Kayli Sartori peered out a window as her passenger jet started its descent and took the deepest breath she has ever taken.
The broad turquoise expanse of the Mediterranean Sea stretched out to the horizon, and below she saw the first signs of her new home. The outskirts of a city, but one unlike any she’d seen before. None of the lush rain-fed green the 24 year old Chilliwackian was accustomed to growing up the Fraser Valley.
Instead, an ancient city of beige sprawled out before her, dusty and old, with buildings that seemed to be on the verge of collapse.
All of it strangely beautiful and completely foreign.
It took 24 hours to get to this place from Canada and Kayli didn’t close her eyes the entire time. She was too excited to sleep and as she finally felt the bump of airplane touching tarmac she was flooded with feelings.
Excitement. Fear. Nervousness. And cutting through everything, a thought in her head, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing this.’
Welcome to Beirut.
How did a six-foot-one, blonde haired, blue eyed farm girl end up trying to decipher Arabic signs in a Lebanese airport?
Kayli is very good at putting an orange ball through a hoop and preventing others from doing the same, and that’s how she caught the attention of the Al Riyadi basketball club, which is based in the heart of Beirut.
Kayli is a legendary figure at the University of the Fraser Valley, ranked among the most dominant players in Cascade history, and when she graduated last year the fire to play still burned strong.
Her agent presented two options, Portugal or Lebanon, which seemed an easy choice.
Lebanon is located in the powder-keg of the Middle East, bordered by Israel to the south and Syria to the north and east. It has been occupied at different times by both of those nations. It endured a 16 year civil war and every day its six million people live under a grey cloud, knowing their country could be plunged into a new conflict.
On the Canadian travel advisory website at travel.gc.ca/destinations/lebanon, bold-faced red letters recommend avoiding the southern suburbs of Beirut ‘due to the threat of terrorist attacks.’ The most recent update on Nov. 9, 2017 recommended avoiding travel to Lebanon entirely.
“The United States one was even worse,” Kayli laughed. “It was pretty much, ‘If you go there and stuff starts to happen, we’re not going to save you.’”
Portugal isn’t any of that.
There are no scary travel warnings, no eternally-warring factions sitting on its doorstep. It is hidden away in the southwest corner of Europe, bordered by the Atlantic ocean and Spain, and is by most accounts a lovely place to visit.
“I was pointing in the direction of Portugal and everyone was telling me how amazing and beautiful it was, and the minute the tables turned towards Lebanon I heard a ton of backlash,” Kayli said. “People said, ‘Lebanon of all places? Do you know what’s happening over there? Why would you want to go there?’
“In the end, I really had to look inside myself and ask what I wanted to strive for.”
Kayli’s basketball calculus produced a result that shocked friends and family.
Yes, Portugal is nice, and she could have done OK playing a few years professionally in the Liga Feminina de Basquetebol. But it’s not a super-strong league. Its players rarely move on to higher levels.
On the other hand, players from Al Riyadi and other teams in Lebanon frequently filter into the Eastern European League, a big-time circuit with teams in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Turkey, Lithuania and Latvia.
To use baseball parlance, she viewed the LFB as a solid single and she was looking for a home-run.
“Playing in Lebanon, in the Eastern European Women’s Basketball League (EEWBL), is allowing me to show those teams what I can do on the court,” Kayli said. “I’m playing against these teams. They’re seeing me in tournaments and watching from the sidelines. I’m getting a lot more bites at the hook where coaches might think, ‘I like her. Who is she? Where’s she from? What’s her story?’
“That’s better than just being in my own little bubble in Portugal.”
It was early September when Kayli traveled to Lebanon to join Al Riyadi on a 30-day tryout.
A self-described ‘super Mommy and Daddy’s girl’ who has never lived alone, she was taken to Studio 44, a fully-furnished upscale apartment building on Hamra Street. Kayli, the first Canadian woman to ever play pro in Lebanon, met three of the team’s American imports, Mac, Ron and Chris. A fourth, a Houston native who goes by the nickname Ross, was a week-and-a-half late thanks to Hurricane Harvey.
“Once she came, everything kind of fell into place for me,” Kayli said. “Up to that point it was a little lonely, all basketball, eat and sleep. But Ross and I clicked right away and started doing things together, and it became a little more of an experience.”
Studio 44 was one block away from Beirut’s answer to Robson Street, giving the women something familiar.
“It doesn’t look like that, but it’s got H&M and Adidas and Nike and a lot of American food,” she said.
For the first week, the smell of the city had Kayli feeling queasy. The mixture of garbage, automobile exhaust and other odours was nothing like the fresh mountain air of home and took some serious getting used to.
When she was on her own, Kayli feared getting lost.
“My morning walks consisted of going to the stop-sign and back again,” she laughed. “There are so many twists and turns with no street names and no real patterns to it.”
The one time she went driving was an absolute nightmare, so terrifying she’s sworn she’ll never do it again. One of her teammates got sick and Kayli found herself behind the wheel of a small hatch-back, trying to get her to the hospital.
Kayli stared at the GPS on her data-less phone, hoping the map would stay on her screen. Every street was one-way. There were no stop signs or stop lights anywhere and all of the super-aggressive drivers around her were honking their horns.
“You honk when you change lanes and you honk when you’re turning,” Kayli recalled with the haunted look of someone with PTSD.
If you’d watched her drive from an overhead view, she was never actually more than 10 minutes from Studio 44 and never actually left downtown Beirut. But Kayli had Lebanese people yelling at her, her teammate was passed out in the back seat and eventually she came to something that looked alarmingly like a border crossing, with barricades and military personel everywhere.
“I pulled over, rested my head on the steering wheel and thought, ‘Where am I? What have I gotten myself into? Hopefully these military guys aren’t corrupt people who will kidnap me when I ask for directions.’”
Rolling down her window no more than three inches, she asked if she could turn around. A military officer who did not speak English responded by yelling at her, and as she quickly drove off she saw him waving his gun at her.
Luckily, the next military officer did speak English and pointed her in the right direction.
“I started driving, I turned onto this road and all of a sudden it opened up to the edge of the Mediteranean Sea, and I was like, ‘Well this is kind of cool.’” Kayli said.
On the court, she worked hard preparing to play three tournament games in Latvia.
She was surprised to find that all of her Lebanese teammates spoke English. Coach Elie Nasr did as well, until he got mad. Then it was a stream of Arabic that was probably cursing but may have been a recipe for baba ghanoush.
She couldn’t tell.
By the time she saw action against the host Latvians, she felt good about her game. She logged about 36 minutes, and while she recalled being frazzled, she managed 11 points and six rebounds. She was better in her second game versus Lithuania and was in top form by the time Al Hiyadi tipped off against Belarus.
But she was confused about how she was being used. For some reason, Nasr wanted to a deploy her as a three-point bomber.
“I am not that,” she laughed. “Al (UFV head coach Tuchscherer) never even let me shoot three pointers when I was here.
“So I’m in this game and I see a mismatch against a girl who’s five-foot-seven or five-foot-eight at most and I said to him (Nasr), ‘I am a strong body. I know how to finish. Put me down there. I know how to play down there. Just trust me.’”
She rewarded the coach’s faith by scoring 10 quick points, making the difference in a 72-62 win. Kayli finished with 21 points, three rebounds, four assists, one block and game MVP honours.
“The coach said he loved my style, my attitude and my grittiness,” she said with a grin. “I proved to myself that I can play and I am really proud of myself for how I did.”
Kayli left Lebanon without a contract in hand, not because the team didn’t want her but because she wanted to make sure she explored all of her options. But she was always leaning towards returning to the place and team that took a chance on a small-town Canadian.
“The people of Beirut were probably the best part (of the experience),” she said. “They’re very giving people and the city is beautiful. I fell in love with the place.”
She left for Lebanon on Wednesday where she will finish out the current EEWBL season with Al Riyadi and then look to secure a full-season deal.
Kayli is all-in on seeing where this goes.
“I’m 100 per cent engaged in reaching my top potential, which I don’t think I’ve hit yet, and I’d like to prove that a small-town girl from Canada can make it,” she said. “I know maybe two women from Canada who’ve played professionally, and so I’d like younger girls who are playing at our local clubs and schools to see me and know that it can happen.
“If I can travel the world and play basketball for 10 years, I’d just like to keep pushing it and see where it takes me.”