Commentary

Stewart, Campbell persevere through tough times

Originally Published: February 13, 2008
By Chris Hansen | HoopGurlz.com

Azania Stewart and Josette Campbell left their homes in London at the age of 15 and headed 3,700 miles to Middleburg, Va. The two were among the best basketball players in the United Kingdom and since they first dribbled a basketball were inseparable on the hardwood.

"Since I started playing basketball it has always been Josette and me together," Campbell said.

Azania Stewart
HoopGurlz.com ESPN HoopGurlz All-American Azania Stewart is signed as part of Florida's 2008 recruiting class.
Both dreamed of playing basketball at the highest level for their country as well as playing Division I basketball in America. Both arrived in U.S. from a much more recreational culture of playing the game. Campbell, a 6-foot forward, and Stewart, a 6-foot-4 beanpole with an even longer wingspan, followed the lead of a fellow British player Lauren Thomas-Johnson to Notre Dame Academy.

"One of the biggest things when they first arrived was as young girls, they're teenaged girls, 15 years old, now being thousands and thousands of miles away from their family (and) they needed to adjust to that," said NDA head coach Michael Teasley.

"Being in a new home, in new surrounds and a new educational environment -- I think that was the immediate shock for them, they needed to adjust for that. Not only adjust to the difference even in our community, to our school, (but) compared to them coming from London, which is like being an inner-city kid (here)."

Campbell and Stewart also had to adjust to a different academic culture which ends by the age of 16 in the U.K. at the high-school level. After the shellshock of being in a foreign country and back in high school came the hardwood challenges. There typically aren't high school basketball teams in England. Most practice comes sparingly with club teams. They had never practiced more than a few days in a week and hadn't been introduced to the weight room. It was all brand new.

"We were in a situation where we're working five or six days a week, lifting weights and doing those things and that took (its) toll," Teasley said. "I remember the first time Azania got her ankle hurt and I took her foot and put it in ice and water and she cried her eyeballs out. She'd never had that before. It was just a bunch of different things they'd never been through before to grow."

"My first year here (sigh) I went through a really tough time." Stewart said. "I went through the whole emotional thing, crying, all that baby stuff. And that was tough, because I was young. I was 16 and I was living away from home. It was so hard. My junior year it kind of got easier. I moved with the host family closer to school."

The pair had plenty of talent but were way behind the curve, primarily because they hadn't played anywhere near the amount of basketball of their American counterparts.

Josette Campbell
HoopGurlz.com Josette Campbell has improved her game after working out with WNBA player Nikki Teasley, sister of her coach Mike.
"When we first got them Azania was this tall, lanky kid& not able to run very well, very thin and fragile," Teasley said. "(She) just had length with no type of balance and strength inside to play.

"And Josette Campbell was a kid we played in the post because she was long; she could handle the ball a little bit, but not a kid that really understood how to play against talented and athletic kids."

After the first practice at NDA, which culminated with running hills, Stewart called home ready to quit and come home. The entire situation seemed like a recipe for disaster.

Instead, both found role models from inside and outside their new team and two of the best British players evolved into high-major division I prospects.

For Campbell it was Ebonie Williams who provided that presence and leadership. Williams was NDA's star point guard during Campbell's junior season. Williams starts for Seton Hall University and leads the team in scoring and minutes played. Campbell saw her work ethic and put her energy into trying to keep up with Williams, believing she too could be on that level.

Campbell also benefited from workouts with Nikki Teasley, Mike's sister, who has played six seasons in the WNBA with the Los Angeles Sparks and now the Washington Mystics. Teasley led the league in assists in 2006 and won a championship with the Sparks in 2002, her rookie season coming out of North Carolina.

Campbell started as a forward, developed into a solid two-guard and evolved into a very good point guard. She combines size with ballhandling and great size for the position. Her versatility makes her an impact player because she can be utilized in so many different ways.

Stewart matched up against a fierce 6-2 inside player in Mia Nickson every day in practice. Nickson is a super competitor who won't back down from any player -- just what the long and thin newcomer needed. In the summers she would face up against Lynetta Kizer and also play alongside her with Boo Williams Summer League for two club seasons. Kizer is the No. 5 ranked prospect in the 2008 HoopGurlz Hundred and will take her skills to Maryland next year.

Stewart transformed from an uncoordinated post into a legitimate post-scoring threat and a floor leader who does all the little things. Her improvement and success makes her a legitimate candidate for All-American honors.

A big assist to the pair also came from Thomas-Johnson. Even with great coaching and peers to guide the duo, she understood the emotional and mental strain they were going through.

Basketball was not the only adjustment. Though they spoke the language they were still in a foreign country. The greater Notre Dame community welcomed them with open arms from those in the program to their host families. Both Campbell and Stewart think of Teasley as a second father as well.

"That's the big different between over there (U.K.) and America," Campbell said. "People here are so welcoming. They love the accent."

Stewart has signed a letter of intent to play for the Florida Gators starting next season and will undoubtedly take the SEC competition as the next challenge in realizing her dream.

"It's everyone's dream to be in the Olympics and that's my ultimate goal." Stewart said.

As fate would have it, the 2012 Olympics will be in London, their hometown, and just after the two will more than likely have collected their college degrees.

So the two-year gamble for the duo moving to America to elevate their games has been extended for at least four more years.

"I think now I've become accustomed to the American lifestyle," Campbell said. "To tell you the truth I don't miss home very much, and when I do go home I really only miss the people, the family and friends.

"I don't miss England. When I go home for two or three weeks, once that time is up, I'm ready to come back to America."

Perhaps after the 2012 Olympics they might continue to call America home. Stewart aspires to be a sideline television broadcaster and both hope the WNBA is a feasible option when their time comes.

"When I was coaching boys that was one of the things that impressed me about African kids," Teasley said. "They always appreciated it more than our kids because they had to go through more with more sacrifices. And that's what (Campbell and Stewart) possess."

For these un-American All-Americans, the sacrifices are evident on the court.

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