Road To The Olympic Games

After standout rookie season, Nurse frustrated by lack of exposure for WNBA

Kia Nurse glammed it up on the red carpet at last week's iHeartRadio MMVAs. She spent a day last month inspiring a group of young women at a downtown Toronto court that Nike had dressed up with a huge billboard in her honour.

Relative anonymity of women's pro league among its numerous problems

Kia Nurse's, right, first season with the WNBA's New York Liberty was highlighted by a 34-point performance off the bench against Indiana — franchise records both for points by a rookie and a reserve. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Kia Nurse glammed it up on the red carpet at last week's iHeartRadio MMVAs. She spent a day last month inspiring a group of young women at a downtown Toronto court that Nike had dressed up with a huge billboard in her honour.

The star of Canada's women's basketball team hopes her example will spark the dreams of young girls. She's made that a major goal of her career. Yet she worries about the relative anonymity of the WNBA, the world's best women's league that few will ever get to watch.

"I can't even watch the playoffs right now, and that's really annoying," Nurse said through a furrowed brow. "Young women don't get the opportunity to see that. I could become virtually irrelevant in a couple of years because no one sees me play anymore, and I think that's a problem considering there's so much talent and there's much excitement around women's basketball right now, and we don't show it."

Nurse arrived at Canada's six-day women's basketball camp this week on the heels of a standout rookie season with the New York Liberty. The highlight was a 34-point performance off the bench against Indiana — franchise records both for points by a rookie and a reserve.

Giving young girls motivation

It's fitting that the camp is at Ryerson University's Mattamy Athletic Centre, the same building in which the 22-year-old Nurse led Canada to gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games, and then carried the nation's flag into the closing ceremonies.

The six-foot guard from Hamilton was just 15 when she sat courtside at a Minnesota Lynx game alongside her famous uncle, former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb. She'd love every young Canadian woman to have the same experience.

When her UConn Huskies played last December in Toronto, the game was a sellout. Nurse lingered long on the court to pose for selfies with the young girls in the crowd.

"I think sports is so much more than wins and losses," she said. "There's all the life skills [girls] can learn from it. So to be able to show young women that they can do whatever they want, they can get to whatever level they want . . . I didn't go to a prep school, I played three or four tournaments in the states a year, that's what I did and I still made it where I am now, I think that's something that I'm most proud of."

'We want a bigger piece of the pie'

Could she see the WNBA expanding into Canada, one of the few countries without a women's pro league?

"It would be huge, for me I would love it," Nurse said. "If you've ever come to a Connecticut game or go to games in Minnesota, those are places where — even New York — you see tons and tons of young women. And for them to be able to have a vision of what it's like, or a person physically in front of them playing, I think that's a big thing."

Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa and Nurse's New York teammate Kayla Alexander are Canada's other two WNBA players in camp ahead of the World Cup, Sept. 22-30 in Tenerife, Spain.

The WNBA has been making headines recently, and not only because it's in the midst of its post-season. Players have been outspoken about the massive discrepancies in both paycheques and TV coverage between their league and the NBA.

At the closing of Canada's first practice this week, Achonwa also talked about the discrepancy between the two leagues.

"It's not just that we want more money, it's not that we want to compare ourselves to NBA players and what they make, we understand," said the 25-year-old from Toronto. "We're the most educated professional sports league, most of the WNBA players are college graduates, we understand that it's not that we just feel like they should give us more money. NBA [players] get 50 per cent of their revenue, we make less than 25 per cent of it [22 per cent].

"We want a bigger piece of the pie."

National team reaping rewards

Canada's coach Lisa Thomaidis looks forward to reaping the rewards of the players' solid WNBA seasons.

"It's been fun to watch," Thomaidis said. "Playing in that league, playing significant roles and playing against the athletes they play against day and day out and then coming into our context I think they bring a level of toughness. We've always spoken very highly about their basketball IQ, and that only grows when you get to play against so many different systems on an almost daily basis.

"I think they bring a lot to the table that they can share and help our whole group move forward."

The Canadian women, ranked an all-time best fifth in the world, play exhibition games Sept. 7 versus Japan and Sept. 8 vs. the U.S. in Bridgeport, Conn. They'll also face France, the U.S., and Senegal in a four-team tournament in France, Sept. 15-17 before travelling to Tenerife.

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