Jan. 25, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Before she went into coaching full time, Joanne Boyle played professional basketball. She spent two seasons in Luxembourg, a small European nation that’s surrounded by France, Belgium and Germany.
“I loved my time there,” recalled Boyle, who played for Etzella Ettelbruck. “Loved my team, and the people were great.”
Luxembourg’s official languages include Luxembourgish, which Boyle, now in her sixth season as the head women’s coach at the University Virginia, never mastered. That doesn’t prevent her from communicating with Luxembourg native Lisa Jablonowski, one of the Cavaliers’ four freshmen.
A 6-3 forward, Jablonowski speaks four languages fluently — English, German, French and Luxembourgish — and also knows a little Polish and Spanish. (Her father, a former professional volleyball player, is from Poland, and her mother from Germany.)
In Charlottesville, she’s some 4,000 miles from her village of Ernster, whose population is around 350. But her transition to life on Grounds, and in the United States, has been for the most part seamless.
“I’ve liked it a lot,” Jablonowski said at John Paul Jones Arena, where UVA (13-6 overall, 2-4 ACC) hosts No. 19 Virginia Tech (16-3, 3-3) at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“It took me some time to get used to everything, especially the new American culture and the amount of practice and my new team. But I think now I’m pretty used to everything, and it’s so much fun.”
On the court, she said, “It was tough at the beginning. I’m not lying. You have to get used to [the American game].”
Jablonowski’s classmates include 6-9 center Felicia Aiyeotan, a native of Nigeria who attended high school in the United States. Jablonowski and Aiyeotan are the first foreign players Boyle has had at UVA. Boyle’s teams at Richmond and California, though, had strong international flavors.
“I’ve always enjoyed coaching foreign kids,” Boyle said. “The Europeans that I’ve had have always done well. They’ve all been gritty and similar to Lisa in that there’s no sense of entitlement.
“They’re thankful for everything. They’re very coachable. And they just grind.”
Jablonowski, whose first name is pronounced LEE-zuh, has yet to turn 20, but she’s played for the Luxembourg national team. She’s also competed as an amateur for two professional teams in her native country: Telstar Hesperange and, most recently, Amicale Steinsel.
Still, as she neared the end of her high school years, at Lycee des Garcons in Luxembourg City, “I knew that I wanted to study abroad, as far away as possible, and since I also wanted to continue playing basketball, America was the perfect match for me,” said Jablonowski, who’s considering a major in international economics.
“I started looking into different colleges, and I got in contact with different coaches, and Coach B, she played in Luxembourg, so she knew a couple of people, and then I got in touch with her.”
Boyle said: “A friend of mine who coaches over there comes over [to the United States] frequently, and he’s watched us play a lot, and obviously he watched Lisa play a lot, and he just kept saying to me, `I really do think she could be in your top eight or nine.’ “
After scouting Jablonowski, Boyle agreed with her friend’s assessment. And so she offered Jablonowski a scholarship.
“I know so many people in Luxembourg that said so many good things about Lisa and her potential and where she can go,” Boyle said. “She hasn’t hit her ceiling yet. She’s a hard worker, a great kid, very coachable. I knew going in that this was almost going to be a no-brainer, if she wanted to come.”
Jablonowski’s size and length, as well as her work ethic, impressed Boyle. So did Jablonowski’s experience at the highest level of the sport in Luxembourg, whose population is around 560,000.
“She was playing with 25- and 30-year-old women on the national team,” Boyle said. Moreover, pro teams in Europe typically include two Americans, so Jablonowski had experience “guarding and playing against kids that have graduated from college,” Boyle said.
For the Cavaliers, Jablonowski is averaging 3.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 16.7 minutes per game. She doesn’t start, but she’s often on the court at critical stretches of games.
“The big thing for me, just watching her, is how many times she has helped us keep balls alive, given us second-chance opportunities, defended pretty well, or gotten a great rebound when needed,” Boyle said.
“So, to me, that’s why I put her in those key moments. I just think there’s a chance that she’s going to come up with something. And she’s going to work. I know she’s going to go out there and play hard.”
Jablonowski said: “I’m just trying to contribute as much as I can. I know that I’m not the biggest scorer on this team. So I’m trying to help on the defensive end and maybe grab some offensive rebounds and just hustle and bring the best energy I can give to the team.”
She’s far from a finished product. Jablonowski needs to improve her ball-handling, get stronger and become more of a scoring threat, Boyle said. To that end, Jablonowski puts in extra work with assistant coach Tim Taylor and strength and conditioning coach Robb Hornett.
Boyle has no doubt about Jablonowski’s commitment to the game.
“In European basketball, there’s no limelight,” Boyle said. “You’re on a bus for [long] hours, and you’re playing on the weekends and [sometimes] going to school full time. And a lot of those girls have jobs.
“And so it isn’t glamorous. This is just like, `I love the game and I’m going to play it hard.’ “
Jablonowski, who rooms with Anna Jefferson, a sprinter on the track & field team, had never been to the United States before her official visit to UVA in the summer of 2015.
“When I came to Charlottesville, I liked that it wasn’t the typical American image I had in my head,” she recalled. “Because it was like a small town, with a lot of cute restaurants and super-nice people. I liked the little town and the kind of family feeling, which I thought Americans wouldn’t really have.”
Charlottesville, she told her father, has “a little bit of a European charm.”
Her favorite thing about life in the USA?
“I think it’s the people,” Jablonowski said, “that you can reach out to everybody, and everybody is willing to help you. I don’t know if that’s just UVA, or America in general, but that’s something I’ve really appreciated.”
She wasn’t sure, Jablonowski admits, how she’d fit in on a basketball team made up almost exclusively of American players. She need not have worried.
“Of course, that is always a little bit of concern, coming from such a different country and also not being 100 percent comfortable with the language at the beginning,” Jablonowski said. “But they’ve really, really helped me a lot.”