Zara Living The Dream

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Kevin Pelton, | June 2, 2005
When Seattle Storm rookie guard Francesca Zara checked into the Storm's season opener against the Los Angeles Sparks in the first half, she wasn't just making her WNBA debut. She was fulfilling a dream.

"It was amazing," says Zara. "I knew it (would be like that), but when you live something like that, it's different, even if you expect it. It was beautiful; I think, for a player, it's a dream, and to me now, it's a dream come true. I hope that one day everybody can experience the same thing."

Dreaming of playing in the WNBA was an unlikely result when Zara was growing up in Italy. There, basketball is a distant second in popularity to soccer, while women's basketball has only a limited following.

"It was beautiful; I think, for a player, it's a dream, and to me now, it's a dream come true."
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images
"Yes, we have our fans, but most of the people know soccer because in Italy soccer is the most popular sport," Zara says. "When we play our finals or something, we have like 5,000 people. They know a lot about soccer, not a lot about basketball, especially women's - they follow mostly men's sports. That's why here I like it here, because here the fans are so enthusiastic. If you win, if you lose, people follow you. It's great."

The first Italian to play in the league was Zara's idol, Catarina Pollini, who played for the Houston Comets and won a WNBA Championship in 1997. In 2002, Susanna Bonfiglio played 22 games for the Phoenix Mercury. Then last season, a pair of Italians, Laura Macchi and Raffaella Masciadri, played for the Los Angeles Sparks. Macchi made the most impact of any Italian import to date, averaging 6.1 points and 2.4 rebounds and starting 15 of the 25 games she played.

"Last year, when they (Macchi and Masciadri) came back to Italy for the National Team, they talked a lot, they showed us pictures," recalls Zara. "To them, it was a great experience because they played with a great player, Lisa Leslie, and a lot of players. They said it was hard. You have to be really strong physically and mentally, but they were really happy."

Zara, who had wanted to play professionally in the US "from the first day I knew there was a WNBA," felt the time was right to make the move. In years past, the Italian League's schedule - the Finals often run into the start of the WNBA's regular season - had made it difficult for Zara. So when her Phard Napoli club was upset in the Semifinals of this year's playoffs, it gave Zara the opportunity to attend at least a week of training camp.

Zara found a perfect match in the Storm, looking for more experience at the point behind All-Star Sue Bird and not entirely confident in the performance of Shaquala Williams. Zara arrived in Seattle on Friday, May 13. A week later, she made the team when Williams was waived.

"Zara is a great offensive player," says Storm Coach Anne Donovan. "There was no hesitation at all that she is one of the best guards coming out of the Italian League that I have ever seen offensively. Defense was always our question with her, and she's really making strides defensively."

When Zara checked in against the Sparks in the Storm's opener on May 21, it was her first WNBA action, regular season or otherwise. Predictably, there was a slight adjustment period. After six uneventful minutes against Los Angeles, Zara turned the ball over twice in two minutes of play in the Storm's second game against Houston. But in a longer stretch, eight minutes, against San Antonio on Sunday, she had the opportunity to show her skills. Zara scored her first WNBA basket on a three-point play late in the game and also hit a 3-pointer for a career-high six points.

"That was no surprise to us," says Donovan. "It was just a matter of her settling down and really showing what she's capable of."

"It's hard because in Europe, I'm playing a lot, obviously, so it's hard to sit on the bench and then go on the court and play, especially as a point guard, because you have to really concentrate and tell your teammates what to do," explains Zara. "But I'm working on it and it's not a problem. If it helps the team, that's what I have to do."

"There was no hesitation at all that she is one of the best guards coming out of the Italian League that I have ever seen offensively."
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images
According to Donovan, Zara can expect more regular minutes in the near future as the Storm establishes a smaller rotation than the 11 players who have seen action in the last two games (one of them, granted, a 28-point blowout).

"T (rookie Tanisha Wright) has been in that role coming off the bench; I see now Zara getting more comfortable - she'll get more time," says Donovan. "And that's about what I rotate - three off the bench. I don't think we're going to see everybody more comfortable, but hopefully get Wright more minutes and Zara more minutes on the perimeter."

Improvement will also come in practice, where Zara has seen a major difference in coaching style between the WNBA and Europe, one that she thinks will improve her game.

"I think the difference is that here, they tell you exactly what they want from you and they tell you how to do it," Zara says. "They tell you how to improve. They don't yell at you. In Europe, many times they yell at you without telling you what to do. I think this is very helpful, especially on defense."

Something else the Storm coaching staff has been focusing on, Zara shares, is getting her to play her game and play with more confidence on the court. Confidence shouldn't be a problem, because while Zara is still making her mark on the WNBA, she's starred in Europe, helping lead Phard Napoli to this year's Europe Cup title as the team's third-leading scorer and leading assister in Europe Cup play.

Now, Zara is hoping to serve as an inspiration for aspiring young female basketball players in Italy.

"They send me a lot of e-mail right now," she says. "They're very happy for me. I hope that it's a reason to play basketball for them, that if you work hard, you can do it and you realize that you can make it. I hope that I can help them. When I go back to Italy, I will go to some camps and clinics to talk to them and say to them how beautiful it is."