COLUMBIA — Twelve years ago in a small apartment on the outskirts of Latvia’s bustling capital of Riga, a poster of Shaquille O’Neal shaped the future of Missouri basketball player Liene Priede.
“My older brother had that poster, so whenever someone asked me who my favorite NBA player was, I’d choose him because I didn’t know any other ones,” Priede said. “It was always really annoying to him.”
St. Louis University at Missouri
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
Priede shared her brother’s enthusiasm for basketball, and the sport eventually led her on a journey full of obstacles to the United States, where she impressed the coaches on the Missouri women's basketball team with her talent and character.
“We fell in love with her personality,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “She’s got a smile that can light up a room.”
It’s a smile that emerges when she mentions her home, Riga, where her story began.
“Every building is a different style. It’s indescribable,” Priede said. “You just can’t find anything like it in America.”
She said she misses strolling through the narrow streets lined with tall buildings. She said the varied architecture meshes perfectly to create an atmosphere unlike anything she has ever seen.
At age 8, Priede asked her mother if she could begin playing basketball at the same sports school as her older brother, where students where able to choose a sport to concentrate on.
“I just chose it because he was doing it,” Priede said. “I had no idea what it really was. In my mind, I thought the goal was just to get the ball.”
She arrived to her first practice as the only one in sweatpants, unaware of the appropriate playing attire. As she chased the girls around the court, she lost her balance and slid knees-first under the bleachers of the gymnasium.
“I got stuck, so my coach had to pull me out,” Priede said. “After that, I kind of realized this is not what I’m supposed to do.”
Yet Priede stuck with it, despite her father and grandmother’s disapproval.
“They just think it’s a waste of time,” Priede said. “My grandmother was an artist and wanted me to go to art school, but I never thought I had talent in that area.”
In ninth grade, Priede decided she wanted to play in the United States to acquire a new understanding of a different culture. After playing two years for Independence Community College in Independence, Kan., Pingeton and assistant coach Willie Cox watched her play and were impressed.
This year is Priede's second season at Missouri. The only thing she misses more than Riga is her mother, who watches her games on a computer screen.
Priede said her mother has always been proud of her, then reluctantly added that she assumes the rest of her family is, too, but the topic rarely comes up.
“It’s a cultural thing. Our use for the word 'love' is different for Americans. Some people live their whole lives and never use it,” Priede said. “We keep stuff into ourselves.”
Since moving to the United States, Priede said she has opened up as a result of the environment.
“She feels so much more comfortable than she did a year ago," Pingeton said. "But I think at times, it has been very hard."
Priede will return to Latvia this summer to play on the Latvian national team for the second time. She said adjusting to that level of intensity also poses a challenge.
“They do not always treat you in a nice way, so you have to stick up for yourself, keep fighting and go through the hard times, because nobody is going to give you your spot,” Priede said. “That’s how it is with professional sports. Nothing is given to you. You have to earn it.”
The Latvian team will travel to Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Lithuania and Hungary this summer.
“I’ve been to half of Europe because of basketball,” Priede said. “I’ve learned so much about different cultures. It has just been an awesome opportunity for me.”