Whether it's blocking shots with the Chicago Sky of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) or sporting a national team jersey and representing Canada at international tournaments, Kayla Alexander loves playing basketball.
But draining shots on the court is far from the only passion for the Barrie Central Collegiate graduate. As much as she loves running the floor, Alexander also loves to spend countless hours at home working on her drawings and illustrations.
"It's something where I sit down and start drawing and then realize four hours have passed," says the 28-year-old, who has loved art since she was a child. "It's like, 'Oh, nothing to be upset about,' because I enjoy it so much. It's my way of just decompressing, letting go, relaxing.
"I get lost in the art world and I love it."
As busy as she's been on the basketball court, playing professionally in the WNBA and overseas in France, Australia and Russia over the last seven seasons, Alexander wanted to find a way to combine her love of basketball and art along with another passions of hers: teaching and inspiring kids.
She did that with the release in late August of her children's book, The Magic of Basketball. Co-authored with younger sister, Kesia, Alexander worked on writing and illustrating book over the last three years.
The book tells the story of a young girl who learns that there is more to the sport of basketball than what happens on the court.
"I was trying to figure out how I can express my love for art, my love for basketball and all the gifts it has given me, and how I can teach this to young kids," Alexander says. "That's when the idea came to me to write a children's book."
She says that the book, in a sense, is kind of like a biography in that follows her life journey in the sport. The main character is named Kayla.
"I didn't start playing basketball until Grade 6," says Alexander, who graduated from Syracuse University, where she became the Orange women's basketball program all-time leading scorer and a Big East All-Academic team selection two years in a row, before being selected eighth overall by the San Antonio Silver Stars in the 2013 WNBA draft.
"My friend Nikki Murphy asked to me to go to Barrie Royals tryouts with her and I wasn't very good, but the coach gave me a chance," she adds.
She admits she had no skill set, but Barrie Royals coaches Monique Kovacs and Keith Macey gave her a chance and through that inspiration she developed a love for the game.
"Through the journey of playing basketball it showed me what team work is like, confidence, standing up for myself, travel," she says.
And those were all of the good things Alexander says she wanted to incorporated into the book.
"I wanted to share that, illustrate that in a children's book and to show kids that yes basketball is amazing, it's a fun sport and we all love playing it, but if you take advantage of the sport it can (help) you in ways more than you thought possible," she says.
The passion for art started at a young age for Alexander. Her parents told her they would often catch her with a pen and paper in hand. She had wanted to be an artist long before basketball entered the picture.
"I love to draw and illustrate and that was my way of expressing myself and my way to speak," she says. "Especially because when I was a young child I was super shy. As I grew older and tackled issues in my life, I really took to sport. Then as I continued in my journey with basketball, I realized all the gifts it has given me along the way, how much it has taught me, the life skills it has given me."
The former Central star's love for working and teaching with kids was inspired by her very own Grade 2 teacher.
"I had this teacher and she was absolutely incredible and she influenced me in many ways, art being one of them," says Alexander, who spends most of her time off the court these days between Toronto and Milton.
Bringing her sister on board was an easy decision for the hoops star. She showed Kesia a draft of the book and her sister offered her a few suggestions, including the idea of having the book rhyme.
And she also hopes there are more books to come.
"This definitely isn't the last one," says Alexander, who also sells digital download prints and custom illustrations on her website. "I have more to give in the future."
As she does on the basketball court.
"I love it," the six-foot-four centre says of playing with Chicago. "With basketball, it's taught there are going to be a lot of ups and downs and you have things that go well and have things that don't go so well."
Alexander is coming off a WNBA season that had its share of adversity. Back in early February, she was traded by the re-branded Las Vegas Aces to the Indiana Fever. The Fever would release her during the season, but she would be picked up by the Sky in August after a run of injuries.
"It was like a blessing," the veteran says of arriving in the Windy City. "I felt like I walked into a large family and they welcomed me."
The season would come to a heartbreaking end for Alexander and the Sky. They held a two-point lead on Las Vegas and were just 13 seconds away from advancing to the semifinals when Dearica Hamby picked off a pass and nailed a game-winning three-pointer from half court with five seconds left.
"We had this incredible season and were kind of heartbroken how it ended with that crazy half-court shot by Dearica, but everything happens for a reason," Alexander says.
She's also battled her share of adversity with the Canadian national program. Twice she had tried out for Canada and not made the cut, before having a dream come true and making the team last fall.
With Canada preparing for the upcoming world championships, Alexander would tear her medial collateral ligament in a final exhibition game against the U.S.
"I couldn't play in the worlds and I obviously had one of those, 'God why? What's the point? I don't see the plan behind this,'" explains Alexander, whose faith is central to who she is as a person. "That was frustrating to overcome, but through that there's been so many other opportunities to go and inspire young kids during my time when I was off and be happy, so I try to see the bright side."
It happened again this September. Playing with Canada at the AmeriCup in Puerto Rico, she went down with another knee injury in a semifinal game against Brazil. Alexander was Canada's best player, leading them in scoring and rebounding.
"I feel like we always don't see the big picture, but (God) has a plan for everything," she says. "Sometimes we don't always like his plan, but they're for the greater good and there's a purpose for everything. That's what I try to keep my faith."
Alexander is proud of how the book is already inspiring young children. Chicago teammate Gabby Williams bought a copy for her niece, who wanted to have her hair in big puffs like the lead character, Kayla, in the book.
"It's like, 'OK, I created a character that other young girls can relate to'," she says. "They don't always necessarily see someone that looks like them. She actually sent me a picture."
She also tells the story related to her by a Canadian national teammate who had bought books for her nephews, including one, who is 10, who really got into it.
"It turned out he had a tryout he was supposed to go to and at first he was too scared to go, he was nervous," Alexander explains. "After reading my book he got really inspired and he ended up making the team, so when you hear stories like that it tells you, 'OK, I've created something inspiring and it's doing its job'."
Alexander hopes other young girls, especially Canadian girls, can see that if Kayla from Barrie can do it, so can they.
"If you have a dream and you believe in yourself, go for it," she says. "Anything is possible. Don't limit yourself. Yes you're going to have some tests, it's not going to be easy, but it will be worth it."