BOURGES (2010 FIBA World Championship for Women) - Emmeline Ndongue admits there’s nothing quite like putting on the French shirt.
A long-time star and champion at Bourges Basket in France, Ndongue enters a different world when she plays for her country every summer.
It’s why last June may never be topped.
Ndongue and France travelled to Latvia and surprised everyone by not just reaching the podium of the EuroBasket Women, but by winning the gold medal.
It was the best moment of Ndongue’s career.
“For sure, it's the greatest!” she said to FIBA.com.
“When I think about it, I remember so many emotions.
“The fear at the beginning, the insouciance, then the happiness, the surprise and the pride, also.
“To represent and put your own country at the top of Europe - it's an amazing feeling.”
The world stage
So what was the reward for that incredible run by Les Bleues, one that ended with a gold-medal game upset of pre-tournament favorites Russia?
The team had a late night out in Riga and an early morning flight back home.
Several months later, they also discovered who they’d face at the FIBA World Championship.
France drew Team USA, Greece and Senegal in Group B.
“We will meet the Greek team we beat in the Quarter-Final (in Riga), so I'm sure that they will be full of revenge,” Ndongue said.
“Senegal will for sure be a hard team.”
Far from being nervous about the prospect of taking on the Americans, a game against the Olympic champions is something Ndongue is already looking forward to.
“The United States is always a great team, but no one is unbeatable,” she said.
“So we will see.
“Playing against such a big team is a challenge for everyone and everybody is waiting for this kind of game.”
There is also another fact that Ndongue is aware of.
“To have them in our group is the assurance for us to not meet them in the next group if we arrive there,” she said.
When Ndongue reflects on her childhood, she smiles.
A career in basketball was not, she said, something that she had in mind.
“I'm in the middle of five brothers and sisters,” she said.
“We were all tall.
“So my mother inscribed us at the local basketball club.
“I didn't want to be a professional.
“It just happened like that.
“Step by step, I became stronger.
“And I'm so glad to be in a club like the Bourges Basket.”
At Bourges, Ndongue plays for Pierre Vincent.
He is also the national team coach.
If Vincent has done anything with France, he seems to have helped the team maintain a serious approach while at the same time relax and have fun.
The French were a jovial bunch in Latvia.
“The team harmony was one of our strengths,” Ndongue said.
“But I think that our biggest strength was that we all have the same goal: work together to go as high as we can to build a team, not a sum of individuals.
“And that's what we did. Everybody was involved in this project and nobody stayed on the bench.”
Not everything is a bed of roses when it comes to international basketball.
One thing that can be difficult is the calendar.
“The worst is to make the World Championship in September, the French Championship and then the European Championship in June,” she said.
“It's hard for the body to support all this workload.
“The best will be to always have the championship at the same time.
“For me, the European Championship in June was great because then we could have great holidays and come back to the court with a new body and a new head, ready to work again.”
Last year, France had something to prove after a disappointing EuroBasket Women 2007 in Italy when they finished eighth.
Everyone from Paris to Bourges and beyond will now be wondering if this French team still has an appetite for success.
“For sure we will still be hungry,” Ndongue said.
“We always have to be.
“We have to prove that our first place was not a mistake.
“But we still will be in reconstruction.”
There will be some new faces.
“We have to integrate young players to build a team to qualify for the Olympic Games,” she said.
“That's our first goal. And for that, we have to work a lot.”
Much will depend on Vincent, who looked like a zombie at times in Latvia.
He had to work overtime trying to find ways for France to get to the top.
Is Vincent a different coach with France than he is with Bourges?
“No, he is the same,” Ndongue said.
“Maybe with a little bit more pressure because he has less time to build the team.
“And because he’s working a lot with video, his eyes are looking tired really early in the preparations.”
The feel-good factor is still there for Ndongue whenever the subject of the EuroBasket comes up.
Players need to savor titles, especially those captured by national teams because they don’t come easy and they don’t come that often.
It’s why Latvia will always be special for Ndongue.
“It was great,” she said.
“The organization, the location of the hotel in the center (of Riga), the gym (Arena Riga) - we are not accustomed to playing in such big new gyms in France.
“I keep really good memories of everything.
“And after the title, so many emotions.
“We celebrated it with our fans who made the trip, the French refs, the coaches, the president of the federation (Yvan Mainini) in a nice restaurant in the center. And later, together with the other teams.”
photo Getty Images
photo Getty Images