A group of young boys play some half court pick-up ball outside of Bernard Harris Elementary in east Baltimore on a brisk October Saturday afternoon. Trees begin to shed for the winter and in preparing themselves for the spring, scatter their leaves across basketball courts all throughout the city making it easier for savvy ball-handlers to try and make their defenders slip and fall. After a game marked by shots bouncing off the backboard and rough, unregulated jump ball scenarios, a boy’s mother yells from the marble steps for him to come home, making the teams uneven.
One of the boys comes over and asks Asya Bussie—a 2014 second round draft pick of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx and former standout at south Baltimore’s Seton Keough High School and West Virginia University—if she wants to play. Bussie declines, but the moment is reminiscent of childhood memories with the game that has helped her travel the world.
Bussie began playing basketball out in the Liberty Road Rec Center and in the Randallstown area. She took a liking to the sport as she watched her older brothers play for teams like Baltimore Stars and Chick Webb. As she learned the game, her brothers would help her hone her skills and mental toughness.
“My brothers are a lot bigger and stronger than me. Going against them prepared me to go against girls who are actually my size or bigger,” she says as the boys roughhouse each other and an older woman sits on the bleachers cheering both teams on. “I just think guys play with a different mentality. Having them as roles models and being there at my games to give me feedback definitely helped.”
Bussie went on to play for Boo Williams, the Maryland Magic, and the storied Seton Keough High School. Her time spent playing with her brothers paid off as she led the Gators to the IAAM A Conference championship, the Bishop Walsh championship, and the ESPN Rise championship in her senior season (2008-09) before heading to Morgantown to play her college ball at West Virginia University for head coach Mike Carey.
“At that time they were playing in the Big East conference so we were playing teams like Connecticut and a lot of teams close to home like Georgetown and Rutgers where my family could come visit me and watch the games,” she says of the decision to attend WVU despite being courted by the University of Maryland, a team two years removed from a national championship and a couple of elite eight appearances.
Her success in high school didn’t make her complacent, and her decision to go to West Virginia is indicative of her desire to take on new challenges. By the end of her college career, Bussie became the the 11th all-time leading scorer in school history with an upwards of 1,500 points and is sixth in school history with almost 900 rebounds. She was named a three-time, all-conference selection, was named to the Big 12 All-defensive team and was an All-American Honorable Mention twice. Bussie was a key figure in the Mountaineers 30-5 season in 2014.
After a loss to LSU in the NCAA tournament in 2014, Bussie was selected by the Minnesota Lynx who looked to reload after winning the WNBA championship early in the second round.
“I was really proud that I got drafted especially after tearing my ACL and MCL the year before,” she says about the injuries that impacted her draft stock.
Bussie fulfilled a lifelong dream and made it to the best professional league and was on her way to carve out a space for herself in the WNBA playing alongside Maya Moore who, along with Candace Parker and Baltimore’s own Angel McCoughtry, are among the players she admired growing up.
During training camp, her WNBA career would change in an instant. In just the third practice, Bussie suffered a strained quadricep. The WNBA season lasts about four months, and her chances of making the team hung in the balance.
“I don’t even know the moment I did it. After practice I just remember being really sore,” she says. “At the end of training camp they sat me down and said ‘we have to release you. We haven’t gotten a chance to see you really play. We don’t know how long this injury is going to last. You may miss the whole season.’”
With a promising WNBA career on hold, she returned to Morgantown to rehab. Her agent gave her a list of overseas teams that were interested in her and she decided to play in Poland for AZS-UMCS Lublin. The transition was tough for Bussie as she had to adjust to an entirely new culture: “I had two other American teammates. We all shared one car. I had an apartment by myself. I couldn’t watch tv since they weren’t speaking English. I’m in a different time zone with a six hour time difference.”
Being 4,500 miles away from Baltimore allowed for a great deal of introspection and personal development. It was in the moments of solitude where Bussie reinvented herself and adopted a new purpose in imagining a better Baltimore. While in Lublin she started Be More, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to improving Baltimore city through community service initiatives pivoting around the institutions of sports and education.
“The opportunities that basketball and education have given me like free schooling, going to college for free… being able to travel the world keeping me focused on something and involved in an extracurricular activity outside of school are things I think would help a lot of kids,” Bussie says of her goals for the city.
She wants her infant daughter Jayla—who she gave birth to after leaving Poland and whose name adorns a ring on the index finger of her shooting hand—to one day carry on the tradition of serving her community.
“With this initiative, I want children go in the right direction,” she says. “Whatever I do I hope it’s just as beneficial to someone else’s child as much as it would be to Jayla.”
“The City That Hoops” Volume 1 is available for pre-order now at reginaldthomasii.com/thecitythathoops and will be released on Feb. 19. It was funded by the Baltimore Institute For Non-Profit Journalism (BINJ) and runs in the Beat with the permission of Reginald Thomas II and BINJ.