As she explains how her daughter began playing basketball, Alison Spanou can’t avoid the word “coincidence.”
Artemis Spanou has distinguished herself as a player for Robert Morris, but her basketball origin is not a far-fetched tale, the kind reminiscent of the Greek gods from which her name is derived.
If it were up to Spanou, she might never have pursued the game seriously, sticking instead with her first love, soccer. As fate would have it, there were no girls teams close enough to her home in Athens and, while she was out walking with her mother one day, a stranger approached them, immediately recognizing the 10-year-old.
“Oh, I know you,” the man said. “You’re the girl who plays basketball for the school, aren’t you?”
To that point, her mother wasn’t aware her daughter played and knew little about the sport. But the man insisted that Spanou was talented and needed to play somewhere, even handing her a list of local club teams.
From a perfect marriage of opportunity and luck came a chance to leave Greece, attend college and, perhaps, play the game she loves professionally.
“It sort of all just happened,” said Alison Spanou, who lives is Greece and retold the story by telephone.
Though it took many years, what emerged is, likely, the most-decorated basketball career in school history. Artemis Spanou has rewritten the Robert Morris record books and quietly established herself as one of the NCAA’s most-accomplished players, statistically.
A center, she is the Colonials’ leader in points (2,007), rebounds (1,484), double-doubles for points and rebounds (81) and made field goals (703— statistics sure to leave an indelible legacy.
“Her mother and her trusted in me that this environment was the best for her and that she could shine here and not just be one of 13 players,” Robert Morris women’s coach Sal Buscaglia said. “I think it has come true — she has shined. She’s the mainstay of the program.”
Behind such gaudy statistics has been an unbridled passion for the game, something that has defined Spanou’s on-court persona. But it wasn’t always that way. When she began playing basketball, she didn’t have much use for it.
Once the Olympics came to Athens in 2004, however, that attitude started to shift.
She compulsively researched the players and teams, and drew inspiration from watching the games on television, dreaming of maybe being there herself one day. Soon, basketball was no longer limited to getting together with friends and playing on a neighborhood court. By the time she was 11, it started to mean something more.
“It wasn’t just ‘Let’s go play basketball,’” Spanou said. “It became ‘Let’s go get better.’”
That growing obsession began to show on the court.
After playing for only a handful of years, Spanou joined the Greek under-16 national team at age 14. By the time she was 16, she was invited to the country’s senior national team, where she had to match up against players as old as 34.
To those around her, it was becoming obvious Spanou was something of a natural.
“I could see it myself that she was developing and she was improving,” her mother said. “There were just so many people that kept telling me as she got older that she had the talent to go much further. I could see that in her.”
With an expanding resume came the thoughts and promise of playing college basketball in the United States. Through some friends she made on the national-team circuit, Spanou heard of Robert Morris and, eventually, she sent game DVDs to Buscaglia.
Almost instantly, he recognized her talent, the kind of player, he said, who nearly always ends up at a traditional power like Connecticut or Notre Dame. He sent an assistant to watch her play in Romania and, soon after, she accepted a scholarship before visiting the campus.
With the decision came cultural and personal adjustments, from food to language to the size of her bed, with almost everything seeming bigger. Even the size of Robert Morris — a 5,000-student school in a quiet suburb — wowed her.
The transition extended to basketball, where she had to face stronger and more athletic players than she did in Europe. But, by playing on a team with three other foreign-born players — including a fellow Greek — she began to find some comfort.
“You have your second family here,” she said. “This is my second family, and they helped me adjust a lot.”
As she had been throughout her career, Spanou immediately proved to be a valuable asset, starting all 30 games as a freshman and averaging 13.1 points and 9.6 rebounds.
Since then, those numbers have improved. Last season, as a junior, she led the nation in rebounding with 15.6 per game. This season, she is averaging 19.3 points and 14.9 rebounds. In NCAA history, she is third in career double-doubles and 10th in career rebounds.
At 6-foot-2 with a modest vertical jump and 75-inch wingspan, such a lofty place in the rebounding record books seems odd. She’s neither bulky nor in possession of a spindly frame that comes with arms that seemingly stretch for miles.
But what she lacks in physical stature she more than makes up for in superior instinct, positioning and a desire to be the player who ends up with the ball. In a mid-January victory against Wagner, she had 30 points and 19 rebounds, accomplishing the feat with little fanfare, almost as if such a performance was inevitable or expected.
For the later part of her career, it has been that way, something that has prompted others to think about her future. Buscaglia already has started putting out calls to WNBA teams and even though a professional career in the United States or overseas appears to be a certainty for her, the coach isn’t taking any chances.
“I cannot go to bed at night if I don’t do everything possible to promote her and get her name out,” Buscaglia said. “That’s one thing we’re really doing now.”
Regardless of where she ends up, neither she nor her family envisioned this years ago. What began as a fortuitous meeting on an Athens street has developed into a passion and a potential livelihood — almost as if it were fate.
“It is weird, but everybody says everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Back then, there wasn’t a women’s [soccer] team for me to go to, and I ended up having to change sports. It ended up good.”
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.