Building a platform: Natalie Achonwa talks basketball, advocacy and Adidas

Natalie Achonwa is always up to something.

As the captain of the Canadian senior women’s basketball team, a veteran of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, treasurer of the WNBPA Executive Committee, one of the faces of adidas Canada and a mother-to-be, Achonwa is always working, on and off the basketball court.

The 30-year-old Toronto native says being busy and working multiple jobs is just the reality of being a female basketball player, but it’s also something she’s come to truly embrace. After all, Achonwa is all about being a representative of the next generation of Canadian female ballers to look up to.

After a busy high season that included helping Team Canada finish fourth at the 2022 FIBA ​​World Cup and announcing her pregnancy, we caught up with Achonwa to discuss the growth of women’s basketball in Canada, becoming more of a public figure , her partnership with adidas Canada, and bringing a WNBA team to Toronto. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m a big believer that representation and seeing yourself in people matters. Whether it’s just seeing a woman on an NBA broadcast, seeing a Canadian representing adidas, being Canadian in the WNBA, or being a black woman who owns multiple properties—whatever representation I can be, advertising allows more people to see themselves as whatever they want to be.

For the people who don’t know, take me through your basketball journey. When did you start playing ball and how did you get to this point?

I really started playing basketball by accident. I had a growth spurt, and my football coach was the one who introduced me to it by basically saying, “Hey, you’re a little tall. Maybe you should try basketball.” So that’s where it originally started. It wasn’t that I was naturally talented at rings or that I had this long dream and ambition to play professionally. They’ve kind of developed over the years, and a big contribution to that dream and development has been Canada Basketball.

I was first introduced to Canada Basketball at the junior national team level, then was quickly called up to the senior team at age 16, which is the Olympic team that I play on now. I was a very awkward, Bambi-like player, and just new to the game. So it was a big belief that Canada Basketball instilled in me and saw in me at such a young age to pull myself up and play with women. I played with professional athletes and I quickly learned that it’s better to be a sponge at the time and absorb as much as possible from the vets that I was surrounded by.

Former head coach Allison McNeill always said that Canada Basketball is the best kept secret in Canada. Because at that time we didn’t necessarily have the notoriety. We did not participate in the Olympics. We didn’t have Sportsnet partnerships where we were seen and seen in Canada. So it was a lot of trench work. And that’s when the true core of Canada Basketball’s senior team was developed and I was very fortunate to learn from some of the greatest to play basketball in Canada and be a part of that.

It must be crazy to think how far the program has come in the following decade, from an international afterthought to the fifth-ranked nation in the world, right?

Definitely. The growth has been enormous, and not only in the results we produce, but also in the level of talent. Some of the young women playing in college now and even in high school are dunking. So the athletics alone is a lot different than when I was growing up.

But it’s great to see that growth in the game, and in order for us to keep growing, you have to challenge yourself. For a while we just took the steps: the first Olympics in London 2012 we were the last team to qualify and were just happy to be there. And then, in Rio 2016, we had a little bit higher expectations because our level of play had grown and so we expected to do a little bit better. And then I think Tokyo 2021 was the one where it was like “podium or bust.” And I think we put too much emphasis on ourselves – we put too much pressure on ourselves and we almost suffocated our dreams.

And so that brings us to the present, which we’ve kind of called the “Lapeña era” with our new head coach, Victor Lapeña. We are trying to take the next steps in transforming our culture into a winning mindset, as he likes to say. And it’s really focusing and investing in the work and less on the results. When you have the winning mindset and when you choose to focus and commit to the work, the results will come.

When you think about all the Canadian women’s talent we have in high school and college right now, how excited are you for the future of the Canadian program?

I’m super excited. First, as you said, the mix of – I don’t call myself old. I’m not quite in the old category, but mixing the old and the new is definitely an exciting time for Canada Basketball. Being able to take this what I call “slow is pro” thought process of being careful, understanding the game, breaking the game down, using the intellectual aspect of the game – which has been my niche for years – and combine with this new era of athleticism, speed, and how truly incredible athletes these young women are: mixing it up and creating this new Canada Basketball is super exciting. I can’t wait to see the levels and growth that Canada Basketball can reach because we really have no ceilings.

Yes! We need a WNBA team. But looking deeper, we need a pro league in Canada.

Outside of the national team program, how have you seen the game of basketball grow in Canada since you were young? Are more young women being inspired to play?

I think of a couple of big points that have kind of changed and sparked basketball fandom in Canada, and one of course is the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA championship in 2019. And that’s men’s basketball, of course. Its not the same. But I think about how everybody, the whole nation, was able to come together and see the power of sports and see the power of basketball. You had people from all walks of life come together to celebrate the Raptors, and I think that transforms your basketball fandom, no matter what league or what team it was. It really made people not only in Canada but outside of Canada aware that we are more than a hockey country. That we support – that we love basketball here in Canada.

And I think the other part is just having women’s basketball on TV. Growing up, I didn’t even know the WNBA existed. And now with Canada Basketball and the WNBA regularly appearing on Canadian television, it helps keep women’s basketball top of mind so people can continue to grow an appetite for it. Because I think there is definitely a market for women’s basketball in Canada. And I don’t think we’ve really taken advantage of it and taken full advantage of it because the support is there, but unfortunately we only see the support once in a while like during the Olympics and other big events.

One way we could get some of that support is by bringing a WNBA team to Toronto. How important would that be?

Yes! We need a WNBA team. But looking deeper, we need a pro league in Canada. We always talk about the 144 with the WNBA: There are only 12 teams and 12 athletes per season. team. It’s really hard to get and stay in the WNBA. So yes. We need a WNBA team here in Toronto – in Canada, but I’m biased towards Toronto. We need a team here because it is the best league in the world.

You mentioned a domestic league. Given that Canadian girls are dropping out of organized sports at an alarming rate, could domestic basketball leagues (such as the new Canadian Women’s Soccer Premier League) help encourage more of them to stay in basketball and pursue a career?

Yes, we need a league too. And maybe it’s selfish to think about Canada Basketball and the growth of the game in Canada, but we need more development of women’s basketball and that comes from having a league. Look at the CEBL and the success they’ve had in Canada on the men’s side and why can’t we, I won’t say, replicate that because women’s basketball is very different, but the model of having a pro. league in Canada why can’t we work with them? Or why hasn’t something similar been developed on the women’s side?

And that’s to develop the game in general, our pool of talent. You have so many female athletes who quit basketball earlier than they should because the only option is you finish college, you can’t make it in the WNBA because it’s hard to get into and you go overseas . And as someone who has played in several countries overseas and loved the experiences I got from them, it takes a different person, it takes a different breed to live that life. It’s not for everyone. So I think having a league in Canada would be hugely important to the growth of the game. And selfish for Canada Basketball to continue to expand our pool of athletes.

You’ve personally been in a more public role recently, appearing on TV shows over the summer and in some recent photo shoots with adidas Canada. Why have you embraced that role as an outspoken advocate for the sport?

For me, it’s never been about being in the public eye. A lot of the decisions I make off the field in terms of brand partnerships and in terms of commentating on TV have been to build a platform that allows me to give back and touch the lives of young girls and boys in a different way.

Growing up I didn’t watch the WNBA on TV and I’m a big believer that representation and seeing yourself in people matters. Whether it’s just seeing a woman on an NBA broadcast, seeing a Canadian representing adidas, being Canadian in the WNBA, or being a black woman who owns multiple properties—whatever representation I can be, advertising allows more people to see themselves as whatever they want to be. And I think it’s important to have people to look up to, so I embrace any opportunity that gives me the opportunity to do that. I think that’s really my “why” in what I do and why I think the transition in my career has been to be more outspoken and hopefully be more of a role model for the next generation.

As a whole, the WNBA is at the forefront of advocacy on many social issues, including the COVID vaccine and Black Lives Matter. They have been way ahead of most other pro leagues when it comes to some of their social work. As someone who sits on the WNBPA Executive Committee as the treasure, why is the WNBA so progressive?

We’ve kind of been thrown into this social justice world, and I think a lot of that stems from the fact that the majority of our league is black women. And we’re already double negative in society, right? We are black and we are women. And I think we innately just want to help others. We innately want to improve the lives of others. And whether it’s from our own travels, our own experiences, or simply echoing those around us in our society, it’s just something we do.

Plus you add the education from our league and the intelligence from our league – you can’t join the WNBA unless you graduate or are over 22 years old. So I think that also comes into it is that we have this internal drive to help others along with trained people who are thoughtful and detailed and work together. I think that’s what creates such a tremendous force in the WNBA, that we decide what we want to do and when we attack it. We do it at full strength together.

Before we let you go, in the NBA this season we’re seeing a ton of Canadians succeed like never before. Are you looking forward to the day when the Canadiens start taking over the WNBA in a similar fashion?

Yes of course. I can’t wait for the day when that’s the norm and we don’t have to count the numbers. I know we only have three Canadian WNBA players right now, but a few years ago we had seven. And so I can’t wait for the day when it’s the norm and it’s not just the three of us. And that playing in the WNBA is a legitimate opportunity and goal for Canadians.

And again, I think having that team in Toronto, in Canada, would also make that difference in giving girls an opportunity to have a goal to strive for.

To learn more, go to the adidas basketball website.

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