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SPORTS

Elena Tsineke, Knocking on the WNBA’s Door, Talks to TNH

NEW YORK – Sports fans call her the ‘female Antetokounmpo’ due to her inexhaustible talent but also to her Nigerian heritage from her father’s side. The University of South Florida (USF), where she plays, sees in her one of the next candidates for a remarkable career in the WNBA. In any case, the dreams of Elena Tsineke, the young Greek USF basketball player, have no bounds and are evolving step by step, like her contact with the sport itself.

“In the beginning, my sister and I were involved in athletics and it was something we liked. But across the street from the house was an outdoor basketball court. We had much more fun with this sport and continued to play on the court for hours. Then, a coach, Stavros Gounaridis, saw us. He invited us to Neos Evosmos and suggested we try it. When we were there, other coaches saw us and saw the development potential we had,” the athlete from Thessaloniki told The National Herald.

Both Elena and her sister, Katerina, are considered among the most important talents in Greek women’s basketball. Their performances led to their rapid promotion from the girls and youth teams to the women’s teams. Elena was on Aris and then on the Lefkada team, until the prospect of America came up, while her sister switched to Panathinaikos.

Elena Tsineke on the court. (Photo: Mary Holt)

“America emerged from European championships. My own coach had come to Hungary and saw the European Youth Championship for the under 18 age group. My father was also there and that’s how we met. He saw that I had a good chance to play on the team. From then on, we started talking, I was interested and I found myself here,” said Tsineke.

At the age of 19, the young Elena found herself in the blink of an eye outside of Greece, in a distant and unknown country, under completely new conditions and different requirements, while the pandemic hit, with training and her studies interrupted and extended by one year. She admits that the adjustment was difficult in many ways, but she did not give up.

“When I came I really thought about going back. The process took 6-7 months. My English wasn’t that good either. Everything was completely different, everything was bigger, everything was happening faster. I would say, of course, that people here are more dedicated to work. So it took me some time to get used to it. I like it now because I wasn’t that serious and committed to the things I was doing, but here I learned what it’s like to commit to something and set goals. Not only in basketball, but also in school. It’s important to do well, get good grades, and train often,” she said, adding that “it all comes down to the team.”

“Since my time here, I have been able to be patient, make better decisions in the game, better shooting options. I have realized how important it is to play with organization. The coaches put a lot of emphasis on your self-improvement as a player, on extra training. These may seem like details, but they are very important to the team itself. After all, that’s what it all boils down to: What you achieve individually contributes to the final result. The University I am in has a winning mentality. It is famous for its victories.”

Elena Tsineke. (PHOTO: LATO KLODIAN / EUROKINISSI)
Elena Tsineke. (PHOTO: LATO KLODIAN / EUROKINISSI)

“So close, yet so far”

USF officials have their eyes on Elena and see her as one of the most gifted athletes in the NCAA. In fact, with today’s data, she ticks all the boxes of conditions for the WNBA to knock on her door, for a promising career at the highest level. She herself remains grounded, knowing, however, that the countdown has begun.

“The WNBA is so close, but at the same time, so far. It’s further I would say because what I do now matters. If I think like that, it makes it easier for me to keep working and believe that I will succeed. Practically, it’s close because it’s my last year here this year. It’s how I deal with each day to reach that goal that matters,” was her response.

During the season that just ended, 18 Greek women athletes competed in the NCAA. One of them is Elena’s sister, Katerina, and they have competed against each other on American soil.

“We played against each other once. I had asked my coach not to make me guard her, but he didn’t listen. She also guarded me. It was a nice moment, but it is difficult for it to happen again, as she changed schools and we are no longer in the same district. Unless we are in an advanced round,” she said, noting the fact that women’s basketball in the USA is more popular than in Greece.
“Women’s basketball will be watched here, even if not as much as we would like. Of course, if you compare it with Greece, it’s like night and day. Everything is more sophisticated and the facilities are very good,” concluded Tsineke.

Elena Tsineke on the court in the USF Bulls against the Tennessee Lady Vols at Neyland Stadium on November 15, 2021, in Knoxville, TN. (Photo by Randy Sartin/USF Athletics)

“Racism did not affect us”

Elena and Katerina, two children born in Greece with roots in Nigeria, were called to join a society that was not completely accustomed to diversity. According to Elena, even if they did not encounter racism in its worst form, they nevertheless felt uncomfortable at times, seeing reactions of surprise to their skin color as children.

“Sure, racism has always existed and it exists now. Personally, my sister and I did not experience racism so much, but there was this curiosity mainly from children, who don’t often see two black women walking down the street. I wouldn’t say it affected us, but it made us feel a little weird. They were asking their mom about us, but that’s also about how you grow up. In our school there was diversity, so we didn’t have a problem,” the 23-year-old athlete said, noting that everything lies in education from home.

“Personally, if I had children, I would tell them that there are Black children out there, there are Asian children, so that they know that these children exist, too. It’s natural for a child who encounters something he doesn’t see often to be puzzled,” she said.

Elena Tsineke playing for the USF Bulls against the Tennessee Lady Vols at Neyland Stadium on November 15, 2021, in Knoxville, TN. (Photo by Randy Sartin/USF Athletics)

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