By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — By the time she reached her freshman year of high school, Mir McLean had been introduced to Latin and Spanish and French, languages that many of her classmates would continue studying. She chose to follow another path to fulfill her language requirement at Roland Park Country School in Baltimore.
“I wanted something more challenging,” McLean said recently at John Paul Jones Arena, “and I’d heard that Arabic and Mandarin were really hard.”
She considered tackling both but eventually settled on Arabic, taught by Ethan Cooper, and “ended up really liking it,” McLean said, in part because it involved drawing symbols.
Her passion for the language has never faded. Now a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, McLean is majoring in Middle Eastern Language & Literature, with a concentration in Arabic. She’s also a superb basketball player who ranked third among ACC players in rebounding (9.6 per game) in 2022-23 when she hurt her right knee Jan. 8 against ACC rival NC State.
That injury ended her junior season prematurely, but it didn’t derail McLean’s academic progress. Her interest was piqued when she learned about a four-week summer program in Morocco open to UVA students. It would mean missing the first two weeks of summer basketball practice at JPJ, but when McLean raised with the subject with her head coach, Amaka Agugua-Hamilton’s response was immediate and positive.
“I knew her injury was going to be a longer rehab, and [the Morocco program] gave her a different kind of purpose,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I thought it was a great opportunity for her to go over there, learn a new culture and continue her studies. Those kinds of opportunities don’t come around very often. I’m a big advocate of exploring the world, as long as it doesn’t interfere with what you need to do, and learning from other cultures and bringing that back.”
Arabic is a “very, very difficult language to learn, and I’m just so impressed,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “Mir is really intelligent, and I’m just impressed that she really dove into that language, that culture, everything about it. That’s why I thought Morocco would be great. Who am I that take that opportunity away or say she can’t go?”
As a senior at Roland Park, McLean was supposed to visit Morocco with her Arabic class, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of that trip. And so when she learned about the immersion program offered through the Arab American Language Institute in Morocco (AALIM), she saw an opportunity she didn’t want to pass up.
“When she was made aware that this was a possibility, she ran with it,” said Georgina Nembhard, the academic coordinator for the UVA women’s basketball team. “When Mir gets an idea, she’s going to see it through. She is blazing her own trail.”
In early June, McLean flew to Morocco, where she joined other students from UVA. The program, for which she received four credits, is based in Meknes, a city in northern Morocco, and she stayed there with a host family. McLean had a roommate, an American student from the University of Mississippi.
The host family had a daughter who spoke a little English and helped translate for her parents, McLean said, but everyone generally spoke Arabic to each other.
On a typical day, McLean said, she’d wake up at 7 a.m., eat breakfast and then walk to school, where she received the undivided attention of her teacher.
“I was the only student in my class, so that was interesting,” McLean said, smiling. “It was just me and my teacher.”
Meknes is an ancient city whose pace is slower than that found in Casablanca and Marrakesh, which attract more tourists. “You really get to be immersed in the culture and see what life is about,” McLean said.
Her host family was Muslim, and the parents would “pray before meals, pray after meals, stop conversations to go pray,” McLean said.
She was in Meknes for Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, the larger of the two main holidays celebrated in Islam. “It’s not Christmas, but it’s just as big for them,” McLean said, “so it was a good experience.”
Her teacher did not speak English. They would turn to Google Translate at times, McLean said, but usually “I had to explain my way around certain vocabulary by using other Arabic words that I knew. So if I was trying to say ‘rehabilitation,’ I’d be describing rehabilitation as the thing you do to fix your knee, and she would be like, ‘Oh, it’s this word.’ And that’s how we kind of communicated.”
During her four weeks in Morocco, McLean said, she made tremendous strides in her understanding of Arabic and forged a strong relationship with her teacher.
“I actually cried when I left, and she gave me something to remember her,” McLean said. “She was really sweet. You don’t realize when you’re spending a lot of one-on-one time with someone how much they mean until [later], and it kind of surprised me how close we got in those four weeks.”
She’s been rehabbing her right knee with athletic trainer Lydia Johnson and strength and conditioning coach Justin Westbrook since she had reconstructive surgery last winter. McLean took a detailed exercise program to Morocco and some equipment they’d given her, but she had no contact with the sport to which she’s dedicated many years.
“I didn’t even see a basketball,” said McLean, who was a McDonald’s All-American as a Roland Park senior and began her college career at the University of Connecticut.
After transferring to UVA midway through the 2021-22 academic year, McLean was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. She made 11 appearances that season and averaged 11.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
In 2022-23, the Wahoos’ first season under Agugua-Hamilton, the 5-foot-11 McLean established herself as one of the ACC’s top players before that fateful night in Raleigh, N.C., where she suffered extensive damage to her right knee, which required reconstructive surgery.
Her rehab is progressing well, McLean said. “Very slow, but every day is getting better.”
The Hoos started workouts while McLean was in Morocco. She wouldn’t have been out on the court with her teammates, but McLean is one of the team’s veterans, and “I did want to make sure she was part of the camaraderie,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “It wasn’t necessarily the basketball piece. It was just more so the merge of the new people and old and then also just building the camaraderie with a group.”
Any worries she might have had were quickly dispelled when McLean returned to JPJ, Agugua-Hamilton said. “It was a seamless merge.”
As McLean rehabs her knee, “I just love the fact that she is coming into who she is outside of basketball,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “That doesn’t mean that basketball is not going to be there. That’s been a big part of her life, and it’s going to continue to be a big part of her life. She’s attacking rehab like a champ. She’s working her way back, but there’s just so many other things to life.”
McLean said she and Agugua-Hamilton “talk about it all the time: What does Mir look like outside of basketball? So after my knee surgery, I kind of started doing things I’ve always had on my list but couldn’t do because of basketball. I’d talk to my mom about that. I was like, ‘I need more goals.’ I’ve already completed the stuff that I set out to do. So I’m just kind of making bigger ones now.”
She’s on track to earn her bachelor’s degree in December. What academic road she’ll take after that has yet to be determined. Law school could be in her future. Eventually, McLean said, she’d like to work in the federal government “for a three-letter agency, maybe to translate. I also want to use my basketball platform to maybe travel again and to work with refugees or immigrants.”
She has no doubt that she’ll return to Morocco one day. For now, she’s focused on getting healthy again. McLean’s goal is to be cleared to play again in January, around the one-year anniversary of her injury, but the coaching staff isn’t putting any pressure on her.
“I want Mir to be back when she is fully healthy and can play at the level she was playing at,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “Whether that is before a year, after a year, at a year, that’s left for her, the doctors, the trainers and all that to decide. Whenever they say she’s cleared, I’m going to be ecstatic, but until that point I want her to continue to do what she’s doing and I just want to support her through it.”
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