Colorado Springs, Colorado
For 6-foot-9 center Nancy Mulkey (Cypress Woods H.S./Cypress, Texas), the gold medal she won this past summer with USA Basketball at the 2013 FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Cancun, Mexico, had just the teeniest-tiniest bit of tarnish. Not that anyone other than her could see it.
She was proud of her and her team’s performance as the USA wrapped up a 5-0 record and won its games by an impressive 63.9 points per contest.
“My trip was awesome,” Mulkey said of the 2013 FIBA Americas U16 Championship. “I learned that there are a bunch of great players around the world, and playing with other great players from the U.S. was fun. It made me love basketball more.”
The issue Mulkey had trouble letting go of is that the adventure had not begun on the note Mulkey had hoped for. Following trials in 2013, she was named as an alternate for the team, and she got the chance to be one of 12 players on the roster when another player was forced to withdraw because of an injury.
“Being an alternate last year, made me realize I wanted to actually make the team this year, and not make it as an alternate,” Mulkey stated.
And while she was fueled by that motivation, she also was determined to capitalize on what the experience had taught her, which was that she could compete with whomever she was matched up against.
“Playing on the U16 team helped because I was playing with great players that were my age, and it prepared me for AAU, and then when I was playing against juniors going to be seniors in AAU, I felt confident playing them, and it just kept building and building,” Mulkey explained. “And now here I am again, playing a lot better than last year.”
“Being named as an alternate helped me in the long run to get better as a player and mentally tougher and physically tougher, too. It helped me become a better player overall. When I see the taller posts that I get to compete against, I’m like, ‘OK, I got this.’”
Mulkey played so well in fact at this year’s trials for the 2014 USA Basketball Women’s U17 World Championship Team that out of the 145 players that began trials on May 22, Mulkey was one of the 12 who heard her named called as a team member on May 26.
“When I got here this year, I was more confident, but when I saw the other big posts walking around, I was like, ‘I don’t remember seeing them last year, so I’m going to have more competition this year,’” Mulkey said. “But I was really confidant this year, more so than last year.
“I got goose bumps when I heard my name,” Mulkey said of the morning of the team announcement. “Lauren Cox and I were sitting on the bench, and they were calling names in alphabetical order. I locked arms with Lauren, and when they called Lauren’s name I squeezed her arm, and I was like, ‘please call my name,’ and she did, and Lauren squeezed my arm back. It felt great.
“Even though I was a part of the team, I didn’t like to be the alternate,” Mulkey admitted. “I wanted to be on the team, not an alternate. I wanted to be one of the twelve players on the list. This year, it felt great that I did that.”
Those celebratory feelings have given way to the fatigue of training camp, which the USA resumed on June 12.
“It is definitely hard,” Mulkey said of the USA practices, which are being led by Sue Phillips (Archbishop Mitty H.S./San Jose Cagers AAU, Calif.), who led the USA to gold at last summer's FIBA Americas U16 Championshp. “It’s going good, but it’s hard. It kicks your butt, but in the long run it’s going to be worth it.
“I can feel that I am learning from coach Phillips already,” Mulkey continued. “I feel like I’m learning to push through adversity. When you don’t have enough strength, you have your teammates to pick you up and push you. You always have someone beside you.”
On June 18, Mulkey and her 11 teammates will travel to France for exhibition games against China on June 20, Canada on June 21 and France on June 22. After a tour of Paris on June 23, the USA will travel to Pilsen, Czech Republic, for the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship, which will see the USA take on China on June 28, France on June 29 and Mali on July 1 in preliminary-round play. From there, teams will be seeded for the round of 16 on July 2, where the winners will advance to the July 4 quarterfinals. The semifinals will be played on July 5, and the finals are on July 6.
“I think it is going to be more meaningful this year, because it is a world championship,” Mulkey said. “There are a bunch of other great teams wanting to win the gold, and I feel like this year, we are going to get after it. I feel confident and I’m excited. I feel like we are going to win gold.”
If Mulkey’s prediction comes true, she will then have two bright, shiny golden medals to her credit.