Interview: Jenni Benningfield

Former Vanderbilt star Jenni Benningfield returned to the United States recently after completing a successful season of professional basketball with the USP Adecco Club de Baloncesto Estudiantes in Madrid, Spain, where she led her team in both scoring and rebounding.

Last week, VandyMania's Whitney D caught up with her in Indianapolis, where Benningfield is in training camp with the WNBA's Indiana Fever, and talked with her about her experiences in Spain.

VM: Why did you decide to play in Spain?

JB: .I wanted to experience another style of basketball as well as seeing a different country and getting an overseas experience and know what that's like.

VM: What's the first thing you remember thinking after you got there?

JB: The first thing I remember thinking is, Wow, this is so, so different! I woke up the next morning, and I didn't remember where I was. It was kind of crazy to think I was in Spain and knowing I was going to be there for such a long time.

VM: When you got there, basketball started immediately?

JB: Yeah, as soon as I landed, I took a four-hour train ride to Leon, Spain, and played a game that night. We had a small pre-season tournament, and they weren't expecting me to play, but since I was there, I might as well play. So it was a little different, playing with that kind of jet lag.

The first couple of games were very hard for me because the style is so different - the tempo of the game, people's moves, different types of players, the referees' calls are a lot different, It's very very different from American-style basketball.

You just have to get used to it and slow down and think about what you have to do and learn their way of doing it and not be so caught up on what you know and what you've learned and don't act like that's the way to do it. Everybody has their own way of playing, and you're in another country. It's your job. You're expected to listen and do what they ask you to do, so that's what you have to do.

VM: Finish this sentence: It didn't take long until . .

JB: It didn't take long until I missed certain foods! (Laughs.) Mexican food. Mexican's my favorite food. I missed my mom's home cooked meals and Mexican food like burritos. I missed that for sure.

VM: What's the most useful Spanish phrase you learned?

JB: Probably anything basketball related. I know Spanish basketball, the language of basketball in Spanish. It's funny because yesterday was our first day of practice here, and I caught myself using the Spanish phrase, like bloqueo which is a screen or a pick, rebote is rebound. Just little stuff like that.

VM: So once you were on the court you were fluent in the language?

JB: Yeah, yeah. I had to. My assistant coach could speak a little bit of English. My head coach could barely speak any English, so you had to pick it up. Kate Starbird -- she was my roommate -- could speak Spanish, and she could help me and we also had another girl on our team that played at Clemson so she knew both obviously really well, and a couple of other teammates knew a little bit, but it was hard.

VM: What was your favorite place in Spain?

JB: My favorite place in Madrid would probably be the Plaza Mayor or Retiro Park - that's a huge park, and that would be because Kate and I would go there and just lay out in the sun and read and write and people watch and listen to music and just kind of use our time to just reflect and hang out and slow life down a little bit and enjoy it. We did that a lot. We'd take lunch there, have a picnic, just kind of hang out. Even my teammates would come join us sometimes, so I think my best memory of Madrid was just doing that - and the traveling I got to do. I got to see all of Spain and got to do some traveling on my own with Kate and my brother Tony and almost all of Spain that I wanted to see and that was the best part about it.

VM: What was your team like?

JB: My team reminded me of Vanderbilt's team in the fact that we were so close. Granted, there was a language barrier there at times, but for the most part, we all cared about each other on and off the court. We hung out with each other on and off the court, and they all really helped me adjust to everything. They were always making sure I was OK.

VM: How would you describe your team's style of play? Halfcourt? Up-tempo? Or what?

JB: Probably half-court. We tried to push the ball because we were a smaller-sized team. We weren't as tall as a lot of the other teams, so we tried to get out and run to make the bigger players tired. But as far as half court, our post players, we kind of faced the basket more than our back to the basket because we were smaller and good shooters, so we kind of used our shooting as our advantage for that reason.

VM: What was your role on the team?

JB: My role was basically to play hard and do the things that I know how to do. They gave me the green light to shoot, and Kate and I worked really well together especially. I posted up down low and I was able to shoot a 3 outside. I was able to mix inside and outside game, which was good because I got to work on a lot of stuff that were my weaknesses. I definitely learned to shoot off the dribble a lot better. My thing was just to get the experience because I played 35+ minutes a game and just to be out there playing against some of these players that were on the Spanish Olympic team or have played in the WNBA, and teams that have played in the Euroleague.

VM: What was the biggest adjustment for you?

JB: Just the style of play. We got away with a lot more things than we would here. They had two referees instead of three. So in some games they'll call it really close, and in some games they won't at all. You can get fouled really hard and they won't call it, and it's just a matter of not getting upset about stuff like that, just playing the game regardless of how they called it.

And the coaches were obviously different than the coaches I've had before. Sometimes I might not have agreed with some of the things they did, but you just have to go out and be open-minded and do the best you can with the situations you had.

I think the biggest problem for me was the fact that I could only practice an hour and a half a day, and that was really different from anything I've ever experienced. So really you have to focus for an hour and a half and try to get in as much as you can because so many other teams in our organization used the court.

Kate and I were the only ones who didn't have a job or go to school because our team was so young that we'd have time, so we'd go work out extra and do that kind of thing. But we never had extra gym time, so that I couldn't really get in the gym and shoot, which was really frustrating for me because I feel like I could have prepared better for the WNBA if I had extra gym time.

But then again, you make the most of what you can. We'd go work out, and I made myself in the best shape that I could possibly get in -- getting stronger and working on other aspects and in practice just focusing on the things that I need to.

It's a matter of just focusing on what you can do with what you have, and you can't upset about that. It's a different country, and they don't see things in the same way that we do, and that was kind of eye-opening because I came back realizing a lot more and respecting a lot more people and respecting other people's cultures and ours as well.

It was a great opportunity for me to kind of sit back and kind of reflect on my life, things I've done and what I haven't done, and things I like and things I don't like, where I wanted to go and how I wanted to change and how I don't, that kind of thing, so it was the best experience for me at this point in my life.

I have no complaints. I had a meeting with my coach, and he basically was like, do you have any problems or anything you want to talk to me about? I said, thank you for this opportunity because there was really nothing for me to complain about. The people were great. They were nice, very supportive. Basketball was fun. The city's great. I had a good roommate, good teammates. It was a great seven months. I miss it already. I'm glad to be back, but I miss that life, too.

VM: Is there a chance you'll be going back?

JB: Yeah. They want me back. I don't know if I'm going to go. I would like to. I like the place; I just don't know if I'm going to get any other offers yet. I want to play overseas again, but as far as right now, I don't know exactly where, but I really did enjoy just being out there and would definitely consider it.

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Photos: Club de Baloncesto Estudiantes, Madrid, Spain..

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