overstated.

“Without them, Belgium would be nothing,” Allemand said. “They changed our game, changed the national team and helped us grow as a team.  Now Team Belgium isn’t just from that small country; teams are waiting for us to play them.”

Meesseman, Wauters and Allemand helped the Belgian Cats — the official national team of Belgium — reach a success level that the country had never seen. Meesseman and Wauters guided the Cats to a bronze medal in EuroBasket 2017, qualifying them for their first World Cup. By adding Allemand, the Cats secured a fourth-place finish at the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup. The trio also helped Belgium qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, reaching the quarterfinals before a tough loss to the host country and eventual silver medalist Japan, 86-85.

“It was definitely a dream of mine to go and finish my career at the Olympics,” Wauters said. “It was a long process, always a story of we’re close but just not there yet, and now when we finally could go, that was very special. For us as a team, it was a very unique experience that  you can’t compare to anything else.  It’s bigger than just basketball..”

The three took on another new challenge, coming to the reigning WNBA champion Chicago Sky and have used their connection to adjust quickly to a new situation.

“It’s been great,” Meesseman said. “I never realized that speaking your own language on the basketball court gives you some kind of comfort. Ann knows my game, so it’s easy for her to transfer that to the new staff. I’m also very proud to see Julie grow on this team. This is the first time I’m getting to really spend a season with her. I love it.”

The trio now has their sights on some more history – helping the Sky repeat as WNBA Champions.