Women's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The headline in early August on FIBAEurope.com – the official website of the International Basketball Federation devoted to covering the European region – called her “Spain’s Heart and Soul.”
The story focused on Andrea Vilaro Aragones, a versatile forward and captain of Spain’s 2011 Under-18 team competing in the FIBA European Championships. Vilaro Aragones led Spain to a third-place finish and earned “Best Forward’’ honors in the most recent international tournament the 18-year-old from Barcelona has appeared.
Three weeks later Vilaro Aragones sat on a metal folding chair inside the Gators’ women’s basketball practice facility with a bag of ice draped over her left shoulder. She had just finished playing in a pick-up game with her new teammates.
As the players mixed it up on the court, it was apparent that Vilaro Aragones didn’t always understand what the others were saying. Still, by watching her take a pass and shoot a 15-footer or use her court awareness to beat someone to a loose ball, it was obvious the athletic 5-foot-10 freshman with wide shoulders and a lean build belonged on the court with the rest of the Gators.
“All this is new,’’ she said afterward. “I need time for my adaptation. For me, it’s very different.’’
Vilaro Aragones’ world has been way, way different since her parents, sister and best friend drove her to the airport in Barcelona on Aug. 17 for her first trip to the U.S. She wasn’t coming back any time soon.
She boarded a jet headed from Barcelona to Atlanta with tears in her eyes, saying goodbye to her close-knit family and best friend as they cried too.
Her journey to the U.S. started in the summer of 2010 when Florida head coach Amanda Butler was in France scouting a couple of potential recruits playing in a tournament there for the U.S. Junior National Team. Vilaro Aragones was at the same tournament playing for Spain.
There was something about her all-around game that caught Butler’s attention.
“I had no idea who she was,’’ Butler said. “I tried to watch as many teams as I could while I was there and I saw her play. I thought she was very impressive. I really, really thought that she was a kid who could not just play great American college basketball, but help us compete for a championship.’’
Butler and her staff learned more about Vilaro Aragones and eventually began to recruit her. On a trip to Barcelona to visit the young Spaniard’s home, Butler showed Vilaro Aragones videos of UF’s campus, pictures of dorm rooms and shots of the Gators’ practice facility.
Early in the process Gators assistant coach Murriel Page helped bridge any communication gaps. Page played professionally in Europe for a decade and became fluent in Spanish.
“The communication was kind of choppy there for a while, but it all turned out well,’’ Butler said.
The attention from the Gators began to open Vilaro Aragones’ mind to a different future. As a top junior player in Spain, she expected to remain at home and continue her education, perhaps playing professionally one day and then becoming a teacher.
Instead, she is now 4,500 miles away from home learning a new culture, a new language and in many ways, a new game as foreign to her as the language. In Europe, she played more of a finesse game than what she has experienced early in practice with the Gators.
“My first days here are the hardest days here,’’ she said. “Here, the basketball is very physical. In Spain and Europe, it’s not possible.’’
Vilaro Aragones continues to adjust to life away from home, where she began to blossom in basketball after stints as a gymnast and judo competitor. Her versatility is considered her greatest strength.
Vilaro Aragones is a deft passer, outside shooter and ball-handler. At the 2011 European Championships, Vilaro Aragones played a team-high 25.6 minutes in nine games, averaging 11.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals.
With the Gators starting practice this week, Butler hopes Vilaro Aragones’ versatility and the intangibles she brings as a proven team leader can benefit a Florida team coming off a 20-15 season and berth in the WNIT.
She offers the size of a post player but the skill set of a guard.
“She is trying to get to the point to where she feels comfortable,’’ Butler said. “I feel she is doing great and really flourishing. The language barrier is the biggest challenge. She is making progress there and is working hard to gain confidence.
“We’re not even talking the basketball part of [her transition]. That’s a struggle for kids who speak English.”
In her brief time with the team, Butler sees Vilaro Aragones making an impact that can improve the Gators as a team due to her background. Butler has noticed players taking the time to listen more carefully to Vilaro Aragones to make sure she understands them. Her inability to communicate as clear as she would like has made her teammates communicate in more detailed ways.
Butler has signed other international players during her coaching career but never one straight from overseas. In the past they have always played at a junior college or prep academy prior to college.
“She is unique,’’ Butler said. “She is not only helping make us a better team, she is making us better communicators.’’
Coming to America is something Vilaro Aragones didn’t finalize until in May when she told her family that she wanted to pursue a college education in the U.S. and to play basketball. In Spain she was unable to watch much American college basketball, but she did learn about the NBA and WNBA.
Vilaro Aragones considers former Connecticut star Diana Taurasi as one of her favorite players and tries to emulate some of her game after Taurasi’s. As she clutched the bag of ice recently over her sore left shoulder, Vilaro Aragones at times strained to find the right word to express what she was thinking.
Everything is so new and so different that sometimes she needs time to regroup. Those are the moments when she retires to her room for Skype conversations with her family back home.
She speaks her native Spanish to provide her family with updates on her day, on practice and perhaps something new she may have eaten that day. So far she has taken a liking to American hamburgers but longs to find a good restaurant in town that serves authentic pasta dishes.
To help her learn English faster, if she doesn’t understand something, she may ask Page in Spanish. However, they have a deal that those exchanges are only when it’s an emergency.
“It’s important for me to learn English very quickly,’’ Vilaro Aragones said. “I don’t understand all of it.’’
What she understands perfectly clear is the opportunity in front of her. She misses a lot about Spain and her Barcelona neighborhood and some of her mom’s favorite meals, but grabbing Butler’s attention at that tournament a year ago opened new doors for her she never expected to walk through.
Now that she is here, Vilaro Aragones is out to make sure the experience is one worth leaving home for.
“To stay here is an important change for my life,’’ she said. “Here, it’s competition all the time. I like this.’’