For most Division I basketball players, getting the chance to play in college is something they dream of as a little kid and work towards for their entire childhood. But that wasn’t the case for UConn’s Batouly Camara. She didn’t dream of playing basketball in college because she had never played the sport as a kid.
Camara grew up in New York City as the daughter of a Guinea West Africa immigrant. As a first generation family, they maintained values from their old country, which — like many places around the world — didn’t give women a lot of freedom to do what they wanted.
“Not to diminish my upbringing, but it was totally focused on being a girl and what you’re going to do for marriage,” Camara said. “That’s what you’re trained to do.”
And that’s how Camara was raised for the first decade of her life. It wasn’t until she was 11 that her mentor finally introduced her to basketball, simply because she was tall and could stay after school because of homework help. But that was all Camara needed to get hooked on the sport. It gave her something she had never experienced: freedom.
“Sport was freedom,” Camara said. “Freedom to identify, freedom to travel, and freedom to get a free education which I don’t think I’d have otherwise.”
To her, basketball wasn’t just something to do and have fun for a few hours a day. It wasn’t something to pass the time with. It gave her a purpose; something for her to work at.
“There’s something about being united and being around other empowered girls and empowered women and young girls that looked like me gave me the self-confidence that really transformed my life, gave me confidence,” she said. “I really appreciated it.”
However, it took some time for Camara to convince her mother, Fanta Kaba. Living in a foreign country with a totally different culture, Kaba feared what she didn’t know. But once Camara showed her all the benefits it could bring, her mother was on board.
“People think sports and think professionals but there’s other routes,” Camara said. “Ways to stay in sports, way to influence those around you and once my mother got that picture and the fear was set aside, it was better.”
Without basketball, it’s unlikely Camara would’ve been able to attend a school like UConn. She’s making sure to take full advantage of the opportunity and is one of the most involved players on the team, outside of her athletic and academic obligations.
Camara is an active member of the Muslim Student Association and has been vocal on social media about being a Muslim athlete.
“It’s a core part of my identity that I grew up with,” she said. “Having the support of my teammates, they listen to you, they ask me questions, we talk about it. Being able to show that and be accepted and have it reciprocated means a lot to me.”
She’s also the President of Collective Uplift, a group that works to empower student athletes. Camara has also been a part of different events, such as hosting a panel with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and has given a TedX talk. While basketball is her top priority, she also understands that experience is just as important as getting a degree in college.
“When you have a platform when you’ve gone through something, your experience is your degree,” Camara said. “And that’s something that gives you something to talk about. Similar to a bunch of MeToo movements, you’re not alone and I think that’s the biggest thing to take away. Using your platform, speaking about what you’re passionate about, what has changed your life is impactful.”
The fact that Camara has so much going on is no surprise to her head coach, Geno Auriemma.
“She likes to get involved in a lot of things. She has that kind of personality,” Auriemma said. “She has varied interests, she’s very conscientious of what she wants her future to be like, and her future involves a lot of things beyond basketball. I’m not surprised she’s involved in all those things.”
While he certainly makes sure basketball and school remain top priorities, Auriemma also wants his players to have other interests so they can get away if things on the court aren’t going well and to avoid getting burnt out.
“Sometimes we get caught up in [the schedule] becoming school, basketball, school, basketball and there is another life away from that, just like every other kid,” he said. “They have other interests and finding time for them is not the easiest thing but I hope they have an escape away from school and basketball.”
To all my hijabi athletes, this is for you! I will not be physically wearing a hijab this season, but may Allah guide me on this journey pic.twitter.com/QU7Cid83oe— B a t o u l y ➰ (@BatoulyCamara) September 16, 2017
Camara is well aware that none of this would’ve been possible without basketball. Now, she’s making it her mission to make sure girls around the world have that same opportunity. This past summer, she took a week and a half trip to India with Dribble Academy, a nonprofit organization that “uses basketball to transform lives” according to Camara.
“That was so fun,” she said. “In this little village working with 500 kids, girls with full burkas and hijabs and having the transformative power of sport (was great). They’re based in an English-language school so being able to tutor kids in English and then go out onto the basketball court and teach them everything I know — which is not much, but I gave them everything I had.”
The trip inspired Camara enough to help her realize that’s what she wants to do with her life after graduating from college. She’ll go “wherever the wind blows” to help girls around the world get the same opportunity that she was given.
“I would love to be an inspiring, international, global sport development programmer,” Camara said. “Implementing sport around the world, going back to India or Guinea West Africa where I’m from and seeing how sport develops, how you implement that and intentionally create programs to help young girls excel at basketball.”