COLUMBIA — Since ninth grade, she had dreamed of coming to the U.S. to play basketball. Now Liene Priede, a junior guard for the Missouri women's basketball team, gushes at how lucky she is to be playing for the Tigers.
Priede was born and grew up in Riga, Latvia, and attended sports school there since the age of 8. When a friend who played for Western Illinois sent the school a tape of Priede playing, her dream was almost tangible.
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The coaches from Western Illinois were interested in having her play for them, but her GPA wasn’t where it needed to be.
“Because of my GPA, I had to either take the SAT test again or come to juco (junior college), and I said, ‘I don’t want to take that test again. I will just go to juco,’” Priede said.
The coaches placed her at Independence Community College in Independence, Kan., where in 2010 she earned NJCAA All-Region VI and All-Jayhawk Conference-Eastern Division first team honors.
After Priede completed two years at Independence Community College, she was free to sign with another team because the Western Illinois coach had been released. Missouri head coach Robin Pingeton said assistant coach Willie Cox saw Priede play in a game and was impressed.
“We brought her over on an official visit and really connected with her on a lot of different levels," said Pingeton of the 5-foot-10 guard. "She’s a young lady that’s very passionate about the game. She’s got a great work ethic and is just a high, high character kid.”
For Priede, basketball was a simple choice because she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who used to play, and one of her older brothers, who had just started playing.
“When I was younger, I just wanted to do everything he was doing,” Priede said. “So I asked my mom to take me to practices, and she did.”
At her sports school in Riga, Latvia, students as young as 8 years old would choose a sport to concentrate on. So, at the age of 8, she decided she would concentrate solely on basketball. She practiced every day after school and had games twice a week against teams from sports schools in other cities. As she got older, practice was later in the day, and games were more frequent. At tournaments, her team would play teams from other cities and sometimes other countries.
When she reached ninth grade, she had a concrete plan set in her mind to play basketball in the U.S.
“Pretty much, that was my only future plan at that time, that that’s what I wanted to do,” Priede said.
She began learning English in school and saw coming to the U.S. as a better way to learn the language and gain new and different experiences.
She remembers the exact day she arrived in the U.S., Aug. 16, 2009, and how she saw some “bigger size people” than she was used to. She also remembers how strange it was to hear only English being spoken.
“It was just weird to hear people speaking in English around me because I’d never been in an environment where everybody is speaking English around you. That was just a really weird feeling,” Priede said.
At first, one of the most challenging parts of playing basketball was communicating with her teammates.
“My first year, I was shy. I didn’t talk to anybody at all,” Priede said.
But it’s gotten easier for her the more time she has spent time playing in the U.S. Now, at practice, she yells “Ball! Ball!” and “I’m here! I’m here!” during drills just like the rest of her teammates. She gives high-fives and receives praise for her 3-point shots when they swish through the net.
To Priede, one of the most surprising differences between American and Latvian basketball was how substitutions are done. In Latvia, players sit on chairs at the end of the scorer’s table to wait for a substitution instead of walking up and squatting in front of it..
“It was really, really weird,” Priede said. “I was like, ‘What am I supposed to do? Where do I go?’ Because I feel like I’m distracting those people who work over there when I’m walking there and sitting there.’”
She said she has noticed that Missouri basketball is much faster than what she played in Latvia, and the 3-point line is closer to the basket.
Last summer, Priede returned to Latvia for her first year on the women’s national team. She had played for the junior national team each summer since she was 16 and helped lead those teams to silver and bronze medals.
What she misses most about being away from her country isn’t basketball but her family and friends, especially during the holiday season.
“There’s Christmas trees all over the place, and I haven’t been home for Christmas. This is going to be my third Christmas in a row that I haven’t been home, so it’s kind of tough,” she said.
Even though she won’t be able to see her family this Christmas, she still sees playing at Missouri as one of the best things that has ever happened to her.
“Just this school, right here, this coaching staff, this team, all my teammates … I feel like they are just awesome, and I’m really, really happy that I have this opportunity to be here," Priede said. "I don’t even want to imagine that I could be somewhere else.”