Shay Colley keeps home close to her heart. Playing overseas while suiting up for Team Canada, or spending this past year mostly locked down at home, with her family, the 25-year-old guard never forgets her roots, nor the early beginnings of her basketball journey.
Originally from East Preston, Nova Scotia, Colley grew up in a small community where basketball was the most popular sport, pastime and hobby. She remembers her father bringing her along to the gym. Those days of following him around with a basketball were where her love for the game began.
Though the family soon moved to Toronto, it was Colley’s cousin, Justine, who opened Shay’s eyes to the Senior Women’s National Team and the possibility of playing for Canada Basketball. Justine, a scoring superstar during her career at St Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, played for Canada, setting the wheels in motion for Shay.
“Just seeing [Justine] play for Team Canada made me realize, ‘Oh look, my cousin is playing for Team Canada,’” she said. “I want to follow in her footsteps. I want to do that too.”
En route to playing for the Senior Women's National Team, Colley first became involved with Canada Basketball when she played for Team Ontario. After that it was the cadet team, where she was coached by current Senior Women's National Team assistant coach Carly Clarke. After that was a stop with the development team, and then finally, the Senior Women's National Team.
“I went through every phase within the Team Canada program to finally get to the senior level,” Colley said with a laugh. “It was a true blessing because it helped my game and my exposure to get a scholarship [to university].
Besides cousin Justine, Colley says Kobe Bryant and Maya Moore were her favourite players to watch.
“I grew up a Kobe fan,” Colley said. “My dad was a huge, huge, huge Kobe fan. And then, on the women's side, I really was a fan of Maya Moore. Her at UConn and then her in Minnesota. I just loved her game and her physicality, how she played.”
When it comes to her biggest life influences, it doesn't take Colley long to mention her beloved Aunt Shyla.
“Just in general, my Aunt Shyla, she really is my inspiration for everything I do,” Colley said. “It doesn't matter what it is, without her, none of this would be possible. In a way, she's my reason.”
Colley’s aunt lives in Ontario and the two are extremely close. Though this pandemic has been difficult for so many people in so many ways, Colley was determined to find a positive to focus on in this past year.
“I can say I'm thankful that I have so much time to spend with [my family] because the previous years I’ve been go, go, go,” she said. “ I'm really grateful for this time.”
Though Colley has relished the time spent with loved ones, she admits it has been tough to be so removed from her usual routine. With gyms closed and her own basketball career on pause for the time being, it has been easy for thoughts to creep in about what was next
“When it comes to training and just being active, it was definitely a challenge mentally and physically,” Colley said. “You know, gyms aren’t open, you’re not on your regular routine. The mental doubts, just thinking, ‘What are other people in the world doing? How are they training? What are they doing? They're probably training [right now].’”
Colley credits Bryce Tully, Canada Basketball’s mental performance coach, with helping to quiet those thoughts as well as for checking in with Canada’s Senior Women's National Team regularly during the pandemic.
“He has done an amazing job just being there for us,” she said. “If we needed to reach out to talk about any concerns, questions, whatever we can do to help our mental [health], he’s been there. I really appreciate Canada Basketball for having Bryce as an outlet for us. As for me, myself, I read more which also helps. Colouring, puzzles were other things that I did during this time and then [also] just making every moment count, not dwelling so much on what I can't do.”
Colley said she also went for walks, while reflecting on how happy she has been to get extra time with her family. Though Toronto has been home base for awhile now, she says her off-court interests reflect her Nova Scotia roots. She enjoys being outside and doing any sort of outdoor activity, including fishing and ATVing.
As someone who keeps her family close to her heart, the closeness of the Senior Women's National Team isn’t something that Colley takes for granted.
Getting to represent her country is an honour for Colley who says she still sometimes will look to her left and be surprised she gets to share the court with the same players she grew up admiring.
"It's an honour and a blessing,” Colley said. “When I was little, I always used to look at my cousin playing and then Kim Smith [now Gaucher], and now being alongside Kim on the court, it just amazes me and I feel very honoured to have the opportunity.”
Colley said getting to win a gold medal with Team Canada at the FIBA Women's AmeriCup 2017 in Argentina is probably the highlight of her on court career. Off-court, she points to a visit made to an army base in Edmonton, while the team was together for training camp.
Colley calls her Canada Basketball teammates and coaching staff family. Despite the distance when the team is scattered around the globe playing for their various teams, as well as during the pandemic of the past year, the women find ways to stay in regular communication.
“We have a team group chat through texts, and stay connected asking what's going on, and not even basketball stuff,” she said. “Birthday selfies, wishing everyone happy birthday, or even just you know, asking, ‘Did you see this movie?’”
Colley credits some of that closeness to the culture of Canada Basketball. Whether a player is in their first year or 15th, there is an immediate and constant appreciation, not just for the opportunity, but for those who laid the foundation.
“We have gotten here, not just because of us, but because of the things that people before us had to go through in order for us to be here,” Colley said. “ So we want to give thanks for their dedication, their hard work, their grit, their work ethic so we can have these opportunities and be who we are today. It’s an amazing program.”
In her years since joining the program, Colley has seen an increase in the popularity of the sport in Canada. She gives credit to the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA Championship in 2019 for helping to grow the game, as well as to the many Canadian men and women who are representing Canada in the NCAA and then going onto the NBA and WNBA as well.
When Colley is reminded that she is one of those players helping to grow the game and inspire today’s youth, she says simply that she is grateful.
“It's honestly from humble beginnings,” she said. “Nova Scotia is small. My community is small. Being a female from a small community to be able to use my platform greater than what the sport is, it’s a huge blessing. And I just thank the people that came before me, that helped me be a better person to inspire the next generation that's coming up.”
Colley is entering her fifth year with the Senior Women's National Team. Somehow, pulling her Team Canada jersey over her head it still feels just as cool as the first time.
“It's an amazing feeling,” Colley said. “Still to this day, I can't believe that I'm on the floor next to Kim [Gaucher] because I was just like this little girl looking at Kim at the 2012 Olympics. It’s like, ‘Oh, I'm here and just playing alongside her.’ Honestly, it’s a blessing.”