Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe’s basketball story literally began as a story.
She was a 5th-grader when her teacher gave a seemingly routine assignment:
In picture and words, what do you want to be when you grow up?
R-E caught her teacher off guard. She wrote about being a professional basketball player. She even had a Washington Mystics T-shirt although R-E has no idea how she acquired it.
There was exactly one Canadian in the WNBA in the league at the time – Tammy Sutton-Brown. Canada produces great hockey players and maple syrup but professional women basketball players? Not so much.
“It was a very far off dream,’’ Raincock-Ekunwe told MSGNetworks.com. “But I’m here now.’’
Yes, R-E is here now and Friday night she played a strong eight minutes for the undermanned Liberty in a 93-89 win over the Dallas Wings in The Garden. R-E had three points and two rebounds as the Liberty improved its record to 3-3.
“I was determined when I got in the game to bring energy and I think I did that,’’ R-E said. “This is something to build on.’’
It was New York’s first game without Epiphanny Prince and Kia Vaughn. Both players will miss 2-4 weeks competing in the FIBA 2017 EuroBasket Tournament. Coach Bill Laimbeer didn’t know what to make of this team but he knew he had Tina Charles.
Charles led the way with a career-high 36 points on 13-of-23 shooting from the floor, 2-of-3 from behind the arc, 8-of-9 from the line, and 10 rebounds. It was her 131st career double-double, second all-time in WNBA history.
“It was a win we needed and she willed us down the stretch,’’ said Laimbeer.
Tina Charles talks to Julianne Viani after a career game against the Dallas Wings, praising Shavonte Zellous and Kiah Stokes for stepping up and crediting determination for the victory.
Charles played great defense on Skylar Diggins-Smith, forcing her to miss a scoop in the final 30 seconds. After the Wings got the ball back, Charles grabbed her 10th rebound. She drained two free throws with 20.9 seconds left that sealed the game.
Defense. Rebound. Clutch free throws. All Star.
And, oh yes. Her 3-pointer with 2:47 remaining gave Charles her career high and gave the Liberty an 87-80 lead. No player in the WNBA is playing better or means more to her team than the Queens native.
“I don’t care how young we are, I don’t care about the makeup of the team,’’ Charles said. “I believe that if you give a max effort, anything is possible. So that’s just something that I harp on.’’
Charles gave a team-high 37 minutes and four seconds of max effort.
R-E, a free agent who was the only first-year player to make this year’s roster, really opened eyes Tuesday night in a 90-75 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks. R-E scored five points and grabbed four rebounds in just 13 minutes.
“That’s one of the players that’s going to get more opportunity with Vaughn going away,’’ Laimbeer said. “She has all the energy in the world. You see she has quickness and hops and a desire to compete and a desire to play.
“It’s been a learned experience for her in the first part of training camp and in these first few games but she’s one that we’re looking at to give her more time.
“She can make things happen with energy and that’s something we could really use right now – a player like that with the exuberance that everybody can feed off.’’
Like MREs, the military’s Meals Ready to Eat field rations, NRE could be Now Real Energy for New York. The Liberty have lost momentum as the game heads to the fourth quarter.
In the last two losses, the Liberty was held to just 11 points in each of the last two final stanzas. Along with R-E, Amanda Zahui B should see more time and rookie draft choice Lindsay Allen, who was re-signed on Wednesday, will play according to Laimbeer.
R-E was humbled to hear Laimbeer single her out but she doesn’t believe she played well against L.A.
“No, not really,’’ R-E said. “I think there were a lot of missed opportunities for myself, shots that I would usually make. I found myself rushing on put backs. That’s a big part of my struggle, just taking my time, realizing I that I have time. I do think I can improve a lot on the game I played.’’
At 6-2, 175, R-E has a been a post player most of her career at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC and in international play. She is transitioning to small forward and used last season playing in Australia to help expedite that move.
R-E worked out every day and three times a week she did one-on-one training sessions with her coach. R-E went to a more nutritious diet and arrived at Liberty camp as arguably the most athletic player.
“I feel I’m the strongest and most in shape I’ve ever been in my life,’’ R-E said.
It’s a life she envisioned 15 years ago. Raincock-Ekunwe, 25, got hooked on hoops by going to Toronto Raptors games with her father, Charles Ekunwe, a Nigerian-born man who works airport security in Toronto. Vince Carter and Kevin Garnett became her favorite players.
R-E soon realized she had a knack for the game and unique athleticism. When she moved from Toronto to British Columbia as an 11th grader with her mother, Denise Raincock, an urban economic development expert from Great Britain, Nayo began playing at Kalamalka Secondary School.
She was selected to play on the British Columbia Provincial team and colleges started taking notice, just not many elite U.S. colleges. R-E signed with Simon Fraser University and the journey got a little more bizarre and intense.
Earning All-Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) 1st Team Rookie honors, R-E helped lead SFU to the Canadian Interuniversity Sports national championship in 2009-10 — think NCAA, but we’ll get to that.
SFU opted to become the first international school to join the NCAA. The Clan was accepted into the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, a Division II organization.
“It was a pretty big deal at the time,’’ said R-E.
It also was a rude awakening. The Clan won just two games.
But by the time R-E was a senior, The Clan made it to the West Region Final. R-E was voted the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Year and NCAA All-America First Team.
So why not go to right to the WNBA?
“There are maybe two, three really strong teams in Canada,’’ said R-E. “Then the level really drops off. I thought I needed to work on my game.’’
She played for Switzerland, Germany, Australia and France and then for Canada at the 2016 Olympics. The Liberty signed her and R-E isn’t looking back, although she and her mom are looking for that 5th-grade assignment.
“It was just that one page and then you could write it like a whole assignment – your future, your future house, future career and then you draw yourself in every situation,’’ she said.
“I’m trying to find it but my mom doesn’t know where to look. Our garage is just …. but she keeps everything from grade school. So somewhere in my house, there’s a picture of me in a Mystics shirt.’’
Now she’s in a Liberty jersey.
“This opportunity with the WNBA has helped me just to see how the top female basketball players in the WNBA operate,’’ said R-E. “Seeing how Tina Charles practices, how hard she works off the court. It’s definitely a great environment to be in.
“I knew what I was capable of doing. Of course, there are some very, very talented women here. I want to do anything I can to help the team win and that starts with bringing energy.
Now Ready Energy, now playing at The Garden. It could be the happy ending to a heckuva of a story.