My name is Kitija Laksa.
I’m a senior at the University of South Florida, I come from Latvia and I’m one-hundred percent Latvian. For those that don’t know where Latvia is, please, just google it.
It was hard to decide what I wanted to tell you all. How did I start to play basketball? Why did I choose to come to USF? My hopes and dreams? To be honest, I still don’t know a clear answer to this.
I come from a great family. My dad, Janis, used to be a professional basketball player in Latvia. He played for the national team and is seen as a legend at home because of his hook shot, shooting threes as a post player (he’s 210cm, or 6-foot-9 ¾ inches) and tough defense. Now he’s a youth basketball coach working with boys. Compared to dad’s height, mom’s only 168cm (5-foot-6). While my mom, Elita, was playing basketball, she was studying to become a basketball coach and when she got hurt, it was time to become a youth basketball coach full-time.
Up to this day, I have not figured out how they are able to take first graders and actually raise them into basketball players and young adults until they're done with high school. Yes, the system is completely different back home once you're a youth coach you take a group of kids at a certain age and keep working with them until they're done with school (no AAU, no travel teams).
And then there’s my brother, Martins, in our lovely family, he’s six years older and I’ve always chased him. I tried to copy him and be like him especially when I was a kid. I’m the youngest and there’s a word for it in Latvian “pastarītis”. Now, my brother is a married man playing professional basketball in Spain. He’s a great shooter but I would definitely beat him in a game of horse (to be honest, I’m not sure if I would, but I wanted to sound cooler than him).
As you can tell basketball, sports and competitiveness are mostly in my genes. It might surprise you, but I was never forced to play basketball. Everything started with gymnastics at an early age. The only reason why gymnastics did not work out for me was because of those tight costumes they made us wear. Yep, short, baggy shorts seemed more suitable for me.
There was swimming for some time too as an extra activity after school, many of my friends and classmates went, I did too and imagine that, I wasn’t too bad either. But that ended too and those short, baggy shorts once again seemed made for me. Basketball it was, I finally picked one. During summers I always went to mom’s summer camps where she trained her boys’ teams. I jumped in and practiced with them, for a while I could beat everyone, and as years went, they got more athletic and tougher.
Eventually, my summers changed too, because I started to play for my country’s youth national teams U-16, U-18 and U-20. When I was 16 I got my first call from the senior national team, which at that time seemed like my biggest achievement.
A year later I made the team and went to my first Eurobasket, which is the European Championship. Until then, I could only dream of playing with the best basketball players in my country, and all of a sudden it became reality. I was one of them.
Now 5 years later I’ve participated in three European Championships and this year, a World Cup. And you know what? Appetite grows while eating and I’ve never been hungrier. Playing for my national team means a lot to me. Putting on the jersey and singing the national anthem before a game gives me chills. Having our fans in the stands gets us going. There is not a prouder moment for an athlete than to represent her country and I’m so grateful for this opportunity.
Latvia has less than two million inhabitants and we had the most fans at the World Cup games we played in, it was unbelievable. The appearance of head coach Jose Fernandez and associate head coach Michele Woods-Baxter made the experience even more special.
What do I do when I am not in the gym? Sometimes I think about going to the gym but mostly I’m busy with finishing up my degree. I’m majoring in psychology with a minor in nutrition. Later on, one of my personal goals is to keep studying sports psych and maybe one day specialize in this field. Oh and hey, shoutout to Dr. Lee! He’s the real deal at the University of South Florida. Mental health is important and his work is much appreciated by student-athletes.
Right now I’m on my way back to Tampa to join my team. I haven’t been around for a while so I’m very excited to see everyone and catch up. These girls, coaches, staff, and fans mean a lot to me. I’ve grown up through this program, I’m grateful to be a senior and help the girls with my personal experience. Basketball does not consist of only what people see on the TV, there’s chemistry, bonds, many laughs, and tears. It’s not only the court we share, but we also share memories, hard work, and dedication to reach a collective goal. Through ups and downs, great teams show their grit and that’s what I’m bringing this season.
Bulls fans, get ready!