In 2022, Janel McCarville played her last game in the Swedish professional women’s basketball league. In her later seasons, the WNBA veteran juggled roles as a player and also as an assistant coach for the Stockholm-based Alviks Basketklubb. She was also an assistant coach with Alviks’s men’s professional team.
She was turning 40 that year, and a bothersome back injury was flaring up. The club didn’t want to sign her again, and she decided it was time to return to central Wisconsin. In October 2023, she had been in the U.S. for 15 months – the longest time she had spent exclusively in the U.S. since her professional basketball career began.
After her homecoming, she became head girls basketball coach in 2023 at Stevens Point Area Senior High School, her alma mater. She’s living in the same house she grew up in.
McCarville, a 6-foot-2 center, set an NCAA record during her time at the University of Minnesota for most rebounds in the tournament, and was picked first in the WNBA draft in 2005. She went on to have a distinguished professional career, winning a WNBA championship with the Minnesota Lynx in 2013 and spending offseasons playing in international leagues in Slovakia, Italy, Poland, Russia and China. After her WNBA career ended in 2016, she played five seasons for Alviks in Sweden.
WPR’s Rob Mentzer talked with McCarville about growing up in Wisconsin, her career as an athlete and coming back to her hometown.
(The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)
On growing up a ‘farm kid’
I grew up in Custer, Wisconsin – two bars and a post office. That was back in the day; I think there’s a few houses now.
I was a farm kid. My mother was a homemaker and worked at a deli and at a café . Dad worked in the city of Milwaukee, Monday through Friday, so for 18 years I only saw him on the weekends. He mostly didn’t make any of my sporting events until I was 18 — my senior year — and he retired, and then he made every single game.
I had so much support from the family and cousins that I don’t think I would have made it without them. It was just action on the farm, playing with the brothers, football mostly. I can whip a football, 20, 30, 40 yards on a dot … hit dingers in softball and baseball. We played frisbee, tennis.
Basketball is the last thing I picked up, truly. I really only started in seventh or eighth grade. But as a farm kid, if you were into something, you had to be into it, because Mom had to sacrifice all the time to drive you to town, waste two hours waiting for you in town. So it really had to be something you wanted to do; it just couldn’t be willy nilly like, “No, I don’t want to go today.” We really had to buckle down.
On role models
I enjoyed soccer. The U.S. Olympic team had won the (1999) World Cup. I remember where I was when they won it, when Brandi Chastain hit the penalty kick, took her shirt off and waved it around her head. It was the first time a female had ever done that. It was almost considered indecent exposure for certain people at the time. But, oh my God, as a young, female athlete, that was my role model right there: the U.S. Olympic team, soccer team.
From college basketball to the pros
In high school, I was good, but I wasn’t a superstar. I was a good player, and I worked hard and I made my teammates better. Practices were at a high level, so games were easy.
I went to the University of Minnesota. I was the only person they recruited that year as a freshman. I dominated and won (2001-02) Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten. And from that year on, we never had a losing season in Minnesota.
The WNBA was there, but it was not so popular or well-known as it is today. A European basketball career was never even thought of — I didn’t know anything about it. But (as my college career came to an end), I was just hoping I could continue for the love of the game.
Before the WNBA draft, I went to the top three teams because they wanted to have an interview, to see how I am as a person, basketball work ethic, things like that. But they don’t tell you anything. So going into the draft, I didn’t know anything.
My mother, father and I went to New York to be in the (2005) draft. We were driven around in limos, all that fun stuff. Then on draft day, I was just sitting in the room with everybody else. All of a sudden, they call my name. And it just so happened I was number one. I was taken by the Charlotte Sting.
(After my first season with the Charlotte Sting,) I went to Spain (to play in the Liga Femenina de Baloncesto in the offseason). Then I got hurt. I came back, I rehabbed in the WNBA, then I played in the WNBA for a season. Then I went to Slovakia (for the offseason) and I had a great breakout season. I ended up getting traded to the New York Liberty, and I spent five years in New York and had a great career. (During offseasons), I played in Poland, Russia, China.
Everything grew as I got older. I improved — mind, body and soul. And it created habits. You know, 21 days makes a habit, and you do these things long enough, it just becomes part of your life. I guess that’s where I am today and why I’ve been so successful. I dove headfirst and gave everything my best.
On winning and living in the moment
We won the WNBA championship in 2013 with the Minnesota Lynx. It was one of the most trying years of my life, actually. Coaches push you to the brink, and this year was the beginning of that.
You have your lifelong dream of winning a championship. When it happened, the only thing I did was, I partied with the girls, then went back to my room to watch film (from the game). I was ready to do it all over again. I was not satisfied with just this one championship. I was already thinking about next year and the preparation that’s needed for it. It’s hard to live in the moment.
(Note: After the season, the Minnesota Lynx championship team visited the White House.)
I got to go meet (President) Barack Obama. He shook my hand and said, “Janel, I love your passes.” I was like, “The president of the United States knows my name and knows what I excel at!” That’s crazy to me. ‘
Sometimes it hits home: Wow, I’ve come a long way and done a lot of things, and basketball has truly provided all of it.
On long-term plans
I think coaching could be something for me. I don’t know if I want to stay here or go somewhere else. I do have options. I’ve already talked to people in the NBA that are interested in having me come to the G-League and be a part of that — and learn from them, grow, build my repertoire and keep going.
I am happy to be here right now.