Like love and music, sports are one of the universal languages. Outside the court, communication is cut off. That’s how it felt for Los Angeles Sparks center and Russian national Maria Vadeeva when she first touched down stateside. The No. 11 overall pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft, Vadeeva made her maiden voyage to the United States the following June after getting her visa, posing the problem of needing English to get by for the very first time.
But, if it helps with basketball, it’s a challenge fit for Vadeeva.
She was born into the game. Maria’s parents make the claim they “met on the floor” in the early 90’s as her father Aleksey Vadeev’s practices for CSKA Moscow ran right before her mother, Olga Vadeeva née Melnikova, took the court. Both retired from playing in 1996, and her parents quickly took up coaching. It was Olga who trained the tandem of Maria and her brother, Ivan.
It wasn’t long before Maria was inspired to create a relationship with the game herself. A 1998 baby, Maria was training with boys five years older by the time she turned 8. Constantly challenged by big brother and the older crowd in practice, Maria was pushed to take her determination and focus on the game to new levels. At 16, Maria was already climbing as an international star, making her first senior debut with Russia in EuroBasket. By 18, she was going pro with UMMC Ekaterinburg, learning directly from future Hall of Famers Courtney Vandersloot and Brittney Griner. In her 20th year, time came for the WNBA Draft, and it was Los Angeles bringing her to America for the summer.
Cracking the roster once she was able to join the Sparks, Maria appeared in 25 games averaging 3.6 points and 2.2 rebounds, although she missed a major chunk of the 2019 WNBA season to make a run for the EuroBasket title with Russia. While with Russia, she led her squad, averaging 14.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per outing, plus a 48.4 percent from the field. The Russians fought their way through Group D, passing Italy in the first round of the knockout before falling to Spain in the quarterfinals. Despite the absence, her numbers continued to grow, finding more minutes, shots and boards in a shorter amount of time with the Sparks.
Before COVID-19 halted the Euroleague season, Maria Vadeeva and UMMC Ekaterinburg were set to enter the postseason with a best-of-three series against BLMA Grizzlies after cruising through the regular season to a 13-1 record. Vadeeva appeared in all but one game, posting 13.5 points per game with a 58.2 percent shooting average. A staple role on what is essentially an all-star team in UMMC Ekaterinburg is giving Vadeeva the platform to grow exponentially outside of the WNBA season. Announced last month, the Sparks exercised a fourth-year team option on Vadeeva, locking her in through the 2021 season. Roster space from the offseason departure of Kalani Brown has freed up Vadeeva to make a major impact in 2020, her biggest opportunity to create a name in the league.
Q&A: Maria Vadeeva, Los Angles Sparks + UMMC Ekaterinburg
Back in January, Maria posted on Instagram about her excitement to learn English and absolute need for it in America. For the vast majority of the WNBA, it’s the other way around, as they are pushed to adapt to new cultures when they play overseas in the offseason. Knowing that Maria was making an effort to broaden her language skills, we sent her a message from Nothing But Nylon looking for a way to connect. Maria’s communications director, Kristina Galants, graciously helped coordinate a way to chat across nine timezones. Enjoy our conversation (in English!) with rising WNBA star Maria Vadeeva.
NBN: Hi Maria, let’s start with the basics. Where were you raised and how did you find basketball?
Maria Vadeeva: I was born and raised in Moscow, Russia. Both of my parents, and my older brother are basketball players, and basically I was raised with the basketball in my hands. Mom and dad played pro in CSKA, one of the strongest clubs in Europe. I had an opportunity to be a basketball insider from a very early age, and one day I decided to join this world myself.
What club or clubs did you play for growing up?
My first real team was Sparta&K, based in Vidnoje, Moscow Region, a very well-known club in European women’s basketball. I started playing for the team of 1998, when I was 10, and stayed in the club for 8 more years, building my way up from to junior, then professional league. In 2016, at the age of 18, I moved to Dynamo Kursk, then, in 2018, to UMMC Ekaterinburg, which I am still a part of now.
Where did you have to go to train and play other competition as a kid?
Being a part of Sparta&K required a lot of traveling. We had to play tournaments in different cities of Russia, some of which were very far away, and in Eastern European countries.
Who were you watching and looking up to growing up?
I always looked up to my parents, they were a huge support. Also my coach in Sparta&K, Anna Arkhipova, who was a professional player herself, she used to be a captain of Russian National Team. Some of my favorite player were Kobe Bryant, for his way of thinking on and off the court, and Lebron James, whom I always admired for an ability to believe in himself, work very hard, and never step back in challenging situations.
How popular is basketball for young girls in your region?
Unfortunately, not enough. The range of girls interested in playing basketball is very narrow. I wish it becomes more popular in Russia over some years, because my country has a very rich historical heritage in women’s basketball, a lot of great players. I want to help raise new talents, that is why I am launching my first basketball camp for girls this summer.
Tell me about that, what’s the scoop on the camp?
The name of the camp is MV7 Training Camp. Check the link: MariaVadeeva.com/campmv7eng. It will be held in Moscow region, with the date to be released. You may find the additional information on website.
In light of the current COVID-19 situation, the MV7 Training Camp may not be launched this summer. However, Maria Vadeeva encourages her audience in Russia to follow all social media accounts for updates. Additionally, she will hold various activities on the camp’s Instagram, including live streaming with top basketball players, advice for young players, online master classes, seminars, contests and charity events. Give a follow to learn more!
So, what languages do you speak?
I speak Russian and English, which I am still getting better at.
How long have you been learning English?
When I got drafted by the Sparks in 2018, my English was very bad, and I had to pick up in a very short period, before heading over to US, so I could understand what my coach and teammates said. It was tough, and I am still getting there.
What helps you learn English?
Having international players in my team in Russia makes it way easier to learn English. We chat a lot, talk during practice and on games.
What have you found the most challenging in learning English?
Getting jokes. There are millions of phrases and abbreviations I still can’t teach myself to understand, but it is matter of time and habit, I think.
Was knowing English something you worried about when you were drafted into the WNBA?
Definitely! I did not know most terms, names of basic combinations. And in US people just speak too fast! They never taught us that in school.
How different is it playing basketball in America compared to Russia? What are those differences?
The difference is drastic. Starting from the way we practice and, therefore, perform, finishing up with facilities players are able to use here and there. In US, everyone is able to grow personally, put in extra workouts, have a coach to improve any physical or mental skill, in order to be game-ready. In Russia, all the extras are yet to come, no one puts them out for you, you have to find them yourself instead. In US, every game is a show which collects thousands of fans. In Europe and Russia in particular, there is no such culture. People do not choose to go watch a match on a weekend with their families — they would rather stay home. I would love to cultivate the American sports culture in Russia, to teach people to love basketball and enjoy watching it.
How do you think you can use English to help grow basketball for girls in Russia?
As I mentioned, I am launching my first basketball training camp for girls this summer. It will take place in Moscow region, and I am bringing over some great American coaches in order to introduce Russian girls to the American basketball mindset. I would like to teach them what they do over in US in order to become the greatest players in the world, play in NCAA and WNBA. I would like to erase boarders between “American” and “overseas”, because, in my opinion, that’s what we are missing here.
What have been some of your favorite aspects of America that you have experienced since entering the WNBA?
US is a free country. You choose who you want to be, where to live, and what to do. I really enjoy the sense of freedom I am experiencing when I come to the States. There are no limitations and tons of opportunities. All you have to do is just go out there and find yours.
What have been some of your least favorite experiences in America?
I don’t think I had any so far. Maybe just not very clean streets. You will never find trash laying on a sidewalk in Moscow.
We’ve seen you grow a lot with the Sparks and UMMC Ekaterinburg this past year. What’s next, what are your big goals?
I don’t really like to talk about my big goals. I would say I am dreaming of becoming great. I want to promote women’s basketball in Russia, I want to help discover young talents. Everything else… you will see!
Can’t wait! Wrapping up, what are something you want the world to know about Maria Vadeeva?
I wish more people knew, that I am a very open-minded, curious, and always willing to try new things, or hobbies. Basketball is my life, but I also enjoy dancing, traveling, dressing up. Outside of the court, I am a normal girl, who wears skirts and dresses. I don’t want to give my ability being a young lady, just because I spend 99% of time working out, and traveling for competing.
Fun fact! You may see friends and family (and even the Sparks social team) referring to Maria Vadeeva as “Masha,” which is simply an affectionate way of referring to someone named Maria in Russian!
All photography provided by the Los Angeles Sparks.