By Atara Shields
Keneca Pingue-Giles, Siki Jez and Mariah Nunes used to share a home court, but now they share a group chat.
Two years ago, the former Rams led Ryerson’s women’s basketball team to their first OUA championship title and snagged silver at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national championship.
Now, Jez and Nunes are in Europe as the first two Rams women’s basketball players to play overseas, and Pingue-Giles, the 2016 CIS player of the year isn’t playing much basketball at all after tearing her ACL in a tryout for Team Canada in the summer of 2016.
As a Ram, Pingue-Giles fully expected to continue playing professionally after graduation; practically everyone she knew did.
She hasn’t played in an organized league since. She helps at Rams practice sometimes, and plays on Saturday mornings with the men’s team alumni, but her other exposure to the game is in her job at the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport (MTCS). She scored the job after speaking at an MTCS event and joining an advisory panel as part of the provincial government’s effort to get more women and girls in sports.
“I know she’s going to be successful no matter what she does,” Nunes says. “I’m just surprised it isn’t basketball.”
But Pingue-Giles, a Winnipeg native, has no regrets about her career change, and is already making a difference as a role model for younger athletes, just as she did during her playing days.
“I think playing my five years at Ryerson, I reached my pinnacle when it comes to the sport,” she says. “I have no issues where I am now. It’s great.” She might not play pro, but she is “living vicariously” through her best friends and former teammates who are pursuing their own dreams in Europe. The twists in Jez and Nunes’ own journeys have surprised them as well.
“I know she’s going to be successful no matter what she does”
For much of her life, Nunes was sure she was going to play professionally, but after having difficulty finding an agent following graduation, she accepted that it wasn’t going to happen, and was taking a test to be an air traffic controller. But in September 2016, she heard from an agent about a team in Spain. It seemed her luck had turned and she could follow her dream after all, but her first season was disappointing.
Over in the Netherlands, Jez was telling the same story. “Me and Siki, we’ve been going through a lot of similar things. The ups and downs. Our lives are really intertwined,” Nunes said.
They both found themselves playing on teams at a much lower level than they anticipated. The joy in signing that elusive overseas contract started to dim. “My confidence and everything went down so much,” Jez says. “Playing pro requires mental toughness. Living far from family and friends, you have a lot of time to your thoughts between morning and night practices.”
Instead of abandoning the dream, the two took strength from each other, and from Pingue-Giles, to make it work.
They were constantly in contact with each other: on Skype, on social media, and of course, in their round-the-clock group chat.
Jez confided in a coach she was training with about needing to get out of Holland, and he told a coach in Romania about her.
That coach then offered her a spot on his team in September. Meanwhile, Nunes dropped her agent and used connections she made on her own to move to a new team in the second division in Spain.
“Even though they’ve been gone for eight months, we always pick up where we left off”
Although Nunes says she’s “still trying to figure out where (she’s) going along this journey,” both she and Jez are thriving, playing for third-seeded teams in their respective leagues.
“It ended up happening,” Jez said. “And now I’m like, holy shit. It’s crazy that I was actually able to make my dream come true, because not a lot of people get this opportunity at all.” Jez and Nunes say that they want to play for as continue as long as their bodies co-operate.
“If I could do it for another four, five years—bless,” said Jez. Nunes said it would be amazing to play for another 10.
“I hope they do have longevity in the sport professionally because they’re great athletes,” says Pingue-Giles about her friends and former teammates. “I think when they come back they’ll be great role models for younger generations of girls.”
However, nothing’s certain. Careers can end with an injury, and new ones can begin faster than expected, as was the case with Pingue-Giles. As Nunes says, “You never know what’s going to happen.” For now, both she and Jez come home in the summers, and when everyone’s in town, the former Rams go out, work out and play basketball together—just like during their Ryerson days.
“Same old thing. It’s like nothing’s changed,” says Pingue-Giles. “Even though they’ve been gone for eight months, we always pick up where we left off.”
As for staying connected with the Rams who now play under their championship banner at Coca-Cola court, Pingue-Giles attends the home games while Jez battles the seven-hour time difference to tune in as often as she can. It’s important for them to see how the next generation of Ryerson basketball players are traversing the path that they helped to pave.
“What Siki, Mariah and I did was historic for Ryerson,” says Pingue-Giles. “We have this bond, this sisterhood that can’t be broken.”