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Nantali Indongo

"This Journey Doesn't Have An Expiration Date:" Tammy Sutton-Brown's hoop dreams

WNBA 2012 Champion Tammy Sutton-Brown remembers that her mother said ‘no’ to her eldest daughter getting into competitive swimming.  

“Swimming was my first love. I was on the fast-track to Olympic swimming,” she remembers. “But my mom didn’t think a 10 year-old should be waking up early in the mornings before school to train,” she chuckles. “She wanted me to be a kid”.

So maybe Canada didn’t get to ever see Sutton-Brown race in the 200m butterfly at the Olympics but Canada did get to see her become a 2x WNBA All-Star, spend several years with the Women's National Team programs - from Juniors to Senior Women - including being a member of the Women’s Olympic Basketball team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Canada also didn’t get to see Sutton-Brown become a champion in the professional leagues in Korea (2004) and Turkey (2007-2011).

Growing up in Markham, Ontario, Sutton-Brown’s early exposure to organized basketball started in the Markham Unionville Minor Basketball Association’s (MUMBA) house league. She remembers being about 13 years old - taller than most kids even then - and playing every Saturday.

“Me and my sister played numerous sports, but we also [played] piano,” the 44-year old former centre explains. “Our parents allowed us to do everything and see everything.”

“I fell in love with ‘ball.”

I get that. I was around the same age when basketball came into my life; but I was in Montréal, Quebec.

It was my first year of high school and our gym teacher, who was also the basketball coach, encouraged me to try out for the team. I had never played before.  My Afro-Caribbean immigrant family was insulted that he would assume I might be good at the sport. They didn’t allow me to try-out until the following year, after proving myself academically.

I had no idea where basketball would take me back then, but I became obsessed, and did what most ballers do - play in school, in summer league, club ball, travel team, camps, etc.

I certainly wouldn’t know that some six years later that I’d even have a brief moment of witnessing first-hand Tammy Sutton-Brown’s talent on the court. More on that later.

In most interviews about her introduction to basketball, Sutton Brown always mentions her high school coach, George Kraus.

He saw her “playing for fun”, as she put it, in the MUMBA house-league and convinced her to go to Markham District High where he was leading a very successful basketball program.

“We were kind of a powerhouse,” she reminisces. “We had a great run.”

Coach Kraus helped Sutton-Brown and her teammates understand the potential of basketball in terms of competition, higher education, but also in terms of building life experiences.

Weekend playing went from house league to full on tournaments. They were at Queen’s University one weekend, then McMaster’s the next, she said. “It was my first time being exposed to all this travel.”

Then the journey really opened up as recruitment letters from U.S. colleges started pouring in. She eventually chose Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she played from 1997 to 2001. She had such an impact on the program that she was inducted into the program’s Hall of Fame in 2013.

I met Tammy Sutton-Brown just a year before she made that big decision. It was the summer of 1996 and I was a Montréal transplant spending the summer in Toronto, looking to train before heading to the University of Ottawa to become a Gee-Gee that fall.

The highlight of that summer - read outrageously ridiculous moment - of those few weeks was a trip that our team, all seven of us, took to play in a tournament in Indiana. (Foreshadow much for Tammy Sutton-Brown: she would end her 12 year WNBA career playing for the Fever and winning a championship.)

“I remember driving there,” Sutton-Brown said. “We were like six in a van for a very long time.”

She remembers that we played a tournament, about 2-3 games, and that the coach told us that there would be scouts there from the U.S. programs. I remember that stuff too. But, I also remember that we all slept in the same hotel room and that after sight-seeing in Chicago - a short drive from the tournament - we went to have dinner with the U.S. Junior National Team on a boat.

That should have been a highlight, right? Except that we didn’t know about the dinner and were dressed in cut-offs and sneakers while the American girls wore quite official outfits.

The next day at the tournament, we played that US team, all Division 1-bound players.  It was a lack-luster game, needless to say.

“Oh, WOW!” Sutton-Brown burst out when I jogged her memory.  “I guess there was a reason I blocked that out of my memory”. Her roaring laugh was something I've always remembered about Sutton-Brown.

And how serious of a competitor she was; 6’4”, cutting hard to pin her defender behind her in the low-post, her one hand out straight, fingers spread calling for the ball.  You gave it to her and she’d finish.

She acknowledges that her parents played sports too back in Jamaica. Her mom played netball - a British version of basketball minus the dribbling and backboard - while her father ran track.

“They might say, I got it from them.” ‘It’ being her athletic talent - remember she could have been an Olympic swimmer. “But you have to put in the work…lots of it.” Shea also remarked “especially for girls, playing sports usually stops at elementary school.”

Before meeting George Kraus, she was headed to a high school where they didn’t have a girl’s basketball team.

No surprise that when you scroll through her Instagram, you find a post celebrating National Girls and Women in Sports Day earlier this month. A day she states should be every day.

When Tammy Sutton-Brown was leaving high school for Rutgers in 1997, the first WNBA season got underway.  I remember the excitement - pretty much anywhere girls played ball - about the potential of having a career past university.  

Last year marked 25 years of the professional women’s league. It’s great to see the growth in the league, which started with eight teams and now there are 12.

A stronger bond has been built with the NBA, a lot more cross-promotion as a result. We can see the women’s games on TV and more players are staying involved with the profession post their playing years. As well, a few as broadcasters, several as coaches in the league, and others joining the coaching staffs in the men’s league.

Tammy Sutton-Brown is a league veteran getting her chance as well to continue being involved with professional basketball. Retiring from playing was a decision she made 10 years ago, when “ wasn’t fun anymore to wake up at 5am and train, you know.”

Since that time, she’s published a children’s book, “Cree and Scooter Hit the Slopes in British Columbia”, promoting diverse cultures and travel. Now, she is settling into her role as Associate of Basketball and Franchise Operations for the Toronto Raptors, G-league team, Raptors 905.

She recently said that she’s learning a lot in this front-office position and getting a chance to help players with their development.

As per another Instagram post, Tammy Sutton-Brown captures herself with a new focus, dressed in sleek all black, facing a mirror in what looks like a hotel hallway, with a rolling suitcase and travel bag to the side.

The caption reads, “Keep calm & carry on. This journey doesn’t have an expiration date!”