CHICAGO – Early in the Chicago Sky’s win over the Dallas Wings in late July, Sky guard Julie Allemand drove up the court and found teammate Emma Meesseman already in the air to make a turnaround hook shot. In the stands at Wintrust, a group of fans waved a Belgian flag. They were part of a group of Belgians who made the trip to cheer on Meesseman, Allemand and assistant coach Ann Wauters, three Belgians who are helping Chicago attempt to repeat the WNBA championship title.
Belgium, a small European country with just over 11 and a half million people, has become a cornerstone of the Chicago Sky’s run to the top spot in the league. Meesseman was named to the All-Star Game earlier this season and is averaging 12.5 points and 5.9 rebounds a game. Allemand, who plays behind the Sky’s All-Star point guard Courtney Vandersloot, is showing she can be a capable point guard in just her second W season. Wauters often works with the Sky’s bench during practices. The Sky’s bench is scoring 23 points a game, third in the league, and has the best field goal percentage in the league. Chicago was the first team to qualify for the postseason and currently stands in first place in the league.
“It's funny because they'll probably go down as the three greatest Belgian players of all time, but what they bring is a certain chemistry and they bring a certain IQ, knowing how to play. They really complement the way I like to play,” Sky coach James Wade said.
“The same thing for Ann. She's probably one of the most talented young coaches here. They bring a sense of knowing how to win.”
The chemistry between Allemand and Meesseman on the court is apparent.
“It's not always me who has the ball. Sometimes it's also her, and she can give me the ball, too. That's why I love to play with Emma. It looks so simple when I play with her,” Allemand said.
All three women joined the Sky in the offseason, just a few months after Chicago won its first WNBA title. First, Wauters signed on with Wade’s staff. She had a long career as a player in the WNBA, in overseas leagues and with the Belgian national team, and this is her first job as a coach. Next, Meesseman, who won a championship with the Washington Mystics in 2019, signed with the Sky as a free agent.
Meesseman and Wauters were teammates in the 2020 Olympics, but Meesseman was careful to not let her friendship with Wauters influence her decision.
“It is absolutely only for the basketball team, and for the chance for me personally. If anything, maybe it's the easy way , because it's some kind of comfort, not completely stepping out of my comfort zone, like looking for change,” Meesseman said. She’s played overseas with Sky players Vandersloot and Quigley, and was coached by Wade for that same team.
“I'm really happy she's here, though. But I did not make my decision based on her being here.”
Allemand, another Olympic teammate, came to Chicago as part of a three-way trade with the Fever and Mercury. By mid-February, the Sky were a team with a distinctly Belgian flavor.
“We are a tiny little country, and now three Belgians are trying to do something special here this season. Even for Belgium, for Belgium basketball it's pretty unique. And I think it's something that we will only realize again afterwards,” Wauters said. “Taking this moment, I love it. For me it's easier to be close to them, to kind of know what the needs of the players are. I think that's also a role that I have to take on within the coaching staff and I think they can also trust me.”
What they’ve also brought is the attention of Belgians, both ones living in the U.S., and those in Belgium who are WNBA fans. In every city, the three women have seen fans waving Belgian flags. They get messages from fans who live in Ghent or Antwerp and stay up until the early morning hours to catch Sky games live.
“It's just amazing. The people are coming, but we don't even know them. Sometimes I see a message on Instagram and they're like, ‘We are coming to the game.’ I answer them, but sometimes it's not friends or family, we just don't know them, and that's amazing to know that lots of people were coming from Belgium to see us, to watch us playing. It's just great because we are a small country.”
On July 21, Belgium’s independence day, Wauters, Meesseman and Allemand met with Paul Van Halteren, the honorary Belgian consul for Chicago, and a group of fans who had made the trip to Chicago to cheer on the Sky. Belgians aren’t only staying up late to watch the Sky. They’re joining tours, and flying to the United States just to see Meesseman and Allemand play. The Belgian-American Club of Chicago joined in, and the Belgians on the Sky were able to celebrate their country’s independence even as they were thousands of miles away. The next night, the Sky beat the Wings in front of Van Halteren and the Belgium tour group.
“To have these two players and this assistant coach brings so much. We don't have many opportunities to have these three individuals, who are absolutely so friendly themselves. Makes it interesting to have, all the sudden, some attention to our country, and for something really positive,” Van Halteren said.
Belgium has three official languages – French, Flemish and German – and sometimes the three women will drop into one of their native languages to make sure opponents don’t hear their plans on the court. Meesseman and Wauters speak English, Flemish and French, while Allemand speaks French and English. However, that divide has confused some of their teammates.
“Whenever I spoke with Ann, before Julie was here, they were like, ‘Oh, stop speaking Flemish. ’Then Julie comes, they're like, ‘Stop speaking Flemish.’ I'm like, ‘That's French.’ ‘Oh, I thought you spoke Flemish,’ and they don't really understand. Luckily, we don't have a third person that speaks German. That would be mind blowing for them,” Meesseman said with a laugh.
Since Wauters, Allemand and Meesseman joined the Sky after the team won its first title, they have watched as the Sky’s championship roster has been celebrated. Meesseman and Wauters watched the team’s ring ceremony, and know how much pressure is on the team to repeat. But this is also why they were added to the team. The next goal is to give Belgium one more thing to celebrate – a Chicago Sky championship.