Basketball has been Jamie Russell's ticket to the world. Now, the game she loves more than anything else will become her meal ticket, as well.
The 2008 Rock Falls graduate and recent Illinois State standout signed a 1-year contract to play professional basketball in the Czech Republic next season.
It will be the second different continent where Russell will ply her trade since the Redbirds' season ended in March.
In early May, Russell went on a three-city, nine-game tour of China with a group of American college players through NetScouts International. That opportunity arose much like the chance to play pro ball in eastern Europe – a phone call from someone in her basketball life.
"The day after my very last game at ISU, my coach [Barb Smith] called me," Russell remembered. "Of course, I was sitting on the couch moping, bummed out, just thinking, 'What am I going to do?' Coach sounded upbeat, so I asked her what was going on. She told me I'd been invited to play in China, and all I could say to her was, 'Oh, OK.' It was kind of surreal."
Russell had been selected by Chris Denker, a longtime women's college coach and scout who assembles teams every year to play overseas. Denker had followed Russell throughout her college career, and was happy to add the lightning-quick, ultra-aggressive guard to his 2013 squad to play in the Four Nations Tournament.
Russell took her finals a week and a half early, then flew out to meet her new teammates in Los Angeles before her final semester at ISU had actually ended. Upon arrival, Denker took the team to the beach and drew up plays in the sand, then the group boarded a plane and did some team bonding during a more than 13 hour flight to China.
Once on the ground, the desire to soak up a new culture was overwhelming.
"The whole time, we were more interested in looking out the window while we were driving around," Russell said. "Plus, it was like we were famous; we'd walk around and just have everybody swarming us. We didn't want to come home because everybody was treating us so well."
Russell made the most of being back on the court. She hit a game-winning shot against China in one of the first games of the tourney, and went on to earn MVP honors after being named to the all-tournament team in all three legs of the trip.
"It was definitely a whole new ballgame," Russell said. "You're playing with girls who have played basketball at the top college level, and know how to run offenses and have success, so you don't need to spend hours practicing. We just went out and played the game, then we'd have practice – much less intense than college practices – on the days between games. It was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed the experience."
She enjoyed it even more after Team USA went 7-2 and claimed the tournament title. She said it took the sting out of ISU's loss in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game 2 months prior.
"It made me forget about losing our conference championship, actually," Russell said. "It was just nice to get some sort of championship under my belt, because I've never really had one before."
Russell believes the adjustments she made to the "very European, very finesse" style of basketball she saw during the China trip will carry over when she gets to Trutnov, a city of 31,000 in the far northeastern corner of the Czech Republic.
After the ISU season ended, Russell continued training and was invited to the coveted Final Four combine. She opened some eyes there, and signed with an agent. But while the WNBA didn't come calling, Team USA teammate Morgan Johnson did.
Johnson, a 4-year starting center at the University of Iowa, had signed to play in Trutnov. While talking to the coaches, she was told the team needed "a quick, defensive guard who was team oriented."
"Morgan said that's what I was on Team USA, and I should look into it," Russell said. "I really appreciate that she thought of me, and I feel more comfortable going over there with somebody I know. She's a very skilled post who I really enjoyed playing with, and her personality really meshes with mine, so I'm excited about going over there with her."
Russell's agent sent a highlight tape to the Trutnov coaches, and then the coach contacted Russell and asked a few questions – "It was like a basketball job interview for me," Russell joked – before deciding to sign Russell over another player they were considering.
Russell said she'll get paid in U.S. dollars, and the team will also provide money for room, board and food. Russell is looking forward to seeing more of Europe through her travels with the team, and is eager to learn how her fast-break, tough-defense, pull-up jump-shooting game translates to the professional game overseas.
Russell has continued her offseason training at the University of Northern Iowa, and plays pick-up games with guys quite a bit as well. She returned to the area to play in the Prophetstown Firecracker 3-on-3 tournament on July 4, and will head back to ISU for a bit before leaving for the Czech Republic in late August.
For a girl who wanted a cement basketball court for her 12th birthday, then kept shooting and working on her game despite a broken kneecap shortly after that, Russell is still amazed at how much the game of basketball has given her.
"It's weird, because when I was a freshman in high school, I still never thought about playing college ball," Russell said. "But I get a scholarship to play in college, and find a home at ISU, then Coach asks me this season if I'm going to keep playing after college.
"When I was younger, I remember saying I wasn't going to play basketball for money, because then it's like a job. But when Coach asked me that, I realized that if I can keep playing basketball, I might as well do that instead of working for the rest of my life. It's nice to get finances with it, but it still doesn't seem like a job to me … and it never will be."
As for the future beyond the next year, Russell's plans are up in the air. While she'd love to move from Europe's version of the WNBA to the actual American pro league, she's not going to put all her eggs in one basket.
"If there's more, there's no way I can turn it down," Russell said. "Someday, I hope my body just tells me no … and that I listen. But it's so hard to give up; I love it, and it's taken me on a different route than I ever imagined, and I'm accepting and embracing it and excited to see where it leads."
For right now, it's led to a foreign country whose language and customs Russell is unfamiliar with. But her experience in China has her confident that she'll be just fine – as does the fact that she'll be partaking in her passion every step of the way.
"I'll adjust," she said, "and I'll always feel at home playing basketball, no matter where I am."
High school: Rock Falls (class of 2008)
College: Wisconsin (2 years), Illinois State (class of 2013)
Pro ball: Kara Trutnov, Czech Republic
Family: Father Tracy; mother Sabrina; brothers Rhyan (27), Aaron (25) & Bronson (16); sister Tracie (18)
FYI: Led ISU in points (14.1), steals (2.6) and minutes per game (32.3) last season, and was second in assists (2.8). … Led ISU in assists (3.4) and steals (2.6) per game in 2011-12, and was second in scoring (13.1) and minutes per game (32.0). … Two-time All-Missouri Valley Conference first-teamer and MVC All-Defensive team member. … MVP of NetScouts International Four Nations Tournament in China in May with 10.2 points, 4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game in 3-city, 9-game trip, leading Team USA to title with 7-2 record. … Signed contract to play for team in Trutnov, Czech Republic, from September through April.