Temi Fagbenle: meet the Brit at the center of a WNBA championship team

Temi Fagbenle

Women’s basketball is complex. The United States thinks it has the monopoly on James Naismith’s game, but when it comes to female hoopers, players can earn more in leagues around the world that have longer seasons, and some NCAA and international tournaments are held in greater esteem than the US professional league. It even sits awkwardly in the calendar, to the point where the WNBA adjusts its schedule in deference to other leagues and international tournaments – something that would never happen in the men’s game.

However, the American league still holds a certain cache. It is still an attraction for international talent. The playoffs are still a prized opportunity and the championship is still one of the most coveted in the world.

A league of her own

As one of just two people to ever play in the WNBA and represent Britain during the league’s 22-year history, Temi Fagbenle is also in the privileged position of knowing exactly what winning one of those championship feels like. She backed up last year’s MVP Sylvia Fowles when the Minnesota Lynx won the franchise’s fourth ring in just seven years.

The Lynx’s regular season came to a close this season and the team was battling for playoff seeding in a bid to win back-to-back titles for the first time. Fagbenle said: “From a slow start due to personal issues and injuries, we’ve faced, and continue to face, challenges this season. But by staying in the moment and sticking together, we’ve been able to tackle each obstacle as it comes. [The slow start] wasn’t a surprise to me as we have a very different bench from last year. I knew it would take some time to get everyone who plays to click together.”

After going 4-6 to start the year, the team recovered before stumbling to close out the season. But Minnesota are in the playoffs, where no one will count out this savvy, veteran squad. Even Fagbenle has supreme confidence: “We’ve got this.”

The road back to the Finals

However the road back to the Finals, for a fourth straight season, will be no cakewalk. The Lynx have slipped to the seventh seed and face a single-elimination game in the first round against the team that cost them the chance of winning consecutive championships in 2016, the Los Angeles Sparks. Last year, Minnesota got its revenge and beat the Sparks in the Finals, so seeing these teams playing so early in the playoffs, and for just one game, will be interesting. Fagbenle said: “The rivalry is well publicised and real. It’s always fun to play against the Sparks as everyone plays with a different level of urgency.”

Though Lynx didn’t fare as well during this regular season, Fagbenle believes in the legends she is playing with to get the team over the line: “It’s an honour to be able to watch these women in their elements, and to learn from them each day. They are used to greatness. They expect it. That makes everyone around them want to be consistently great.”

In particular, Maya Moore has been in the limelight after appearing on the front cover of SLAM! magazine this year ­– just the second woman ever to do so. “I have a lot of respect for Maya on and off the court,” said Fagbenle. “She has achieved so much and with so much grace, strength and poise. It is inspiring to watch her work and even more inspiring to me as her teammate.”

Fagbenle has also witnessed the tail end of Lindsay Whalen’s career. The point guard is a five-time All-Star and a four-time champion with the Lynx. Last season, she started coaching her alma mater, the University of Minnesota, and decided to ride off into the sunset after one more year in the WNBA as the winningest player in league history. Fagbenle said: “Lindsay is a beautiful soul, a great teammate and leader. I count myself so lucky to have been able to play with her and learn from her. Her resilience, fight and focus are palpable, yet she will be the first one to crack a joke or say something silly that will make everyone laugh. She taught me the the importance of balance. Of remembering to have fun amidst all the focus and intensity. Whenever we talk, I feel like I’m talking to someone who is listening. Someone who cares. I will miss her. The University of Minnesota basketball team is so lucky to have her as a coach.”

Temi is ready for the moment

It’s just Fagbenle’s second season in the WNBA, but she is no stranger to high profile games and events. As a 19-year-old, the center played 20 minutes and scored 5 points and grabbed 4 rebounds per game at the London 2012 Olympics. The British team only qualified as hosts of the games and was out of its depth, but as the youngest player on the squad, Fagbenle showed huge potential, recording the second most blocks on the team despite being seventh in the rotation. Since then, only one of Britain’s Olympians has gone on to play in the WNBA.

Fagbenle said: “Playing in the WNBA is similar to the 2012 Olympics in that the level of competition is so high. Every game is a new and difficult challenge. However, back when I was 19, it was all so very daunting, and there were some players and teams that seemed untouchable. Whereas now, although this is only my second year in the league, I know I am able to compete with the best of them. It’s great to be able to represent not only the country I spent most of my childhood growing up in, but to also represent others who could possibly see themselves in me. I attended Colindale Primary School and Copthall Secondary School but I first learned to play basketball from my brothers, Luti, OT, and Tito, and I was following in the footsteps of my brother, Dapo, who played youth basketball in the UK and college basketball in the states. I played for Haringey Angels with Daniel Bowmaker and Phil Hayfield. They were my first basketball coaches, and they helped build the foundation.”

“Options for growth and movement within the sport are limited with little or no funding, so that could potentially deter people from pursuing basketball in Britain.” Temi Fagbenle

While playing and coaching is solid in the UK for young people interested in the sport, due to the thankless efforts of volunteer coaches like Bowmaker and Hayfield, there is no good pipeline to the national or the elite level, which has disappointed the Olympian. Fagbenle said: “Options for growth and movement within the sport are limited with little or no funding, so that could potentially deter people from pursuing basketball in Britain. As a player, especially for young women, you have to understand that it takes a high level of dedication and sacrifice to succeed as a professional. You can always improve. Work on your game consistently. Hone your craft. It is by no means easy, but it is worth it.” 

Fagbenle is still on the rise, still continuing to work on her game and hone her craft.

The Lynx’s first-string center Sylvia Fowles won the MVP for the 2017 regular season but the team has the second oldest roster in the league this year. Fagbenle represents the next generation and is a favourite of one of the brightest minds in basketball, Head Coach Cheryl Reeve.

During the broadcast of Minnesota’s final regular season game on Thursday, ESPN’s Holly Rowe commented on how much activity Fagbenle was showing. She said: “After shootaround, before the game, Cheryl Reeve sat her down on the side of the court for 30 minutes, one on one, engaging the coach and the player. Cheryl sees so much potential in her. I love that she took time out to say ‘we need you’ and build up her confidence.”

A lot of confidence was built during the off-season. Because the WNBA calendar is neither long enough nor pays enough – Fagbenle earns roughly £35,000 per year on her current contract until the end of 2019 – so the Brit pays a few extra bills with some modelling and acting. She said: “I was first interested in acting because a few of my older brothers are actors and artists, and I loved what they did. I love being able to tell a story and have the audience inspired by it, captivated and invested in it. The modelling I am interested in is the kind that doesn’t always do pretty or fashionable. The kind that tells a story or relays a social message. The creative, think outside the box type of modelling.”

But aside from extra gigs, players join other leagues around the world. Fagbenle is no different and just finished her first season with Polkowice in Poland, along with three other WNBA players. She led the team to a national championship, scoring 14 points with 10 rebounds and 3 assists to earn a Finals MVP.

This is what has helped Fagbenle secure a spot on the Lynx roster this season. Working on her game. Honing her craft.

Early this season, Reeve commented on Fagbenle’s improvement from her rookie season: “Rookies have a really frenetic pace about them, and Temi’s got more of a calm. She’s got a purpose to her movements, she understands the plays better.”

The bar for British women playing basketball in the WNBA hasn’t been set especially high. With the exception of Andrea Congreaves’ solid three seasons in the league between 1997 and 1999, scoring an average of 6 points per game, there isn’t a lot else to compare.

That’s not to say there isn’t hope. England’s women finished second at the Commonwealth Games earlier this summer in Australia, without the services of Fagbenle, beating teams like Canada and only losing in the final to a home side that featured the Shaq-like scoring dominance of Elizabeth Cambage.

But if Fagbenle continues on this current trajectory, she could be the starting center for a WNBA team in the not-too-distant future. Per 36 minutes, she averages 12 and 8, with 2 assists, a block and a steal. If this were to pan out for several seasons, she could become the greatest British female player of all time.

Imagery courtesy of Minnesota Lynx