By Luke Galati
After a year and a half, Mariah Nunes just couldn't take it anymore. She walked away from her NCAA Division I basketball scholarship at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU), got into a car and drove home. With her hands on the steering wheel, Nunes drove nine hours from New Jersey back to Ajax, Ont., in the middle of a snowstorm. "I felt such relief. Just to call it quits, go home and not come back."
On the hardwood she was a starter and playing her best basketball during the 2012 season. That's why she says that everyone was surprised when she left. "I was doing well on the court, but no one saw behind closed doors."
She says that it got to the point where head coach Peter Cinella and the FDU coaching staff would let the girls on her team "do whatever they wanted to me." The last straw for Nunes was at a FDU practice in Teaneck, New Jersey.
With the ball in her hands, she was punched square in the face with a closed fist by one of her teammates. Her nose felt broken and was gushing blood. Then her coach came up to her and said, "You got a scratch? What's up?"
"He joked about it and made it seem like nothing, when really I actually had a concussion," Nunes says. Her nose didn't break, "but it was so swollen and I had to sit out games from the concussion."
The staff at FDU didn't take her to a hospital to get it checked out. Instead, "the trainers just assessed me," she says.
Nunes says that type of violent conduct allowed by the staff at FDU "was just really dirty and my coaches just accepted it and allowed it." She says they rationalized it by saying that it would make her "tougher."
During a previous practice they were training and had to run timed laps as a team. In groups of six, three had to make the time, or the group kept running. Nunes says that she remembers it was a 5 a.m. practice, so she didn't have an appetite and only ate a granola bar that morning.
"I was the only person making it, so I kept going in the group to sprint."
Before the last lap, she remembers fainting and blacking out. "I pushed myself so hard and as I got up my coach asked if I was OK. I got up and said, 'I think so,' and he said, 'Well OK, finish up.'
"I fainted, everything and my coach was like, 'OK, finish up your set.'" So, she ran the next set.
Nunes says that eventually she became conscious and realized that the way she was being treated wasn't worth it, even for the sport that she loved. Regarding her old coach Cinella, she says that, "he saw potential in me, he tried to push me. But, he pushed me so hard that he pushed me away."
Nunes makes it clear that she doesn't feel she was abused during her time playing in the NCAA at FDU. "It wasn't like the coaching staff was literally hitting me or anything. But they would say things — they would talk down to me. They would say that about my character, I was ungrateful," she says. "They bullied me."
For Nunes, it didn't feel right from the very beginning. She first went to FDU during her Grade 11 year for a recruiting visit. She says that the school was hounding her 24/7 trying to get her to commit. Her trip was a good experience and her parents were especially impressed.
"[My parents] loved the treatment. They would take you out to fancy restaurants, put you in a nice hotel, they treat you well, wine and dine you so that you'll go to the school. But, I wasn't sure. I wasn't sold on it."
With two years to go before Nunes even graduated high school, the FDU basketball program told her that someone else wanted what could be her spot. They said that they wanted her, so she was given the ultimatum of having to decide her future in less than two weeks. She had to either take the full scholarship now, or nothing.
She felt the pressure. At the time, none of her other siblings had ever gone to college or university. Her cousins, aunts, uncles and entire family were so excited about her chance to go away and play basketball. They were proud to see someone who they loved earn a full-ride scholarship in the United States. Even when she decided to come back home, she felt a lot of pressure from her family to stay. "I felt like everyone was like, "Oh, this is a great opportunity, you should stick this out.' But, I had to come to the realization that my happiness came first. So, I just left."
Nunes felt relief knowing that she was leaving behind an environment where she was constantly getting injured, having to play through sickness and where they weren't considerate of her well- being.
"I thought that it wasn't fair, that I was giving so much just to play basketball. It became a job, it wasn't fun anymore." When she thinks about it and looks back now at the training that FDU put her through, she says, "It was ridiculously hardcore. Like, I thought I was going to die, with all the lifting and running."
One of Nunes' high school coaches told her about Carly Clarke, the head coach of the Ryerson women's basketball team. Despite the struggle and the negative basketball experience that she went through, she was drawn back to the game. She wanted to be somewhere that cared about her well-being, a place that valued her character as a basketball player, but more importantly, as a person.
She didn't want to feel how she did in the NCAA as, "just a machine, you know? Basketball, basketball, basketball." Nunes knew that she needed a coach who was considerate of their players — a teacher with passion, willing to guide rather than just push. "I wanted to come to a school with a fresh start and try to work my way up."
At the time, she was joining a Ryerson Rams team that lost more games than they won. Fast forward two years later into 2015, and Nunes is now an Ontario University Athletics (OUA) second-team all-star guard, solidifying herself as a top 20 player in the province. She's become the team's most efficient three-point shooter, and is an integral member of what she calls "the Ramily," who finished the season with a 16-3 record. Nunes and the Rams even made history this season, winning a program-first OUA silver medal and appearing in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Final 8.
"This is the best team that I've ever been on," she says. "I literally love all my teammates, those are my girls and I feel so fortunate to be a part of this team."
Nunes, now 21, will be returning to Ryerson next year to finish up her criminology degree. She says that despite the setbacks, the grief and the moments of pain that basketball has weaved her through, she hasn't lost her love for the game.
"It made me grow as a person to see my true value and my worth. Basketball, it's important to me — but it's not everything."