When Canada’s women’s basketball team clinched an Olympic berth at their qualifying tournament in Ostend, Belgium, in early February, perhaps no one on the team was happier than Kayla Alexander.
That’s because — after suffering a knee injury while playing for Team Canada at the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup in September, her second in a two-year span — the Milton, Ont., native was grateful just to be able to suit up.
Thankfully, Alexander managed to do more than just that. She came back looking stronger and even more focused than before the injury, averaging 6.7 points on 60 per cent shooting in a reserve role. And her return to the court came with new perspective brought by what she’s been able to do off of it.
In August 2019, Alexander released her first children’s book, The Magic of Basketball, a title that encourages children to recognize and appreciate the gifts and opportunities sport can provide.
Sportsnet caught up with the seven-year WNBA veteran, who is currently signed with Polish club Arka Gdynia, to talk about clinching an Olympic berth, her rehab, her book and more.
Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sportsnet: Playing in the OQT in Belgium, you looked good out there, but how did you feel playing with that being your first bit of high-level international competition since the injury in September?
Kayla Alexander: I’m grateful to Carly Clarke — she’s the head coach at Ryerson University — because when I was rehabbing with Lauren Buschmann, our strength coach and trainer, she let me practise with the Ryerson girls. So I’m incredibly thankful to them because it helped me to get my footing and used to playing again with a team. So my first experience back was playing with them, and being able to run again felt weird. I felt this pulling sensation and I couldn’t run properly because I was thinking about it. But eventually I got to a point in Belgium where I didn’t have to think about it and I could just play.
SN: During your rehab process, what was the main motivating factor that got you through those days when you were, perhaps, feeling down mentally?
Alexander: There were a number of things. The first one was knowing that I’ve been here before and I’ve come back. Last fall (in 2018), I think when we went to Worlds in Spain — that was the first time I made the national team, and right before we left for Worlds I went down with an MCL injury, so I couldn’t play. It was a PCL this time around, but knowing that I had come back the first time I was confident that I could come back from this.
But I’m not gonna lie: There were days where I was with Lauren, and after practice she’d make me run drills on the court and I was not in the mood. I was talking to myself: “Kayla, Belgium. Kayla, Tokyo. This is what you’ve wanted for so long and you’ve been denied it for so long.” So I’m not gonna be the one to deny myself the opportunity. If I’m gonna be denied the opportunity, it’s gonna be because of something else. I’m gonna do everything in my power to get myself into a position to be in Belgium and be in Tokyo.
But Lauren, I owe her so much. She always encouraged me. She was like, “You’re putting in the work, you’re doing the right thing!”
SN: Knowing everything you went through to get back, what was your reaction when you and the rest of Team Canada officially clinched an Olympic spot?
Alexander: Just gratitude. I’m just thankful that one, I was able to compete with this team alongside these incredible women, two, that my body was healthy enough to be able to compete.
I know how hard it is to get to this position and what an honour it is — what a privilege it is — to be able to compete for your country.
SN: How did the opportunity with Arka Gdynia come about?
Alexander: When I was rehabbing and getting ready to try to get back for FIBA and Team Canada I told my agent I really wanted to play again as soon as possible. I know it’s kind of hard because most teams are already set, but I just really wanted to play.
Then a couple days before I left for Belgium my agent got back to me with a contract saying, “This team would be happy to have you.” So we signed the contract and then two days before I left for Belgium I had to pack for Belgium and for Poland.
SN: So right after the OQT you just hopped a flight to Poland?
Alexander: I went to Senegal first with Team Canada and the COC, and then from Senegal I came straight to Poland.
SN: You went to Senegal as part of a collaboration between the Canadian government and Right to Play to promote girls’ empowerment and equality in the country. What was that experience like?
Alexander: Unreal. I’ve never been to Senegal or Africa, in general, and it was amazing. I fell in love with it. The people were so warm and so kind…. [We also] had the opportunity while we were there to visit SEED Project Academy. It’s great what they’re doing there. They have equality. They had 40 girls in the academy and they just work on their drills and their skill sets trying to improve as basketball players, but also working on their academics and their life skills, which is something I’m a big advocate for, using basketball as a vehicle to help build up young adults.
A huge thank you to Kayla Alexander @kjalexan40 from @TeamCanada for coming all the way to #Senegal to talk to the youth of @seedproject about the impact sport has had on her life. It was one of the highlights of the event! : @AdamScotti #2020CANSEN pic.twitter.com/1Eq9W7zqik
— Canada in Senegal (@CanEmbSenegal) February 14, 2020
Being able to share and to speak on the importance of having young girls stay in sport — and I did that in French. You could see the search for knowledge there among the kids.
I could talk about this forever, but one of the things I love the most about basketball is that it’s such a global sport and it brings people together, regardless of your ethnicity, the language you speak and your gender. You’re building up people and you’re building relationships and creating cool opportunities for young kids.
SN: Your experience in Senegal seems to have mirrored the message you were trying to get across in the book you wrote. Did you get a chance to show off your book over there?
Alexander: Yes, I didn’t even think about this because I was so focused on Team Canada and qualifying for the Olympics and then getting ready for Poland.
(COC vice president of international relations and public affairs) Andrew Baker, he actually purchased some copies of my book and then he allowed me to sign them, and we gifted them to some of the key members of SEED Project Academy so they could have a copy of the book, and some other very important people, which I’m very thankful for because I’m still new at this “promoting your book” thing.
Kayla Alexander, Canadian athlete and children’s book author, is a role model for young Black Canadian girls. She has three pieces of advice to give to young Canadians. #BHM2020 #LeadersToday #Tokyo2020 https://t.co/RwlruVWTnM
— Canadian Heritage (@CdnHeritage) February 25, 2020
SN: Well, here’s an opportunity for you to plug the book. What inspired you to write it in the first place?
Alexander: This is a long story, so bear with me. When I was in school I had this teacher (in about the first or second grade), Madam Cossette, and she was incredible. She had such an impact on my life that in second grade I decided I was gonna be a teacher. Then basketball entered the picture, and it created a whole new life for me that I never pictured for myself. So I went from thinking, “I’m gonna be a teacher,” to now I’m living this life where I get to play basketball for a living and I now get to travel the world.
And then, when I was thinking back, because I love art and I love to draw, I was thinking, “OK, how can I combine all of these different passions of mine?” I love working with kids, I love talking to them and sharing my experiences with them and what basketball has taught me. And then it hit me: “Kayla, write a children’s book.” I decided to do something straight out of my life story. From discovering the game of basketball and how the first basketball game I went to I got the gift of a lifelong friend who got me into the sport, and from there just talking about the different gifts along the way that the journey of basketball’s given me — like teaching me about teamwork and hard work, to perseverance and time management.
Honestly, I will advocate this until the day I die: I love the sport of basketball, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized it’s so much bigger than putting a ball in a hoop. Basketball can teach you so much, and I want kids to understand that.
And then the other part of that, too, is growing up I learned the importance of writing down your goals and having big dreams. So in the book I have two pages offering kids to write. The first page is to write down all of your dreams – write down everything you’ve ever dreamed of and everything you want to accomplish in life – and then on the second page it talks about your goals. I want to encourage kids to start writing those because they’re like an action plan on how you’re gonna make your dreams a reality.
[The book’s] a passion project and I’ve had this idea in my head for so long that, if I’m being honest, I let fear stop me from putting this out there for such a long time because I kept thinking, like, “What if it’s not good enough? No one really knows me so no one’s gonna buy it. Who am I to write this book?” And then I had to be in my head and be like, “Kayla, no, be bold — you’re always teaching kids to try new things and be unafraid, so do that yourself. Live your truth.”
That’s another big thing that I like to teach to young kids, too: Try new things. Get out of your comfort zone because everything you’ll ever want is always on the other side of your comfort zone, which I’m learning every day.
An earlier version of this story was published in March 2020.