Character Counts in AU Basketball

We sat down with WNBA player and AU Player Executive Committee member Jantel Lavender, who shed some light on AU Basketball’s recruitment process.

By Alexandra Cadet

Blink during a rerun of AU Basketball’s first-ever game and you’ll miss an intriguing moment. In a commercial after the second quarter, several athletes discuss the charities they’re raising money for as part of the Athletes Causes program. Though the segment was brief, its content spoke to Athletes Unlimited’s core values in a big way.

The athletes in the TV spot don’t stop at simply stating what cause they’re playing for; they explain why they’re passionate about it in the first place. Laurin Mincy plays for the L–Train Memorial in order to honor her friend’s late father. Ty Young discovered the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network after a loved one was diagnosed. Autoimmune illnesses run in Isabel Harrison’s family, which led her to the Lupus Foundation. Each one of these women has a reason for playing that’s bigger than themselves, and they share it with conviction and strength.

“We’re really pushing storytelling,” Jantel Lavender shared with She Plays last week. “A lot of the players that are here have very, very unique stories. And for me, I don’t know, that’s the part that I think is great, because we all have different charities and causes that we’re playing for.”

Lavender, who is currently 5th on the league leaderboard, is a member of the Basketball Player Executive Committee (PEC), a team that works with AU on many aspects of the league, ranging from roster selection to rulebook writing.

The former task, according to Lavender, involved luring “the players that are here from the W[NBA]. I feel like most of us are the ones that have retired, [or] kind of felt like their career may have been shortcut, or, you know, […] they may be more interested in pushing storytelling.” 

Another kind of athlete that the league welcomed with open arms? “Players who feel like they’re up to the talent level, and they haven’t gotten a shot in the W[NBA] that they feel like they deserve” due to its strict capacity limits, Lavender said.

The official recruitment process for AU Basketball is no joke, and requires immense skill on the applicant’s part. “There’s a process where we look through film and make sure that [the recruit’s] level of basketball is going to be up to par so that people actually want to watch it,” she said. “You could just be like ‘Hey, I’m interested,’ submit a video, and then the higher-ups and the PEC kind of [go] through it and say like, ‘Okay, yeah, I think that they’re up to par and their talent level is there.’ So it’s not like everybody can get in.” 

But natural talent is just one piece of the puzzle. The PEC––and AU Basketball as a whole––values character and motivation just as much as athletic ability. It’s the reason why a player who paused her career to advocate for social justice serves as the league’s main headliner. It’s why a handful of game days will be themed around women’ rights and Black history. Most importantly, it’s why players like Mincy, Young, and Harrison can feel empowered to discuss their charities of choice in TV spots. “It’s really about, you know, having a cause, being able to play basketball, [and] being a good person,” Lavender says. Clearly, values are at the core of this league’s construction, which is pretty consistent with Athletes Unlimited’s overall goal.

Jantel and her Week 1 teammates celebrating a 3-0 record. (Photo Courtesy of Jantel Lavender Instagram)

The first week of AU Basketball’s inaugural season went off without a hitch. What’s more, the athletes seem to be having an absolute whale of a time. “I haven’t had this much fun hooping in a while,” said new team captain Lexie Brown on Twitter. But as enjoyable as it is for the WNBA and non-league athletes to finally get their shot, as Lavender suggested, it’s doubly rewarding for the fans to see a league like this make such a big splash. With the help of the Player Executive Committee, Athletes Unlimited has created a collective of gifted athletes with strong character, powerful stories, and admirable motivations, and women’s hoops is all the stronger for it. 

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