The goal is to win and just be great: Israel’s Jennie Simms looks towards Eurobasket 2023

Jun 15, 2023 | Holyland Hoops

As the final arrangements are being made for the tip-off of the 2023 FIBA Women’s EuroBasket on Thursday, the Israeli National Team prepares for its first game of the tournament against Belgium at the Drive In – Shlomo Group Arena in Tel Aviv (18:15 IDT, 11:15 EDT).

While the national team boasts one of its most talented rosters ever, arguably the star of the team is American-Israeli Jennie Simms, whom basketball fans would know from her time playing both in the WNBA and in Israel. Simms took time out of her busy schedule to talk about the upcoming the European championship and her basketball career.

“I’m really excited, just excited to be able to show what we have, what the players have in Israel and the advantages that we’re going to be able to take,” Simms said of the thrill of being able to compete in the EuroBasket.

Although Simms only became an Israeli citizen earlier this year, she has been playing professionally in Israel in 2017, meaning that she is no stranger to her teammates on the national team.

“I know a lot of the girls just from the years of me being here,” Simms said of becoming a member of the national team. “You know, they’re very welcoming, they’re here with me, so it’s a great feeling.”

Alex Cohen – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“I’ve known Alex for all the years since I’ve been here,” Simms said of teammate Alex Cohen, a veteran on the team, who also grew up in the US and moved to Israel to play professionally. “We’ve both played together in 2017 in Ramle, so I’ve known Alex for a minute and I also have had that relationship.

“It’s just a different game that we’re able to bring,” Simms continued, talking about the added value that American-Israel dual-citizens are able to bring to the national team. “We’re able to bring a different outlook, a different thing, just because we’ve been to college. We learn certain things differently, rather than European basketball. So I think we’re able to bring a little bit more experience, a little bit more things like spacing that’s just not taught in different areas.”

The official EuroBasket website labels Simms as the star of the team and describes her as, “a do-it-all star and clutch performer”. She doesn’t feel any added weight on her shoulders, however, giving credit to those who have helped her throughout her career.

“I mean, to be honest, I don’t feel like a lot of pressure. Like I had coach Ziv Erez when I was in Rishon [with Hapoel Rishon LeZion] and he really helped me become the person who I am and then having Eden [Inbar, Elizur Holon coach] last year, the talks that we used to have, the things we used to have, he used to tell me, at the end of the day, I’ve proved what I can do, I’ve shown the world what I can do, so don’t really add pressure on myself and have my own expectations on myself.”

Jennie Simms – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

When it comes to her basketball career, there are a lot of people to whom Simms recognizes as helping her along her journey. Like many, for her it started at home with her parents, Darrick – who played basketball at the University of Virginia and who has been her only personal trainer during her career – and Martina – who is here in Israel to see her daughter compete in the EuroBasket.

“Honestly, my mom put me into basketball. My mother put my sister into basketball first. I was in ballet, tap, jazz, I was in gymnastics (which helps with the unorthodox things on the court). Then at the age of 12 I started playing. My mom put my sister in it first and I came to practices and I was like, why can’t I play? So then I started playing and then my dad, he stepped into it afterwards, after everybody was telling me and my mom, she’s going to be good.

“My mom told my dad, there are a lot of people who want to work out your daughter, you need to start coming to the games and seeing her play. My dad personally asked me if this something that I want to do and if it’s something that I love. He just told that he never wanted to live his dream through me, so he didn’t introduce me to the game. But I remember always going to his games with my little ball, I always had a little hoop and stuff like that, but literally playing organized basketball, I didn’t do it until I was 12. Once he stepped in, the next day I told him that I really wanted to play and he really stepped in. We woke up at 6 o’clock in the morning and we started going.”

Simms started her college career at West Virginia University, but later transferred after her freshman year to Old Dominion University, where she earned many accolades, including being named Conference USA Player of the Year as a senior and being named to three consecutive All-C-USA First Teams.

Jennie Simms – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“Honestly, I was very homesick. When I stopped playing at West Virginia, I stopped playing in December, I didn’t even complete a whole season there. I lost a lot of weight, I was really homesick and to be honest, I didn’t know if I wanted to play again. I wanted to go home, I wanted to play close to home, I didn’t care what division it was. But my dad and everyone else didn’t let me stop, they didn’t and it was one of the best decisions ever for me.

“Then transferring and going to Old Dominion, I think one of the two biggest things that a lot of people have to realize is that it’s not really what school you go to, but it’s what coach really believes in you. On each level I had certain people who believed in me, helped my game through a transition. In college it was Karen Barefoot, she was my coach at Old Dominion. Then when I came to this professional level, it was Ziv Erez.

“One thing I can say about Ziv is that on the professionally level, he pushed me to days on which I could have a triple double, then tell me you can do better than this and in practice he pushed me every day and he pushes all his girls to be the best that they can be. I think they really helped me into making this transition professionally.”

Prior to coming to Israel, Simms was selected with the 18th pick of the 2017 WNBA Draft with the Washington Mystics. Like many other players in the WNBA – where rookie contracts aren’t guaranteed – she was waived early in her first season. She has since played in the league, most-recently with the Phoenix Mercury, however she was waived at the end of May this year, just before the 2023 season started.

Jennie Simms – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“It’s just hard – the league is very hard to get in. It’s not an easy league, there are a lot of people [where there are a maximum of 144 roster spots]. There are a lot of people are getting drafted and not even getting the opportunity to go to training camp. So I think I’ve been hopped around and I think it’s just something that if I want to keep going, I’m going to keep trying and I’m going to keep going after it, because I know that I do belong in the league, I know I am a player that is a league-caliber player. I’ve proved it by being able to get on certain teams, get picked up at certain times and at certain moments. I just think that at the end of the day, within that, I’m delayed, not denied. So my time is going to come, just like I played five years and then became the MVP of the Israeli league. I’m not done yet, I haven’t slowed down yet and I’m going to keep coming after it.”

When Simms started her professional journey with the Mystics, one of her teammates was Belgium’s captain, Emma Meesseman – against whom Simms and Israel will be playing in their first game – who boasts an impressive resume, which includes a WNBA Championship and Finals MVP in 2019 while with the Mystics and 5 EuroLeague Championships, including this year’s with Fenerbache where she also won the league MVP award. While they will be at war against each other on Thursday night, Meesseman was an influential person in Simms’s early professional career.

“She’s a very great player, but she’s also a great person. In 2017, I remember always talking to her, her always bringing me under her wing. When I was frustrated with myself, she was just talking with me and telling me about her years and when she first came into the league. Even when I got waived, she was one of the ones that talked to me and she told me to keep going and it’s going to be ok. She’s just a great person off the court and that’s the biggest thing for basketball players, to be a great person off the court. On the court she’s a beast, she’s quiet about it and she does a great job. It’s going to take a whole team effort to be able to try to guard her.”

Simms first came to Israel in 2017 after being waived by the Mystics, where she played with Elitzur Ramle and Hapoel Petah Tikvah. In 2021/2022, Simms led Hapoel Rishon Letzion to their first State Cup title and was also named MVP of the Israeli league. While she played with Elitzur Holon last season, she signed for Elitzur Ramla for the upcoming 2023-24 season.

Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“The opportunity came with my agent,” Simms said of the reason for coming to Israel. “It was my first time ever coming overseas. I just took it as what it was and then just this league to me, it shows that there’s a lot of young talent in this league that can be very good and they just need certain people believe in them.”

Simms is also excited for the upcoming season with Ramle, the reigning Israeli league champions. “I think it’s a great team, a great organization,” Simms said. “Just to be able to play under certain platforms, whether it’s EuroLeague or EuroCup, to be able to compete on that level and show what the Israelis have, to strengthen this league a little bit more.”

As someone with the success that she’s had and with more than 5 years of professional experience, Simms is a leader in the league and embraces that role of strengthening the league and her teammates.

“I think one of the biggest things in Rishon was that we all believed in each other, we all held each other accountable, even though they were the youngest people and [the success] something we were never supposed to do.

Jennie Simms – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“I think that’s the biggest thing playing in Israel right now, is just being able to show, as one of my coaches always told me, Jim Corrigan from Old Dominion, ‘Jennie, you’re a good player, but you’ll become a great player when you can make everyone else better as you become good.’ To me those are the challenges that I take on within my own self and my own game as I work on myself, how am I going to make others better.”

Outside of basketball, Simms has embraced her adopted country – especially the family-focus in Israeli culture.

“I like just the concept of family,” Simms said. “Honestly, I think that in America we get away from that a lot and just being able to come here and like doing Shabbat dinners, I always go to May Revah – her family is like my second family out here. So just being able to really do the family dinners and the holidays and just like they’re good people overall, a lot of Israelis are good people and they’re misunderstood. One thing I say about myself, I’m a very misunderstood person and it’s ok. I think it’s ok to be misunderstood, but you guys are who you are, once you come over here and see and interact with Israelis, you understand who you guys are as people.”

With that background of years in the league and the opportunity to become a member of the national team, the process of becoming a citizen came about last year and the process was completed earlier this year.

Jennie Simms – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“I prayed about it and I just went with what I prayed about,” Simms said about how she made the decision to become an Israeli citizen. “The signs that I got, I always dreamed about playing on the national team, I’ve always dreamed of playing the Olympics and that’s my next step and my next level that I want to get to.

“I talked to my parents about it, because it is a big thing that I’m going to be gone most of the time. I think that around the time that it happened, it was when I matured to the next level, to understand that this is a job and it’s ok. I really felt welcomed here, so it was a big decision, I didn’t really consult anybody about it but the Lord honestly.”

Religion also plays a part for her on the court, which is evident by the number that she wears – she’s worn 7 in the Israeli league, but she wears 77 for the national team.

“First of all, the number 7 means a lot to me. It’s the number of completion – the number in the Bible for completion and it’s just the number that I’ve always stuck with since I’ve been in the league. It’s either number 25 or number 7. Gili [Eisman] has number 7, so she’s been on the national team and she’s going to be on the national team. Just like I call her baby 7 and I’m big 7, so I like 77 to just keep the number going.”

Jennie Simms – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

After Belgium, Israel plays against Italy on Friday (15:30 IDT, 8:30 EDT) and then the Czech Republic on Sunday (18:00 IDT, 11:00 EDT).

“Honestly, all of them,” Simms responded when asked which game she was looking forward to the most. “This is going to be another step in my game that I’m about to take, to another level. So just all of the games, to take in every game and just really being blessed for the opportunity to be able to play against these players.

“They’re different types of players, because I’m in the W, so these are different types of players, more finesse players, raw players, you know, pass and cut, things like that, a lot of women in basketball with athleticism. I’m looking forward to all of it, just to being able to learn, grasp, watch film and things like that, I’m able to improve on defensively and offensively, it depends on what they want to throw at me.”

As for what Simms hopes for the team to achieve in the tournament, the goal is clear.

Jennie Simms – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“Honestly, to be winners, to just come out here and compete, to understand the platform that we’re about to be on and just being able to enjoy this moment. Every moment at the end of the day, it is a job for us now, it’s not just all fun, but continue to have fun and continue to understand that these are lifetime memories and lifetime moments and when you enjoy the moment you do better and you do well. For us, the goal is to win and just be great.”

The FIBA EuroBasket begins on Thursday June 15, with the group stages being held in Tel Aviv and Slovenia. The Shlomo Group Arena will host the games in Tel Aviv. The few remaining tickets can be snapped up at, at an affordable price of 50 Shekels per game, giving Israel basketball fans the opportunity to see a first-class international tournament live in their backyard.

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