A 4,000-mile journey: Northern Michigan University teammates who were once competitors

Future Northern Michigan University basketball player Elena Alaix receives the MVP award at the Strength in Numbers tournament in 2017. (Photo courtesy copacolegial.com)
Future Northern Michigan University basketball players Elena Alaix, front left, and Andrea Perez, front center, shake hands during a game in their later teen years in Spain. They played for Rivas, considered one of the most competitive clubs in Spain. (Photo courtesy NMU)


NMU Athletics

Communications Assistant

MARQUETTE — Andrea Perez and Elena Alaix typically are given specific jobs when they step onto the court at the Berry Events Center for Northern Michigan University women’s basketball games — move the ball around the perimeter and score baskets.

But what most fans don’t know is the story of how Perez and Alaix found their way to a relatively small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

It all started when they first decided to pick up a basketball and step on the court in Spain’s capital of Madrid.

The pair played for club teams in Spain, a similar form of basketball to the AAU circuit in the U.S.

Alaix, a junior for the Wildcats, always grew up being the taller one in her group of friends and classmates, so her parents decided to get her into basketball, while Perez had basketball in her bloodline as she was influenced by her dad, Javier Perez, who played professional ball in the southern European country.

Playing for opposing clubs from the age of 12, they went head to head against each other in regional tournaments. Then they moved on from competitors to teammates when they started to sport the same uniforms from the ages of 12 to 14. Playing for a combined Madrid squad, they competed against other regions within Spain. They continued on as teammates, playing for the same club from ages 16 to 18.

Basketball has taken both Spaniards to places they never would have imagined — all over the U.S., France and even Israel. They could show you to every corner of Spain if they wanted to, since they have participated all over their country.

Perez, an NMU sophomore, rocked her country’s colors before NMU as she was selected to participate for Spain in an under-19 tournament where she captured MVP at The Women’s International Tournament NACEX.

As part of one of the best clubs in Spain, Alaix had quite an extensive resume prior to joining the Wildcats. She would reach the podium not just once or twice, but four times total in a four-year span that included two gold medals. She was named MVP of different tournaments in 2017 and 2018.

Growing up together in Spain was drastically different from Marquette, with a population of 3.3 million just within the city limits of Madrid compared to Marquette’s 20,000.

“It’s different here, sports are a huge thing,” Alaix said. “Everyone is so into sports and they encourage you to play. But in Spain, for example, I was the only one doing sports in my high school.”

Culture shock was just one challenge the pair had to overcome.

Perez said learning to adapt to how people communicate was difficult at first, especially because English was neither one’s first language.

“The language was a huge thing for me because I didn’t know English that much when I got here,” Perez said.

Adapting to American basketball, “Dre” Perez struggled at first to a very different style of play.

“We played so fast in Europe because we have a 24-second shot clock,” she said. “And so when I came here, there was always somebody like ‘Dre, you have to slow down. Like you can’t go that fast.’

“The free-throw line here has four defensive players inside and three offensive players and the one that’s shooting. But in Spain, it’s just three and three.”

Head coach Troy Mattson was a huge reason why both players signed with Northern.

“He put a lot of effort into trying to get us here,” Perez said about the 17th year head coach, explaining how he got the duo comfortable with meeting the Wildcats and even showing his tech-savvy side through FaceTime to show off Marquette.

Mattson also showed how much he cared about them coming over and suiting up in the green and gold.

“I kind of felt like I needed to be here,” Alaix said.

She has always wanted to play professional basketball, but as of now she’s just happy basketball has brought her to Marquette.

Perez also doesn’t know where basketball will take her once she moves on from Northern.

“I always wanted to play professionally, but I don’t know,” she said. “I have liked (having) three more years. Like this year and two more. So I have time to really think about what I want to do.”

Luckily, both players have plenty of time left to play for NMU due to COVID-19 and redshirt years, so for now, they are still focused on being Wildcats.

Being competitive has always driven Alaix to give her all on the court, while competing as a team and working well together is a driving factor behind her game.

Perez takes all the time she can to improve her game, learning to become the best version of herself on the court. Being a part of a team that focuses on being the best versions of themselves is what makes each successful.

Both of these women have played in intense matchups during their basketball careers, but for Perez her favorite basketball moment was her final year in Spain.

“We went all the way to the national tournament, so it was just so much fun.”

For Alaix, her favorite basketball moment happened in her younger years when she played on a team picked to finish in third place at a tournament. With everyone not believing in them, they upset the entire field and won.

“My cheeks hurt because I couldn’t stop smiling,” she said, because she was a part of an experience where the odds are stacked against you but you work through adversity and come out on top.

That’s something she would love to accomplish again in Marquette.

“I absolutely love the community, everyone is so nice, always trying to help,” Perez said of the NMU and Marquette communities.

“I don’t like the cold but I love the snow because its so pretty,” Perez said. “Basketball is the main reason we’re here and the team makes it better. And then you add the community, everyone wishing us good luck on the game and people showing up in support.”

Information compiled by Journal Sports Editor Steve Brownlee. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.


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