Ann Wauters remembers her feelings of insecurity while growing up in Sint-Gillis-Waas, Belgium.
“I was that girl who was way too tall and I didn’t have too much confidence,” the 6-foot-4 center recalls.
It wasn’t until a classmate suggested the shy preteen turn her height from an insecurity into an advantage by playing basketball that Wauters was able to truly be herself. The basketball court felt like home; it became a source of confidence.
Yet despite her growing interest in basketball—hardly a popular sport in a nation dominated by soccer, cycling and field hockey—Wauters yearned for inspiration to not only improve her game, but also to determine whether or not she could make this her future.
She watched a VHS with highlights of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Isiah Thomas and the other stars of the NBA in the early-to-mid ’90s with her mouth agape at every dunk, alley-oop, no-look pass and buzzer beater. That fire burned even brighter when she saw her first commercial for the newly formed WNBA in 1996.
In just a few short years, Wauters, then 19, would become the first Belgian to play in the WNBA after being selected first overall in the 2000 WNBA Draft by the now-defunct Cleveland Rockers.
“There was no attention to women’s basketball in Belgium at all, so when you see how far we’ve come, that’s a really, really nice road we’ve taken,” Wauters said. “Even at the beginning of my career when I was drafted into the WNBA, people started to notice it a little more like, ‘Huh, there’s a Belgian going to the States to play in the WNBA?’ and because we didn’t have the best results with our national team, the attention kept focused a bit more on me.”
Just like she was inspired by the NBA stars of the ’90s, Wauters’ international success—which included a 2005 WNBA All-Star selection, 2016 WNBA championship and four EuroLeague titles—not only paved the way for future Belgian players Emma Meesseman, Julie Allemand, Kim Mestdagh and Hind Ben Abdelkader to follow in her footsteps into the WNBA, it also began creating the perfect storm of opportunity and success that led to the Belgian women’s basketball team qualifying for the 2021 Olympics for the first time in the nation’s history.
Investing in the future
Unlike Wauters, a five-time European Player of the Year, who got interested in basketball by happenstance, Meesseman grew up surrounded by the sport—her mother, Sonja Tankrey, was named Belgian Women’s Basketball Player of the Year in 1983. While Meesseman participated in sports and hobbies ranging from scouts to tennis, it wasn’t until she was 16 when she began her club basketball career.
“She never pushed me into basketball,” Meesseman said. “The important thing growing up for me and my brother was that we had to play sports and have as many hobbies as possible, so I did a ton of things, not only basketball.”
Once she fully focused on basketball, Meesseman’s ascension was just as rapid as Wauters’—she won the 2011 European Championship with the Belgian Under-18 national team and was voted FIBA Europe Young Women’s Player of the Year. Meesseman parlayed that success into a contract to play in France, before being drafted 19th overall in the 2013 WNBA Draft.
Wanting to further facilitate the development pathway for young girls and women who could hopefully replicate the success of both Wauters and Meesseman, Belgium Basketball, the sport’s governing body, began a youth project in 2011 which gave up-and-coming players including Meesseman, Mestdagh, Julie Vanloo and Jana Raman more experience playing international competition. Belgian Cats head coach Philip Mestdagh was coach of the Under-20 Young Cats from 2012-16.
“In Belgium we always had potential within women’s basketball but before it wasn’t possible to bring everyone together and have the right chemistry,” Mestdagh said. “We worked really well with the young kids—the generation of the girls born in ’90 and ’93. This was really the beginning.”
Patience pays off
Wauters and her teammates stood in a circle, arms interlocked. The veteran captain gave a rousing speech about dreams coming true and the hopes to inspire the next generation.
On February 9, 2020, the Belgian Cats had officially qualified for the Olympics for the first time in history. Belgium, the No. 6 team in the world according to FIBA, defeated Sweden 61-53 to punch its ticket to Tokyo 2020, which would serve as Wauters’ swansong.
Unfortunately, one month later, the coronavirus pandemic began taking its toll across the globe, and Olympic organizers on March 24 announced the Games would be postponed until 2021.
“I remember the rollercoaster of emotions,” Wauters, 40, said. “Everybody was upset and mad. We were like, ‘Why are they deciding this now? It’s such a long way to go,’ but we didn’t understand how severe the pandemic was back then. Now we obviously have a better understanding. It has been quite a year, that’s for sure.
“I felt it the most because I was going to retire at the biggest sporting event in the world. How cool? How amazing would that be? I was all set to do it and then was like ‘Wait, what? I have to play another year of basketball?’
While the Belgian Cats had to wait another year to make their long-awaited Olympic debut—barring any further cancellations or postponements due to the pandemic—the team is used to being patient and taking things step by step.
The team-first and fundamentally focused Cats waited 10 long years in between appearances in the FIBA European Championship, returning to the continent’s premier basketball tournament in 2017. Belgium reminded their neighboring nations of their presence by finishing in third place; their bronze-medal performance is the greatest result in Belgium women’s basketball history.
Their success in the Czech Republic that summer resulted in their first-ever qualification into the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in 2018, where they finished fourth.
“It’s true that it’s an evolution that we’ve seen,” Meesseman said. “People have seen it from 2017 because that’s when the results came, but I think it’s been going on way before that. A big part of that group is the generation from ’92-94 that mixed together with the generation already in the senior national team. … We didn’t know it back then but we could see when we played other teams that the basketball we were playing was so simple and nobody expected anything from us.
“Playing without the pressure was heaven.”
Unfortunately for Meesseman and Co., the Belgian Cats are no longer flying under the radar. The target on the back of the former Cinderella story has grown following their successes in 2017 and 2018. While they may no longer surprise opponents on the court, their achievements have resulted in increased visibility domestically and internationally.
Mestdagh remembers they could count how few people were in attendance in Antwerp for the 2015 EuroBasket qualifying games during 2013-14. Fast forward to Olympic qualifying in 2020 and there wasn’t an empty seat to be found at the 4,500-seat Versluys Dôme in Ostend to see the Cats make history. Not only that, but more than 650,000 tuned in for the deciding game against Sweden, making it the most-watched basketball game in Belgian history.
“With more attention, more girls will feel supported in what they want to do,” said Meesseman, who was named 2019 WNBA Finals MVP with the champion Washington Mystics. “We can be an example. … We know we may not have had the examples for us, but now we are the examples for the girls coming after us. They come to our games and message us about getting better to hopefully become a Belgian Cat later on.
“For me that doesn’t bring on any pressure on how I have to play or what results you have to have. We know young girls look at us. The only thing I look at is how I behave on the court and off the court.”
A nonstop summer
After failing to qualify for the 2015 European Championship, the Belgian Cats pressed the reset button in 2013. Head coach Benny Mertens was relieved of his duties and replaced by Daniel Goethals with Mestdagh as his assistant.
The Cats packed their bags and set off to Slovenia for their first training camp abroad in preparation for qualifying for the 2017 European Championship.
“This was really the beginning—in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of Slovenia,” said Mestdagh, who took over as head coach in 2015. “… Talking about the Olympics when we left for the training camp in Slovenia, we were just dreaming.”
The dream is now a reality, with a grueling schedule to boot. The Cats will be spending 14 consecutive weeks together, highlighted by the 2021 European Championship from June 17-27 in France and Spain immediately followed by the 2021 Summer Olympics from July 23 to August 8 in Tokyo.
Rather than being able to compete in qualifiers or a tournament, go home to rest and refocus before coming together again months later, the Cats need to continue that intensity, which can be a good or bad thing. The players trust the coaching staff, trainers and their teammates to provide ongoing support and camaraderie, while also understanding the importance of giving each other space when needed.
Mestdagh and his staff will continue to rely on Wauters, the team captain, on and off the court.
“It’s really great to have a player like her,” he said. “She’s almost my right hand when a coach isn’t in the group. She’s another member of the coaching staff but still in uniform as a player.”
The Belgian Cats will have a better idea of what their nonstop summer entails after the draw for the European Championship on March 8. Their opponents in Tokyo have already been determined: Belgium is in Group C along with Australia, China and Puerto Rico.
As has been the focus throughout Belgium’s ascension in women’s basketball, the goal remains to take things step by step and focus on the game and task at hand.
Regardless of the outcome in both summer tournaments, the Belgian Cats cemented themselves in the history books and showed a nation of approximately 11.5 million that anything is possible.
“It’s so, so important that young girls, but also young boys, see female role models, and they see that even if you come from a tiny, little country that’s smaller than the state of California that we can qualify for the Olympics is pretty special,” Wauters said. “If you do something with passion, love it and work hard, you can achieve big things. That’s the message we want to send to a new generation.”