Janel McCarville helped put Gophers women’s basketball on the map. Not long ago, her most worthy successor couldn’t find Minnesota without one.
McCarville chose a college an easy drive from the major freeway nearest her Wisconsin home. Amanda Zahui B., the Gophers’ 6-5 redshirt freshman center, chose one that required connecting intercontinental flights.
Despite what she finds to be strange-tasting yogurt and stranger footwork, the native of Sweden has settled in just fine in her new home. She’s averaging 15.3 points, 11.1 rebounds. 2.3 assists and 3.4 blocks as she and star point guard Rachel Banham have become the most talented duo to play for the Gophers since McCarville and Lindsay Whalen produced a Final Four appearance and moved the program into Williams Arena.
“She has really established herself as a strong post presence,’’ McCarville said in a text from Poland, where she’s playing this winter. “I am excited to see her grow as a player. If Amanda continues to establish her dominating presence inside and Banham’s scoring continues, I could definitely see them becoming a great one-two punch.’’
Unlike many outstanding athletes, Zahui B. enjoyed no pedigree or advantages to help make her way in her chosen sport.
Her parents met by happenstance. Ann-Sofi Zahui Bazoukou grew up in Spain and France before moving to Stockholm, where she ran into Alex Zahui Bazoukou, who had left his native Ivory Coast to seek work in Europe.
Where did they meet? “In the club,’’ Ann-Sofi said, suppressing a giggle. “We’ve been together ever since.’’
“The economy was better in Sweden,’’ Alex said. “I tried France, then Sweden. Now I’m a truck driver.’’
On a recent weekday, Ann-Sofi and Alex bracketed their teenage son, Aaron, in Williams Arena. They had just flown from Stockholm to Minneapolis, via Amsterdam, and were dealing with a dizzying brew of jet lag and joy.
“We have had tears of excitement and happiness,’’ her mother said. “We have missed her so much. We know she is in the right place, but we have been following her by getting up in the middle of the night, watching her games on the Internet, then getting another hour of sleep before going to work. To finally get to see her is overwhelming.’’
Learning the game
Zahui B. grew up playing soccer and tennis, singing in the choir and taking theater lessons. She even learned what her mother called “circus acts,’’ such as juggling. “It was nothing for her to pick up something new, and be good at it,’’ her mother said.
She was taller than most of the boys in her class. She began playing basketball when she was 10. By 13, Sweden had added her to its 16-and-under national team and her father was bringing a drum to her games, becoming a one-man pep band.
“I remember when I was younger, people would say, ‘Wow, you are taller than all of the boys,’ ’’ Zahui B. said. “But I’ve never been insecure about my height. My parents always taught me to walk with my back straight.
“When it came to basketball, pretty much my parents begged me to play. They said, ‘We know this coach, go to practice,’ and I stuck. Every practice, I had two or three coaches working with me. It took me two or three weeks to figure out you could only take two steps on a layup.’’
Her precocious talent and emotional maturity led to a difficult decision. Her parents believed the best place for her to develop her game was a high school more than a half-hour’s drive away from the family home in Stockholm. Zahui B. lived alone in an apartment.
“She wasn’t even 16 when she moved in, but she was a good player and very independent,’’ her mother said. “You need some maturity to be able to handle that. She knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to be a professional basketball player. Her friends would go off to the movies on a Friday night. She would not. She was the one putting in the work in the gym or even studying.’’
She missed picking on her brother, though. “I play a little basketball,’’ Aaron said. “But she beats me every time.’’
When she began playing basketball, Amanda didn’t know much about it. “Michael Jordan — that was it,’’ she said. “As I learned, I found out about Pau Gasol’s game, and began following him. Now Janel is my role model. She’s in my head. I love the way she passes and reads the game.’’
Zahui B. figured the best way to professional basketball was through an American college. Highly recruited after dominating in Europe, she set up visits to Minnesota, Louisville and Washington.
Gophers coach Pam Borton impressed her parents, and Amanda saw the bridges spanning the Mississippi and felt at home. “It’s a really beautiful downtown,’’ she said. “It reminds me of Sweden.’’
She called her parents during her visit and said she would visit Louisville and Washington as a courtesy but that she had found her school, even if she wishes she could order takeout from a continent away.
“I just miss my food!’’ she said, laughing. “Swedish food. I miss my mom’s cooking. She makes this chicken-sauce thingy with rice. And my father makes African food. I miss Swedish breakfasts. There are a lot of greasy foods over here. And our yogurt is different. So much better. Sorry about that.’’
The basketball is different, too. Banham said Europeans tend to play a less-structured, more free-flowing style, and Banham, Borton and Zahui B. all noted that Americans emphasize different styles of footwork, especially in the post.
The American game tends to be rougher, too, which is why Borton is glad that Zahui B. spent the second semester of last season acclimating to Minnesota. “I think she went through a difficult adjustment when she came over in December,’’ Borton said. “She had to adjust to the speed of the game and the physicality, and learning the plays and the style of play over here. I think she wondered, ‘Why do I have to take these types of classes, and why do I have to run these types of plays?’
“Being here last year helped her get the cobwebs out. I feel like Amanda is my own daughter. I have a great sense of responsibility, bringing her over here. She has come a long way, and she has a long way to go.’’
That Amanda has adjusted shouldn’t be surprising. She traveled to the Ivory Coast and all over Europe. “We have spent the last 10 years traveling with our children,’’ her mother said. “We don’t go to resorts. We don’t go to holidays in Spain, which is very common in Sweden, that you go to Spain, Italy, France.
“No, we travel with our children, to Aaron’s soccer games and Amanda’s basketball games.’’
Amanda is eyeing a career that could take her all over the world, and she’s learned to be comfortable whether in Europe’s Scandinavia or America’s.
“We are a mixed couple,’’ her mother said. “My husband is from Africa, me from Europe, living in Scandinavia. Our children know how to understand the difficulties in other cultures but also bring out the joys. If we can bring out the best from both sides and make a cake of that, I think the results will be good.’’