RICK CLEVELAND: Basketball punches Juanita Ward’s ticket to see the world

Rick ClevelandJACKSON – Jackson native Juanita Ward had played AAU basketball all over the country, college basketball in Syracuse, WNBA basketball across the USA and international basketball in Bulgaria.

But nothing prepared her for a game last winter in Kiev, Ukraine.

“Honestly, I thought no place in the world could be colder than Syracuse,” Ward said. “Boy, did I find out different.”

There was snow and ice on the ground outside. The temperature was frighteningly below freezing. When Ward and her teammates arrived at the gymnasium, the heat was not working.

“We can’t play in this,” women on both teams said.

“Oh, but you can,” they were told by the people who wrote the checks.

They played.

“One of my American teammates had a thermometer,” Ward said. “It was 14 below inside. Our water on the bench froze.”

So – wouldn’t you know it? – Ward, a girl who grew up in Mississippi, scored 21 points and pulled down 16 rebounds to lead the Kiev Dynamo to victory.

“Fastest game I’ve ever played,” she said. “Nobody called timeouts. The officials didn’t call fouls. Everybody just wanted to get out of there.”

Ward also helped the Dynamo win the Ukrainian league championship, just the latest success story in her 26-year life, 23 of which have been spent mostly with a basketball in her hands.

“I grew up in a basketball family, started playing when I was little, started traveling with an AAU team when I was in the fourth grade,” Ward said. “It’s all I’ve ever known.”

Parade of successes
She was a two-time Parade All-American at Callaway, a three-time Dandy Dozen selection. At Syracuse, she made All-American and was a finalist for National Player of the Year. She played for Tulsa two years in the WNBA and then was the MVP of the Bulgarian professional league in both 2011 and 2012. She teaches basketball in clinics and one-on-one when she’s home. Someday, she plans to coach.

The Ice Station Zero game aside, she loved Kiev, Ukraine. “It’s gorgeous there, a breathtakingly beautiful city,” she said. “The people are awesome, so welcoming. I’m the kind of girl that likes to get out in the community. And I did. I loved the people.”

Within the next couple months, Ward will decide whether to return to Kiev, where she has a standing offer. But she has about 30 others including teams from Israel, Bulgaria, Spain, Italy, Russia, Germany and others.

They money is good. She is seeing the world through basketball, which is something she never dreamed of when she was growing up in Mississippi.

“Back then, when I was a kid, I dreamed I was going to play in the NBA,” she said, laughing. “I really did.”

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is the executivedirector of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.