LEEDHAM BY EXAMPLE

Great Britain forward Jo Leedham has put the States on hold in favour of national service

Sitting in the departure lounge at Logan Airport in Boston, Johannah Leedham felt her phone buzz, interrupting an idle wander past the chain stores and sports bars that serve as a means to pass the time when there is nothing else to do but wait.

For any 22-year-old, such moments normally mean incoming girlie gossip or a quick check about the arrival time at the other end. This call was far more significant. The voice merely said: ‘Congratulations’. Deservedly so, after the girl from Ellesmere Port discovered that her name had been announced, in her absence, as the 27th pick of the WNBA Draft. She was wanted in Connecticut, where she and her elder sister Jen had begun their overseas adventure, years earlier, at prep school. It was the summons she had been working towards ever since picking up a basketball for the very first time.

“Then I got a bunch of texts,” Leedham recalls. “All my friends from school were going ‘you’re on TV’. I’d heard rumours with people saying ‘watch it, you might get picked’. I had to see it to believe it.”

Yet here she is now, three months later, in Birmingham, not CT, wearing a Great Britain training top rather than the uniform of the Sun, preparing to face Slovakia, not Seattle.

“It was a long hard decision I had to make,” she admits. “They were really flexible and good about it. This year’s really important for the national team and I wanted to commit to that. When they give me a chance to go back and try out, I’ll go back, work hard and hopefully make it.”

Under the WNBA rules, the Sun retain the small forward’s rights but she will spend the forthcoming season in Europe, with Spain and Italy the most likely ports of call for a player who made the scouts take notice during four years at Franklin-Pierce, where she won two National Player of the Year awards as well as becoming the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division II and the fifth highest in college women’s basketball history.

Even so, she did not feel fully prepared for an immediate leap into the world’s best league. Best to wait another 12 months, she thought. “I always said that if they gave me a choice, that was fine. But if they said ‘it’s now or never’ I would have gone. I’d have felt I was ready. But by going next April. I’ll have had a year of playing professionally under my belt and be as ready as I’ll ever be. I’m more comfortable doing it that way.”

America’s loss is GB’s gain. Leedham, despite an injury, has emerged as Britain’s main threat during their two months of build-up to their European campaign. Defensively, she is one of the strongest links in a patchy rearguard action. Notably, she has impressed the notoriously hard-to-please Tom Maher.

“She’s very young,” says GB’s Australian coach. “We’ve got some good young players. Usually good and young don’t always go together but she’s a real stand-out. I think she’ll have a big time professional career and make a few dollars. She’s terrific and a good leader. She works hard. There’s nothing not to like.”

Well, with one exception, he laughs. “I just can’t understand a word she says half the time.”

Leedham can do her talking on the court. Slovakia may be the toughest possible opener for the Brits but there is little pessimism in the ranks, she states. “We’ve got great older players. Get younger players. A good balance. Experience. Everyone comes to practice and works hard. We’re all looking for great things. We’re learning every day and there are good signs.”

A place in next year’s Eurobasket finals would be a major shock. But there is still the carrot of playing in the 2012 Olympics. “That would be amazing,” Leedham proclaims. “It’s in the back of everyone’s mind. It’s a once in a lifetime chance. Obviously there are other goals right now but we have to focus on getting wins this summer.”

The WNBA can wait – for now.

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