Basketball

How France became a pipeline for Canadian women's basketball talent

Over the last decade, French women's basketball leagues have served as Canadian pipelines due to their intense competition, smart coaching and high-IQ players, guaranteed contracts and French language and culture.

Today, 14 Canadians play in French leagues after Lizanne Murphy was 1st in 2011

Canadian forward Lizanne Murphy, right, vies with French guard Celine Dumerc during the 2012 Olympics. Murphy began her pro career in France soon after, and the country has since become a pipeline for Canadian talent. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

It all began with Lizanne Murphy.

The Montrealer was pondering her basketball future in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics. In the years prior, she'd bounced around pro leagues in Eastern Europe and suffered a major knee injury that wasn't managed properly, perhaps due to language barriers.

On the brink of retirement, Murphy, fluent in English and French, was urged by her agent to consider playing in France.

She would be the only Canadian woman in the league, and had played 12 French league games the previous season.

"I signed a contract to play in Aix-en-Provence, which is like the beach on the Mediterranean Sea. It was incredible. … And then I just said to all my teammates, like, 'Guys, you have to come here. This is amazing," Murphy said.

For Murphy, the beach location was a big draw — if your basketball career is going to come to an end away from the rest of your national team, there might as well be good weather.

But she wasn't alone for long. Murphy's team needed a point guard, so she called up Hamilton, Ont., native Shona Thorburn, who quickly joined the coastal squad.

The two soon learned why the French league now doubles as a Canadian pipeline: intense competition, smart coaching and high-IQ players, guaranteed contracts and French language and culture.

Team Canada veteran Kim Gaucher joined Murphy and Thorburn in France soon after, with Gaucher crediting Murphy as a trailblazer for Canadians in the country.

"We worked really hard because Canadians work really hard. So all of a sudden Canadian players had this amazing reputation and then every time they recruited more Canadians. The next year there was like two more Canadians and then they played really well," Murphy said.

"So this is like this untapped talent in France that were great teammates, great people, and really the best players in the league."

Today, 14 Canadians play across three leagues in France, including five in the top Ligue Féminine de Basketball.

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Team-oriented basketball

The steady increase over the last decade isn't just a sign of Canadians wanting to play together, either. In France, just two non-European and two non-French European players are permitted per team.

Bridget Carleton, a playoff starter for the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, recently began her first season in France. She said it was her top option after choosing not to return to Australia for her second overseas campaign.

"I was mostly drawn to France just because of the history that Canadians have in this league, in the country. And obviously, talking with my national team teammates Kim, Murph, Shona, Nayo [Raincock-Ekunwe]. … They've been here for so long, they've continued careers here, played here for multiple years, so it shows how much they do appreciate it and enjoy it here," Carleton said.

The 24-year-old now starts for Landerneau Bretagne, where she's earning more responsibility on the court than she had as a fifth option, at best, for the Lynx.

Carleton, right, spent last season playing for the Townsville Fire of Australia's WNBL. (Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

The collection of talent in France comes with more legitimate basketball than you might see in other European leagues. Coaches instill structured on-court systems that mimic international play. In the past, it would be similar to Canada's disciplined style of play; now, Canada prefers run-and-gun transition basketball.

Still, both systems demand quick, smart decision-making from players. 

"Canadians are really talented offensive players, really talented individual players, but are also great teammates. And you don't always see that with everyone and I think that's why the French League, the French citizens love the Canadian players," Murphy said.

Canadians, like Carleton, are unlikely to dominate the ball and consistently lead their team in shot attempts.

Guaranteed contracts

But Gaucher said that style of play is sometimes the only way to survive outside of France in Europe.

"There are some countries where if you're an import, if you're an American, if you don't score 30 points a night — and that can be on 35 shots — they don't really care. And then you're going to get cut, whereas [in France] there's a lot of movement, there's a lot of screening. They want complete players."

It's easier to prioritize team over individual when your contract is legitimately guaranteed. While "guarantee" language is the norm across Europe, it's common for players not to be paid on time or at all, or cut at a moment's notice outside of France.

Gaucher, who plays for Ligue B Mondeville, says she was still paid after the league stopped due to the pandemic in March.

Gaucher competes in a game against France during the 2016 Olympics. (Phil Walter/Getty Images)

To contrast, fellow Canadians Ruth Hamblin, Miah-Marie Langlois and Jamie Scott were told by their Russian club in March they'd be breaking contract if they went back to Canada — even after the prime minister mandated a return.

Murphy also spent time in Argentina, Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia before France.

"In North America, a contract really matters. But in Eastern Europe, your money is always late. Sometimes you're not paid. It's not always guaranteed. And that happened to me a lot. But in France, being a professional athlete is treated like a career, you have the same rights and respect in terms of the government protection as a teacher [or] a lawyer," she said.

Canadian camaraderie

Beyond basketball and money, Canadian camaraderie was quickly established and grows with each additional national team player that arrives.

Carleton got her first taste when she faced off against Canadians Michelle Plouffe and Raincock-Ekunwe, who play for Lyon, in November.

Murphy, now retired, would spend the night with her fellow Canadians after travelling for a game before taking the train home the following day. There was even talk of holding a Canadian training camp in France last month before the pandemic scuttled potential plans.

Murphy said she's proud to have played her part in fostering Canadian talent and growing the game. Without a pro league at home, France has become the next best thing.

And when the European season typically demands lots of lonely nights in foreign countries, it's nice to know there's a support system nearby.

"It's not the same desperation and overwhelmed fatigue [as it is outside of France]. You have a good balance there and you feel like you have a taste of home. … That family connection, I think, is almost the competitive advantage."

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