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Vernerey translates game, lifestyle to NCAA athletics

There are some who say that basketball is a universal language. And in a way, they’re right. You can put a center from Cameroon with a point guard from Paris and a small forward from Slovakia, and they might be able to put a ball through a hoop with ease. But at Duke, women’s basketball isn’t just about basketballs and backboards. The sport may not get lost in translation, but the players sure can.

The closest Durham to Allison Vernerey’s home in Alsace, France is nearly 800 miles away—in Great Britain. The Durham where she goes to school—in North Carolina—is more than 3,000 miles from home. It’s taken all of her considerable talent to make the transition to basketball, and life, in the United States.

Vernerey was born in Paris. Her father is a professional basketball coach, and her mother and sister also played at high levels in France. It was only natural that a six-year-old Allison got in on the action. By age 15, she was representing France in the U-16 European Championships. She would go on to be captain of her U-16 team, and eventually, of France’s U-18 team as well.

In France, Vernerey said, there is little concept of a student-athlete. You either become a professional athlete, or you become a student.

“I didn’t want to have to choose one and let the other one go,” she said. “I want to keep my options open.”

And as it turned out, Vernerey wasn’t the only one dreaming of her move to America. Scouts at the European Championships took notice too, and Vernerey’s name reached the ears of Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie. Still, as a foreign player, it was up to her to make first contact, and Vernerey sent letters and video footage to all the major college programs: Duke, Connecticut and Maryland.

But it wasn’t just basketball that attracted McCallie’s attention. Vernerey is the epitome of a worker: She understands her skills, but doesn’t play them up and is always eager to get better.

McCallie had been impressed with the game tape she’d seen, but Vernerey the person blew her away on an even higher level than Vernerey the basketball player.

“Her eyes are so bright, her excitement, her alertness, her confidence in pursuing her dream of coming to the States for an education,” McCallie said. “I thought she was courageous, brave.”

Vernerey was especially interested in Duke from the start. Allison’s uncle Laurent Vernerey had received an MBA from Duke in 1998. Duke was bigger than any school Allison had ever attended, and a transition to a huge state school like Connecticut or Maryland would have proven even more difficult. Duke combined the quality basketball program she needed with the scholastic reputation she wanted.

Duke was just a far-away thought in Vernerey’s head at that point, but McCallie’s visit sealed the deal.  She came to Allison’s hometown, met the Vernerey family and Allison felt a connection immediately.

A week after McCallie’s visit, Vernerey officially committed to the Blue Devils. But that was the easy part. The translation was just beginning.

Vernerey says her English was better than that of her peers in France, but that wasn’t enough to mean she could waltz right into American life.  

And then there was the food. She’s been to Vin Rouge but not Parizade. She spent most of her dinners eating Marketplace pizza.

“I guess when I arrived I was really excited because, you know, America is like, you eat pizza,” Vernerey said, laughing. “You eat burgers. You go to the Marketplace, you have pizza every day. And that’s finally what I end up taking every day. And finally I’m like, well, it has been two months now. Maybe I should try something else.”

Basketball proved to be something of a new language as well. Like all freshmen, she was well behind in the weight room. Some of her teammates weren’t sure how well an international player would integrate into their system. The rules changed: narrower paint, longer shot clock. And doesn’t every basketball player have to take issue with the officiating?

With an innocent tone that belies her vocal aggressiveness on the court, she tells the story of her first game: “My first game here I fouled out, and I was like, ‘What’s going on? I promise I didn’t do anything wrong.’”

But things got easier by the day. Vernerey’s teammates pointed her in the right direction any time she needed help, and she wasted no time shaking the stereotype of a timid outsider struggling to adjust.

“She’s not sensitive. She’s very mature,” McCallie said. “Allison can handle being yelled at, she can handle being challenged. She’s vocal, she’s aggressive, she’s tough, she’s hard-nosed.”

Vernerey began the season showing flashes of potential. She has excellent agility for a post player. She runs the floor very well and can score with either hand around the basket. She also brings a high basketball IQ.

“There’s no part of that game that you don’t want. She can do it all for us,” Thomas said. “With me being a point guard, and a guard that likes to play fast, it’s going to be good to have someone that can run the floor.”

And in recent weeks, she has indeed been doing it all.  She got her first career start in a huge rivalry game against North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium and showed off her all-around skill set with 10 points, six rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals in a season-high 28 minutes of action. Vernerey followed that with a 20-point, 10-rebound performance against N.C. State. The freshman is averaging a solid 7.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

Not surprisingly, she downplays her increased role on the team.

“As far as just being here, the life I get here, the balance with basketball and my studies, the new people I meet, is already extraordinary,” Vernerey said. “But then Coach P giving me the chance to start is a great thing.”

The translation process is nearing its completion—only her accent and the occasional misplaced preposition give away that she’s not a native English speaker. She’s branched out to meals other than pizza. She’s only fouled out twice since that first game.

But there’s one thing she hasn’t gotten used to, and maybe never will.

“I guess it’s just so much excitement,” she said. “I’ve never had that many people in a gym for a basketball game.”

Allison Vernerey might need to get used to that, though: If she keeps getting better, she and her Duke teammates will play in plenty of packed houses.

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