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Kim Mestdagh is often the last player off the bench for the Washington Mystics. She averages just 1.9 points in 4.3 minutes per game, and the 5-foot-9 guard has yet to score more than one field goal in each of her nine appearances. But none of that brings her down.
Mestdagh didn’t dream of playing in the WNBA. Growing up in the Belgian municipality of Ypres, playing professional sports in America felt like an impossible reality for international basketball players like her.
“First of all, not everyone makes the step to make it to professional,” she says. “They play until 18 or until they’re a student, or they have to choose to go to work. It’s hard to go the road of professional basketball.”
Even after graduating from Colorado State University in 2012 as the women’s basketball program’s fourth-leading scorer, Mestdagh received little interest from WNBA teams. She returned to Europe, playing for her father, Philip, on the Belgian national team and for various professional clubs across the continent.
It wasn’t until two years ago that Mestdagh caught the attention of Mystics coach Mike Thibault during the Belgian team’s bronze-medal run at the 2017 European Women Basketball Championship. Now, she’s a 29-year-old rookie and has teamed up with a player, Emma Meesseman, who grew up three streets away from her in Ypres. Though her journey to the WNBA was vastly different, Meesseman can understand Mestdagh better than most.
“For me it’s already very special to actually be playing in the WNBA, to be on the team,” says Mestdagh. “And to have one of the few Europeans—and from the same country—on my team is really good for me. It made the transition a lot smoother. She helped me out with things and showed me things. It’s definitely less intimidating if you have someone from the same country here.”
The now-defunct Cleveland Rockers selected 6-foot-4 center Ann Wauters first overall in the 2000 WNBA Draft, and she was the only Belgian player to compete in the WNBA throughout Messeman and Mestdagh’s childhoods. After the Chicago Sky waived point guard Hind Ben Abdelkader during training camp this year, Mestdagh and Meesseman remain the only active Belgian nationals in the league.
In the 2012 WNBA Draft, the Mystics selected Meesseman with the 19th overall pick. By that point, the 6-foot-4 forward had already played on the Belgian national team and professionally in Belgium and France. She has become a central figure on the Mystics, averaging 12.3 points per game so far in 2019 after sitting out the WNBA season last year to compete in the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup. Meesseman, whose mother, Sonja Tankrey, was named Belgium’s Player of the Year in 1983, says she didn’t expect her career to take her to the WNBA so quickly, and certainly didn’t foresee playing with another Belgian in the United States.
“Because it seems so far away. I actually stopped expecting,” she says of the WNBA. “I was like, just go with the flow and we’ll see where it goes. I know some of my teammates in Belgium play really, really good the past few championships we’ve had, so they deserve to be here. So does Kim.”
Because Mestdagh is a few years older, Meesseman, 26, didn’t get to know her future teammate until Meesseman joined the Belgian national team. Meesseman was closer to Mestdagh’s younger sister, Hanne, who also competes for Belgium.
But having someone from her native country on the Mystics has helped the introverted Meesseman feel connected in ways she hadn’t before. On the bench during games, the two sit next to each other, chatting in Dutch rather than English. Meesseman’s younger brother, Thijs, and Mestdagh’s father and sister have visited them in D.C. this season—impromptu reunions that few in either family thought would be possible.
“It’s sometimes still unbelievable,” Meesseman says. “Cause we only lived three streets away. That’s what makes it more special. Our parents really get along well. We played on the national team. We had the same teachers. It’s weird, but it’s cool to be able to share it with someone I know, because I didn’t really have that before. Not in Russia, not in France, not here. So for me, it’s good to have her or somebody else to see what this life is like, to be able to talk in my language. I know we have to be careful with that because we are on a team that speaks English, but we do that. It’s just fun sometimes. You feel more home.”
In return, Meesseman has given Mestdagh guidance on life in the WNBA. Unlike in Europe, professional players in America rarely have team activities during the week. At first Mestdagh felt lost. She would message Meesseman to make sure she was reading the itineraries correctly.
“I was constantly not trying to make mistakes,” says Mestdagh. “I don’t want to interrupt anyone. I don’t want to bother anyone. I want to do everything right. I don’t want to come here and mess everything up. So I was constantly like, OK, what do I need to do now?”
Her Mystics teammates have embraced her. Some of them met Mestdagh while playing overseas and knew about her reputation as a sharpshooter. Thibault says that during practice, Mestdagh “can make open shots all the time … Every day in practice, you have to guard her or you’ll get embarrassed.”
Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen calls both players “super chill.”
“How Emma plays, she’s not your typical post player,” Hines-Allen says. “You can tell she’s from another country … It’s just cool to watch her play. I don’t know really how to explain it. She just brings something different just because she’s able to do a lot of different things on the court and get open with different types of moves. Kim, she’s a great shooter. It’s like, you can’t leave her.”
Both Meesseman and Mestdagh know they can inspire kids in Belgium. Although they took different paths, they ended up in the same place.
“It shows that you don’t have to be ready from 19-years-old or even before that to make it. If still you want to play in the WNBA, just kinda trust the process,” Meesseman says of Mestdagh’s journey. “She kept working hard. She just took her chances and because of that, coach [Thibault] saw her and her chances came.”