Welcome to our Canadian Pioneer series.
Each week throughout the month of April we'll be celebrating one of the pioneers of our game. The ones who helped elevate the game in our country. The ones who broke through glass ceilings and walked through closed doors. The names in the game that should never be forgotten.
This week, we highlight Miranda Ayim.
Sports have always been a part of Miranda Ayim's life.
She's been playing them since the time that she could walk. All sorts of sports - not just basketball, which she's since turned into a career.
But as much as sports were a part of her life, she still found the time to fall in love with things outside of competition.
Ayim loves nature. Trips to Algonquin Provincial Park - Canada's oldest provincial park, which is nestled between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River - shaped her childhood. Ayim remembers summer trips camping with her family - real camping as she calls it, which has left an impression on her. Her apartment in southwest France, where she's set to complete her final professional season for Basket Landes, is decorated with greenery.
The constellation of plants, thoughtfully placed throughout her apartment, overlap with her other love, interior design. Ayim remembers re-arranging her room as a kid and thinking that she'd one day become an interior designer.
"I loved interior design. So I was one of those kids, I was always moving things or rearranging my room every week, every month. I thought I would become an interior designer ... I did not," Ayim told NBA.com laughing.
"But obviously I grew up in a family that was really sports-minded, so I was playing sports from the time that I could walk."
Her two off-court passions could have very well shaped her personality, as well as potentially turned her into the woman and athlete she's become.
Her calm, relaxed and composed demeanour may have been shaped by the peacefulness she felt camping at Algonquin. Her creativity and adaptability on the court may have been shaped by constantly remixing her surroundings.
While nature and interior design still hold a spot in Ayim's heart, sports may very well be her heartbeat. Her father, Gus, played university basketball and her mother, Sandy, ran track and would later coach hoops at the elementary school she taught at.
Ayim played a handful of sports, but basketball and volleyball stood out amongst the group. Her older brother, Kyler, played basketball in high school and Ayim wanted to follow in his footsteps. It worked out for her career-wise, but things could've been different. Ayim admits that she may have loved volleyball more than basketball in her younger years. Once opportunities to get a free post-secondary education presented themselves in hoops, she began to focus her attention there.
Ayim would wind up at Pepperdine, a private university located near Malibu, California. She would feature for Pepperdine in all four years she attended the school. She set the school's blocks record and finished in the top 10 all-time in points and rebounds for the university.
While playing ball and getting a free education was something Ayim checked off her list, playing for the Senior National Team was a dream. Ayim had already been immersed with Team Canada through development programs and had represented Canada at the junior level but she wanted to compete at the highest level for her country. While playing at Pepperdine, she realized that if she wanted to continue to compete for Canada she would have to turn pro and play overseas.
A decision she thought would only last a year turned into a decade-long pro career in some of the most competitive leagues in the world.
"As I was progressing through university, (I) realized that if I wanted to continue playing for the national team I was going to have to continue to play overseas.
"So that's when I made that decision in my last year of university in California, to take the plunge and try playing overseas just for one year to see how the experience was and here I am 10 years later still over here," she said, laughing.
Ayim's professional playing career will come to an end at the end of Basket Landes' season. Her decade-long pro career, which saw her spend the majority of it in Turkey and France, will soon be in the rearview mirror. She admits that playing it without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a weird experience, but she understands and appreciates the safety measures the league and her team have taken.
Ayim plans to return to France next season in hopes that fans can attend games and she can give a proper goodbye to those who have helped make her pro career as memorable and enjoyable as it's been.
While she's played for other franchises, Ayim has been with Basket Landes for the past six years. That doesn't happen often, especially overseas. It's even starting to become a rare occurrence in North America as well. But with Basket Landes, Ayim found a home. A team that met her needs both on and off the court.
"Early on I made a choice that I wanted to play for a team - kind of echo the feeling that I feel when I play for Canada. Playing for something bigger than myself, investing in a team, in a project. And that's why I ended up here at Basket Landes," Ayim said.
"It has a really great reputation in the French league. The French league in and of itself is a very good league on the female side.
"It's a club, and the people have values that I think are like the true sport values, that you don't find everywhere. It's a business for sure, it always will be, but they take care of their players. They invest in them. They're not winning at all costs.
"And that's really important to me."
The life of a pro baller overseas isn't always glamorous. It's definitely not for everyone.
You're away from your friends and family, and although you're getting paid to play the game that you love it can be a grind. Add in the fact that there's added pressure on a nightly basis on imported players to perform or potentially lose their jobs. It's tough. It was important to Ayim to find a team like Basket Landes, not only to help her on the court but to allow her to get the most out of her playing experience.
"Making sure that I put myself into positions that are aligned with my values has enabled me to enjoy those moments more than if I was just miserable in a space where I knew I wasn't supposed to be, and I was just literally playing for a paycheck," Ayim continued.
"Some people can do that and that's great if that's their goals, and that's cool for them but I don't operate that way.
"So, I've been able to really enjoy my career and make a second home here (France) because I was really conscious about where I was putting my time and energy."
While her pro career is coming to an end, her playing career has one more chapter left to write. Ayim will likely be a part of the National Team that will represent Canada at the Olympics in Tokyo beginning in late July.
It will be the third straight Olympic games for Canada and Ayim has been a part of all three. When Canada qualified for the 2012 games in London - Ayim's first Olympics and her favourite sporting memory - they weren't expected to do much. This time around, expectations are high. Many have Canada with a podium finish. If expectations are met, it will be Canada's first basketball medal at an Olympic Games.
"(It's) always interesting to juxtapose my first qualification to this last qualification, people are expecting us to win now, and we expect ourselves to win and that's a really cool place to be in," Ayim said of the difference between Olympic qualifications.
"That is not where we were when we qualified in Turkey, in 2012, at the last chance tournament. (In) the last game...in the last few minutes (of the game).
"I would say that one in Belgium (2020 Tokyo qualification tournament) for probably the ones who are coming back - is a different level of excitement, but with a kind of like, badassery behind it, but also like a level of responsibility that we've laid the groundwork and we're coming to do something.
"The last two tournaments, yeah, we qualified for the tournament, but we didn't do what we wanted to do, and now I feel like our celebration is more focused because we really want to come back with a medal.
"So we're really dialled in. Yeah, people expect us to qualify now, we actually have to step up and do something with that, not just be happy with a seat at the table but actually like put Canada on the map in major tournaments, so that's how this qualification and this Olympics will be a little bit different from the ones before."
Ayim may not have initially played sports to become a role model for others, but she has become one. Her accomplishments and experiences have inspired others to follow in her footsteps. This summer's Olympic Games will be the last time she suits up. It offers a chance for her to one last time inspire.
With Gold on her mind, Ayim is aware of what a medal would mean for the country she proudly represents at every turn.
"A lot of things are out of your control in sport and in life, and whatever result happens, we're going to deal with it. But I think it's a really exciting place to be in. A challenging place to be in.
"And for me, that would be a pretty cool way to end my career. Helping Canada get to a place that we have wanted to be in for so long, and just being able to be a part of that experience, and laying the road for all these talented women coming behind me. I think that would be awesome."
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