Art & Illustration

Laura Vaida’s journey to LMU began as a shy fourteen-year-old from Bucharest, Romania, with few real friends and lingering growing pains in her legs. Standing at 6’3’’, she was a self-proclaimed "lonely giant" roaming the halls of Gheorghe Șincai National College, and it was by pure coincidence that she took her first steps toward becoming the star player she is today. “I was walking around the hallways, and a girl came to me and asked me to join the basketball team,” she said simply. “So I did.”

First of all, most college athletes begin competitive play of their respective sport before the age of 10, so something must be said about Vaida’s gumption. Most beginners would have given a half-hearted shrug, or else a weak promise to attend one practice, and forgotten to go in favor of social plans or an impending avalanche of schoolwork. Defying expectations, Vaida joined her first basketball team, immediately gained the respect of her peers, and all her problems disappeared. The end.

Ah, if only life were that simple. In reality, Vaida’s teammates were decidedly rude to her from the start and immediately expected a veteran-level performance despite her lack of experience, just because of her size and stature. “They would yell at me because I was tall, but I couldn’t score. It really got to me,” she confided. “I was so scared, and every time we would move to drills, my teammates would roll their eyes when I made a mistake.”

It is certainly surprising to hear of Vaida’s personal struggles, especially given her physically imposing build and signature look of indifference on the court. However, her initial hurdles were quickly replaced with unprecedented success for one at her experience level. Not three months after joining her high school team, she was called up to take part in Romania’s national training camp. “Basketball in Romania … we’re really small, you know? It’s not like here,” she said. “We all know each other. So word of my existence got around pretty fast. I was the tallest player in my age group.”

Romania offers 24 players the chance to compete in their national tournament every winter. The tournament is comprised of two teams: Romania A and Romania B. Vaida was initially sorted into the second team, but her trainers quickly promoted her to the first. This, in turn, allowed her the opportunity to represent her country in the European Championships the following summer. It all transpired during Vaida’s first year of learning the sport. “I was so excited, but I was also terrified,” she admitted. “I was thinking, ‘if my [high school] teammates bully me left and right because I do not have any friends and I cannot shoot, how will I be treated now?’ [That summer] I tried to be funny and I didn’t do too bad, but they still didn’t like me.”

Of course, the time for making friends eventually presented itself to Vaida. However, idle chit-chat with fellow prospects soon became an afterthought, as Vaida focused instead on representing Romania in future winter and summer competitions, refining her mental game and physical instincts all the while. And although her next winter tournament appearance came as a member of Romania Team B, she was the crowned jewel of her side: “I did incredibly well. I showed everybody. I didn’t get MVP, but I got every other award. I remember I had the award for most rebounds.”

By age 16 she was outstripping every other athlete in Romanian basketball. While her final two years of high school followed a whirlwind path of athletic prosperity, she was often confronted by opposing coaches with life-changing propositions, as they all wanted to add Vaida’s strength and ability to their own roster. “At some point, I realized I was getting too good for the team I was at. It didn’t help that I had just had a heated argument with my [then] current coach. So I told my parents that I wanted to go to a new city, a new high school and that I wanted to face the world by myself. And they said okay.”

Vaida ended up transferring from Gheorghe Șincai to Ienăchiță Văcărescu National College, where she enjoyed more competitive success, guiding her new team to victory in every tournament they participated in. “We won every championship we attempted,” she said. “Under-18, Under-20 … you name it, we won it.”

However, her final two years of high school basketball were laden with curious instances of questionable coaching decisions. In one instance, she performed poorly during the 2018 European Finals, due to the fact that her coaches kept her in the championship game rotation despite Vaida’s self-reported fever and flu-like symptoms. She was also, inexplicably, blamed for Romania’s loss after the match. “There was a very tense situation between me and my coach,” revealed Vaida. “[He] accused me of sabotaging the game because I wasn’t feeling well, but he put me in anyway. That was another tipping point … I wanted more. That was when I first thought of playing in the United States.” Precisely one year later, for the final time, she competed in the entire summer tournament with a diagnosed concussion that was brushed off by her team’s medical staff. Amazingly, Vaida still managed to bring her team to an 8th place finish out of 22 competing countries. “They took me to the hospital, and the next day I was playing again. In Romania, concussions are not a thing. You just hit your head, that’s all.”

At long last, her time in Romania had come to an end, and certain decisions had to be made. She was undoubtedly a completely unrecognizable player; reflecting upon this, she commented: “At a certain point, I just let go of my fears. It became easier for me. So I began seriously considering leaving, for good.”

Needless to say, she was ready to take her talent overseas. Which brings us, very nearly, to the present-day Laura Vaida.

Her first year as a Lion challenged her in ways unexpected but not entirely unwelcome. “Although my first year was not amazing, it was a great learning experience,” said Vaida. “I got to understand how to maximize my new strengths in this new environment.” In 29 games, she produced 101 points and finished fifth on the team in rebounds, with 103. She also made a substantial impact defensively, with 22 blocks, good for third on the team.

In any case, Vaida is set to take a major leap forward this season, although she refuses to set statistical goals for herself. In fact, when asked about her aspirations for the upcoming 2020-21 schedule, she quipped, “I don’t care about the numbers. I don’t even care who we play. I’m just here to play basketball.”

"I’d also prefer not to get Covid,” she added with a half-smile. “That would be nice.”

Regardless, keep an eye out for No. 13 this year. At 6’3’’, she’s not exactly hard to miss. And chances are, she’ll end up notching career totals anyway. Not bad for a once-lonely giant from Bucharest, Romania.

Chris Benis, sophomore intern, is a newcomer to the Loyolan team. He writes primarily about the emotional and psychological side of LMU sports, and enjoys publishing single-player features.

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