Key Storm reserve Svetlana Abrosimova has joined former Connecticut teammates Sue Bird and Swin Cash in Seattle.
The airplane feels like a cocoon to Svetlana Abrosimova. As long as she stays on the plane she can believe she’s still home in St. Petersburg, Russia.
On the plane, the language barrier is manageable. All of the problems of transitioning to a new country, a new language, a new culture, still are 36,000 feet below her.
She is 17 and believing it will be “cool” going to college and playing basketball in the States. But somewhere over the Atlantic, she begins to feel anxious. She begins playing a nervous game of “What if” in her mind.
“I started thinking, ‘What if nobody is at the airport waiting for me?’ ” she said this week. ” ‘What if the person who is supposed to pick me up gets in a car accident? I don’t have any phone numbers. Nothing. What will I do? Will I stay at the airport for days, just waiting and waiting?’ “
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Her ride is waiting for her, but several days later, the first day of her freshman year at the University of Connecticut, her first class is a sociology course, and her first assignment is daunting.
Abrosimova is new to the English language. She knows “yes” and “no” and not a whole lot else, and her assignment is to read the first 100 pages from the sociology textbook.
“It took me two hours to read the first two pages,” Abrosimova said. “I was thinking that this is going to be a long year. The first couple of months I didn’t really understand anything. People talked a lot of slang and really fast and I kept asking, ‘Please slow down.’
“I was pretty shy. I was in a new country, far away from home, and I didn’t want to make any mistakes. So I would stay quiet, look from outside and observe.”
Abrosimova was a freshman when Sue Bird made her recruiting trip to UConn.
“I remember her English wasn’t that great, but she was learning quickly,” said Bird, who has been reunited with Abrosimova in Seattle with the Storm this season. “We’d be playing basketball and a ball would go off her, clearly and she would say, ‘No touch. No touch.’ But by the time I got to school there (a year later), she had learned English very quickly.”
Thirteen years later, Abrosimova is sitting on a chair after a Storm practice before Wednesday night’s first game of the WNBA playoff series against the Los Angeles Sparks.
She is a UConn graduate, a former dean’s-list student with a degree in business administration and a former All-American. She is a nine-year league veteran.
She is playing 20 minutes a game with the Storm, averaging 7.6 points and 3.1 rebounds and is one of the difference-makers on the best bench in the Storm’s history.
“At UConn I learned that you can’t get frustrated,” she said. “You have to keep going. You take it day by day and you listen to your tutors. I had a lot of help.
“Back then, I didn’t have a boyfriend. There was no My Space. I didn’t have a cellphone. I had my classes and basketball. That was my life. And the basketball team became my family and Connecticut became a very special place.”
Abrosimova, 30, has come a long way since those first nervous days in this country. Now her Russian-accented English is very good and she is enjoying the first winning season of her long WNBA career.
“Svetlana is a risk-taker,” said Storm forward Swin Cash, who was a UConn teammate. “She’s a competitor. She wants to win a championship here, and she’s hungry now.”
Here’s a tip for building WNBA championship teams: Find a lot of former UConn players. Storm coach Brian Agler has three — Bird, Cash and Abrosimova.
“It seems to work,” said Bird.
Abrosimova looks refreshed. Her 2009 sabbatical, when the round-the-clock, round-the-world life of a women’s professional hooper finally got to her, has revitalized her game.
“Obviously I’m not playing here for the money, because I make a lot more playing in Europe,” she said. “I play here for the love of the game. This is to win a championship. And it’s working here.
“We have a special group of players here who understand the game and, at the same time, are still hungry to win. It will be a big disappointment if we don’t win.”
This season feels like déjà-UConn to Abrosimova. She is winning again, and winning — no matter where it is — feels like home.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org