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At just 5’ 3” Rae Lin D’Alie is one of the shortest women to have ever played Division I college basketball.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” said the 33-year-old they call Rae Rae.
The next stop on that amazing journey comes next month in Tokyo where D’Alie and the rest of the Italian women’s 3-on-3 basketball team will compete in the inaugural 3×3 Olympic Basketball Tournament.
But that trip wasn’t guaranteed until the smallest woman on the court knocked down the biggest shot Italy has ever seen to punch its ticket to the Games of the XXXII Olympiad.
“We’re going to Tokyo,” D’Alie told her teammates during the final timeout for Italy, in the last game of the FIBA 3×3 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, June 6 in Debrecen, Hungary.
After the timeout Hungary tied the game at 12 on a spinning jumper inside the lane before D’Alie calmly dribbled the ball back out to half court and set up one-on-one with her defender on the right side.
She slowly dribbled and surveyed the court with the kind of court vision they talk about when they talk about players like Magic Johnson or LeBron James.
“Sometimes the body of the person who’s defending me is a little bit taller than my vantage point and I have to move in a different way to try to get a shot off,” explained D’Alie. “I have to move left to right or forward and backward just to move their body so I can see the rim and get a shot off.”
So, with the game clock running down inside 5 seconds she pushed forward just inside the arc, got her taller defender moving backwards, stopped, popped and drained the winning basket as time ran out and one of the announcers covering the game screamed with excitement into his mic “The 2018 World Cup MVP Rae Lin D’Alie…the biggest shot of her career is going to send Italy to the Olympic Games! Rae Rae…ice water runneth through her veins!”
“It’s not a traditional story considering I was born in the USA,” said the Racine County native. “There was a door that was opened for me after I graduated from Madison to be able to play in Italy and a door opened for me to play on the Italian national team.
“To be able to represent Italy, which is the country of my father’s heritage and the country I’ve lived in over ten years, just feels like an honor,” said D’Alie, who now holds dual citizenship between the United States and Italy.
Before traveling overseas to begin her professional career, D’Alie started at point guard 131 of an all-time school record 132 games played for Wisconsin from 2006-2010, leading the Badgers to a 21-11 record her senior season and their first NCAA tournament appearance in eight years.
She left Madison ranked second in career assists (483) and sixth in assists per game (3.66) and traveled across the Atlantic to Salerno to play for a team in the second division of the Italian women’s league.
By 2012 she played for the Italian National Team in European Championship qualifiers, and in 2016 she first started playing 3-on-3 basketball.
“In basketball, people would typically assume that it’s a disadvantage to be small. However, I think there have been really great examples of people who are smaller who have thrived, like Spud Webb back in the day,” said D’Alie.
Michael Anthony Jerome “Spud” Webb played 12 seasons for four different teams in the NBA (1985-1996, 1998) and is most famous for winning the NBA Slam Dunk Contest his rookie season in Atlanta despite being just 5’ 6” tall.
But while Webb used his hops to propel himself to new heights, Rae Lin “Rae Rae” D’Alie has always used her quickness to stay on top of a game which tends to speed up every step of the way.
“In Europe, we play with a 24-second shot clock wherein the U.S. women’s collegiate basketball plays with a 30-second shot clock,” D’Alie pointed out after making the transition overseas from Wisconsin and being asked about the difference between European basketball and basketball in the United States.
The 3×3 Game
If that seems fast, consider in 3-on-3 basketball, they play with a 12-second shot clock.
“The mind has to work a little quicker,” explained the former Badger. “Anything can happen in the 3-on-3 game, I think a little bit more so than the 5-on-5 game.”
In fact, if you’re unfamiliar with the 3-on-3 game, try to keep up.
Literally, try to keep up with a game that is played at lightning pace on a half-court, with that 12-second shot clock, no break to inbound the ball after made baskets — which only count for one point inside the arc and two from beyond — and lasts only 10 minutes or until one team reaches 21 points.
“Once the game starts, it’s kind of like an all-out effort. I’ve always thought it’s kind of like survival of the fittest in the sense of whoever can find a way to win in that 10 minutes is going to win,” said D’Alie.
She thrives on what she describes as “The rhythm and intensity of the game. The ability to generate really quick possessions on offense and defense.”
“An advantage of being small, especially in 3-on-3, is there’s so much space, so if you’re small and quick, there’s not a whole lot of help side defense so that you can get to the rim pretty easily.
“You are living in the moment and on to the next one, possession-by-possession and game-to-game,” she says, but “At the end of the day, you still gotta put the ball in the basket, score more points than the other team and play defense.”
D’Alie and her teammates did all those things pretty well at the 2018 FIBA 3×3 World Cup in the Philippines, as Italy knocked off the United States 17-14 in the quarterfinal round of the 20-team tournament, beat China by two points in the semifinals, and topped Russia 16-12 in the gold medal game.
D’Alie was named World Cup Tournament MVP.
The World Comes to a Halt
Less than two years later, 3×3 basketball had continued to gain in popularity and was set to debut as a new sport at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
No Italian women’s basketball team had reached the Olympics since 1996 in Atlanta.
The last time the Italian men’s basketball team was in the Olympics was 2004 in Athens.
D’Alie and the rest of the Italian team were only weeks away from competing in a pre-Olympic tournament early in the year.
And then everything just stopped.
“There were so many uncharted territories. No other country had been hit quite so hard at that moment,” D’Alie remembers, thinking back on the beginning of the COVID-19 global pandemic that ravished its way through Italy early on. “When they decided to go in an all-out lockdown, it was a bit frightening just because nobody knew how to handle the situation.
“As an athlete, it was a tough ride. We were just a couple weeks from a pre-Olympic [tournament] and had been shut down, but we had found some creative ways to get in-home workouts done.”
Those in-home workouts eventually became workouts from her childhood home as Rae Rae returned to her parents’ house for several months when she could finally leave Italy and return safely to Racine County.
“My day of training differs every day now,” said D’Alie, who returned again to her parents’ house after winning tournament MVP honors at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Hungary earlier this month.
She’ll continue her workouts at home until she flies back to Italy on July 1 to kick off training camp with her teammates. “My workouts include weight training, on-court training, technical work. It’s a wide mix right now, just a variety of things.”
It also includes running through the shallow waters of the lake where her parents’ house is located and lots of basketball with family and friends, with little nieces and nephews often serving as rebounders and makeshift defenders.
“I’ll head into camp with my team and we’ll pretty much focus on game prep, getting ready for the tournament, more tactics and technical cleanup, and we’ll be ready to go.”
The Tokyo Olympic Games
With the pandemic ongoing, it remains to be seen if Tokyo will be ready to go.
COVID protocols are in place for a Summer Games, which has been on hold for a year. While D’Alie is disappointed, family members may not be allowed to travel to the Games because of those protocols. Still, she isn’t worried about the safety of the athletes.
“I’m not nervous about competing in Tokyo with the pandemic because I just trust the discernment of the Olympic Committee and that they’re going to manage the competition in a way that can bring the sport to the world in a safe way.”
D’Alie and her teammates plan to fly to Tokyo July 16, and the 8-team women’s 3×3 tournament – which includes the United States – is scheduled to take place July 24-28.
“I’m very, very grateful the games are going on,” said D’Alie. “To be weighed down with worry and things you can’t control only adds weight to your daily life.
“Hopefully, the Olympics give some sense of enjoyment and hope to the world while still being safe.”
That would be big.