July 24, 2020
Meesseman, Allemand carry Belgium’s new legacy in the WNBA
They've teamed up to lead the Belgian Cats to new heights, but in the wubble on Saturday, they'll be rivals
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The second week of February was a busy one in the world of women’s basketball.
On Monday, Feb. 10, the WNBA free agency signing period began, during which Belgian star Emma Meesseman re-signed with the defending-champion Washington Mystics. A few weeks later, her compatriot Julie Allemand signed with the Indiana Fever, marking her official entrance into the league.
But that week in particular, both Meesseman and Allemand had something else on their minds. One day before WNBA free agency opened, on Sunday, Feb. 9, Belgium defeated Sweden 61-53 to secure a spot in the 2020 Olympic Games, the country’s first-ever bid. It was the most-watched basketball game in Belgian history, and perhaps the most historic.
Just a handful of years ago, this outcome seemed impossible. But in that moment, it was something much bigger.
“It’s amazing that each of us, players, staff, fans, made a dream come true,” Meesseman said postgame. “We wrote history and we’re just gonna enjoy that fact and try to get better. We finally know where we’re gonna be this summer.”
Then, the coronavirus pandemic reached Europe and, soon enough, the rest of the world. Three weeks after Allemand signed with the Fever, the International Olympic Committee announced the Tokyo Olympics would be postponed to 2021. With that decision went Belgium’s chance of seeking further glory on the world’s biggest stage, at least for the foreseeable future.
But the postponement of the Olympics doesn’t dampen the promise of more Belgian basketball this summer. While Meesseman was referring to the Olympics, her words take on a new meaning as she and Allemand prepare to face off when the WNBA opens play Saturday.
The reality, for now, is the upcoming WNBA season. But the dream, still alive, is the continued enhancement of Belgian basketball.
“Five years ago, we were nowhere”
The history of women’s basketball in Belgium isn’t exactly short, but it also isn’t particularly fruitful. Recently, Allemand went so far as to say that Belgian basketball, at the club level, is “not very good.”
For the most part, club teams from Russia (or the Soviet Union), Italy and France have dominated the game in Europe. When EuroLeague Women, the top international club competition, shut down the 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, five of the eight remaining teams were from France and Russia. Allemand’s and Meesseman’s teams — Lyon ASVEL Féminin and UMMC Ekaterinburg, respectively — were among that star-studded quintet.
A Belgium-based club team has never won a EuroLeague Women title since the competition’s inception in 1958, and since EuroCup Women (the second-highest international club competition) was founded in 2002, only Castors Braine — which most recently competed as Belgium’s only representative in EuroLeague — has made a championship final.
But the Belgium national team has picked up the slack recently. Founded in 1950, the Belgian Cats qualified for 10 of the 34 EuroBasket Women tournaments — the European championship — held from that year until 2015.
It was difficult to encourage players to join the national team, head coach Philip Mestdagh said in February. When Mestdagh took over as head coach in 2015 — in the midst of building the game locally as the head coach of Castors Braine and, currently, Namur Capitale — he invited players to the mountains of Slovenia for an unpaid training camp. The idea was to etch a new era of Belgian women’s basketball, starting with a core group of players who would stay on with the national team year after year.
“Five years ago, we were nowhere,” Meesseman said this winter. “We’d never won a European championship, we’d never won a world championship, we’d never really made it through the qualifiers.”
That Mestdagh set the bar at consistency of players and staff alike explains the team’s recent successes, as does, of course, the level of talent on the roster. He asked Ann Wauters, the now-39-year-old figurehead of modern Belgian women’s basketball, to come back to the national team, which she now captains. Meesseman, as well as Mestdagh’s daughters Kim and Hanne, were among the star players as Belgium’s new era began.
Though Belgium had already failed to qualify for EuroBasket 2015 when Mestdagh took the reins, it qualified for consecutive EuroBasket tournaments in 2017 and 2019 for the first time since 1968 and 1970. Those two rosters had just a one-player difference, as Allemand replaced Sofie Hendrickx in the latter tournament.
When Belgium burst back onto the European stage in 2017, it did so in a series of statement games, rattling off four straight wins against Montenegro, Russia, Latvia and Italy in group play and the quarterfinal. Its 16-point loss to Spain in the semifinal sent it to the third-place game, where it coasted to a win against Greece for its first-ever international medal.
Although the Cats have yet to collect further medals, their successes since 2017 remain interconnected. That bronze medal led to a spot in the 2018 FIBA World Cup, during which they again won all three group games and the quarterfinal, but fell in the semifinal and third-place game to finish a respectable fourth. Meesseman and Allemand both performed well for Belgium against the eventual-champion United States in the semifinal, despite a double-figures loss — Meesseman’s 23 points were second only to Diana Taurasi’s 26, and Allemand’s 12 assists were the second-highest single-game mark of the tournament (topped only by her previous 13-assist outing against France).
A fifth-place finish at EuroBasket 2019 was enough to grant Belgium a place in the Olympic qualifying tournaments, one of which took place in Ostend, Belgium. There, in front of 12,500 fans — another testament to the growth of women’s basketball in the country — the Cats completed their biggest achievement yet as they finished second in their group and qualified for the Olympics. Meesseman took home MVP honors, while Allemand joined her in the tournament’s All-Star Five.
“Dreams do come true,” Wauters told the team after the game. “If you believe hard enough, if you work hard enough, maybe we can inspire a whole generation behind us.”
“For Belgium, it’s a dream [to play in] the WNBA”
Just as Belgium’s stock is rising in international competition, its players are getting more attention in the WNBA, which is considered the top professional league in the world. Last year, Meesseman became the first Belgian player to win WNBA Finals MVP, and Allemand’s debut this season will make her the third Belgian player to appear in her first WNBA game in as many seasons.
However, Belgium’s WNBA history goes all the way back to 2000, the league’s fourth season, when the Cleveland Rockers drafted Wauters with the No. 1 overall pick. Wauters played nine seasons between 2000 and 2016, earning one All-Star nod in 2005 and averaging 9.9 points and 5.0 rebounds in her career.
When Meesseman and Allemand were growing up, Wauters was the only Belgian player in the league. “For Belgium, it’s a dream [to play in] the WNBA, because we’re a small country,” Allemand said recently. She credited Wauters and Meesseman with paving the way and providing a blueprint for younger players to follow and learn from.
Meesseman was drafted with the No. 19 pick in 2013 and soon became the second-ever Belgian to play in a WNBA game. Meesseman hadn’t watched WNBA games and did not follow the draft; in fact, she was so unfamiliar with American basketball that, upon learning she had been picked by the Washington Mystics, she consulted a map and deduced she was headed to Washington State.
Washington Mystics forward Emma Meesseman is announced as the WNBA Finals MVP on October 10, 2019. Her teammate, Kim Mestdagh, is behind her to the left, with her fist in the air. (Photo credit: Chris Poss)
Meesseman has played for the Mystics in six of the past seven seasons, missing the 2018 season to play with the Belgian national team. In 2016, she was part of the first two matchups of Belgian players in WNBA history, when she played against Wauters and the Los Angeles Sparks. Both games went Wauters’ and the Sparks’ way, but Meesseman won the head-to-head matchup by scoring a combined 29 points to Wauters’ 15.
Allemand recalled how the Belgian national team “could see a big difference” as Meesseman got more experience in the WNBA. “She was more [of] a leader for us,” Allemand said, “and it’s been so nice to see her growing up like this.”
In 2018, while Meesseman was away, undrafted Belgian point guard Hind Ben Abdelkader played her only season in the league, averaging 10.1 minutes and 2.1 points in 14 games with Indiana. The following year, Meesseman returned — and brought with her guard Kim Mestdagh, another Belgian Cat who previously starred at Colorado State. Mestdagh and Meesseman became the first pair of Belgian teammates in the league, and despite the fact that Meesseman was a star while Mestdagh was a deep reserve, they shared the court for 23 minutes last season.
Emma Meesseman (left) and Kim Mestdagh of the Washington Mystics celebrate after winning Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals on October 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)
Allemand is set to join the WNBA four years after she was drafted by Indiana with the No. 33 pick. Back in 2016, “I didn’t really know anything about Indiana,” Allemand admitted at the team’s recent media day. “I just knew that Tamika Catchings was playing there.”
“Now it’s time to come and to see what I can do”
When Meesseman first arrived in Washington in 2013, she famously packed just one bag, convinced that she would get cut and be back in Belgium within a few weeks.
Allemand, four years older than Meesseman was in 2013 and having watched Meesseman succeed, has been more bullish about her own chances of success in the WNBA. (Allemand also had the advantage of making the Fever roster before she even arrived in the United States because of the pandemic-altered WNBA schedule.)
“I think that when I was drafted, I was really too young,” Allemand reflected. “…I’ve been playing overseas, I’ve been playing with the national team. So I got some experience. And I think that now it’s time to come and to see what I can do.”
Her new head coach, Marianne Stanley — who joined the Fever in the offseason after a championship run with Meesseman and the Mystics in 2019 — is already a believer. Over the past month, Stanley has gushed about Allemand’s professionalism, conditioning, leadership, experience, basketball IQ and ability to blend with her teammates. “She’s just a gem; [I] couldn’t be happier with her,” Stanley summarized.
The two Belgians shared a meal this week in the wubble. (Instagram: @emma_meesseman)
Meesseman described Allemand similarly and called her a budding leader for the Cats. “I think you’ll fall in love with her game,” Meesseman told the media recently. “… I’m so happy that she’s here and that she finally is in the league, where she deserves to be, because she’s really good. Over the past few years … she really has made a big evolution; she’s become one of our leaders in [the] national team.”
Meesseman added, “I’m really hoping that she will learn a lot here so [she] can bring that back to Belgium.”
Another member of the Belgian Cats also couldn’t be happier for Allemand. “It’s great to have another Belgian player in the WNBA,” Kim Mestdagh told The Next. “I believe Julie deserves it and she has a bright future ahead of her. … I wished for her that she could have a normal first experience in the league, but she will definitely not easily forget this one.”
“Belgium will be behind us”
Saturday will be the third time in WNBA history that two Belgians will play against one another, and it has a chance to be the first time ever that two Belgians start in the same game.
Mestdagh believes that opening the season against each other will be exciting for both Meesseman and Allemand. Allemand said as much in recent press conferences, calling the matchup “the perfect start” to her WNBA career. “I’m so excited to play against [Meesseman] … to start my new experience well,” she said.
Meesseman hopes that Allemand’s career gets off to a good start — except on the scoreboard. “We’re going to try to win, but I hope she will do well,” Meesseman said of her countrywoman. “… She has a beautiful, beautiful game.”
The significance of the game hasn’t gone unnoticed in Belgium, where it will tip off at 11 p.m. local time. (In the U.S., it will start at 5 p.m. ET and be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.) Despite the late hour and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Belgian fans are not waffling on whether to tune in.
“They are waiting for it,” Allemand said. “I know that lots of people want to do some things like have a big screen and be able to watch the game [with] everybody together. … Everybody’s really excited and so am [I].”
Belgian players’ skills are increasingly translating to American basketball, and so, too, is the enthusiasm of the Belgian fans. Even though Allemand and Meesseman are secluded in the WNBA’s bubble thousands of miles away, Allemand said she feels the support from her home country, just as she and her teammates did in the Olympic qualifying tournament on home soil:
“I know that Belgium will be behind us and cheering for both of us.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.