Chyra Evans: Michigan-bound, but forever Newcastle

Whether playing for club, college, state, or country, the 2021 World Cup silver medallist is determined to do her hometown proud.

Credit: FIBA

Michigan commit Chyra Evans has always been proud to represent her home city of Newcastle. In fact, despite coming from a basketball family with a mother, Chloe Mullaney, who played in the WNBL, her first sporting endeavour was not on the court, but in a quintessentially Novocastrian sport.

“Well, as a kid I started out doing Nippers, which is like lifesaving, so all the beach sort of stuff,” Evans explains. However, it wasn’t long until basketball became her focus, and lifesaving’s loss became the Newcastle Hunters’, and Australian basketball’s, gain.

“I always loved (basketball). Mum played so I was always around it.”

With a parent who played at the highest level in Australia, Evans could be forgiven for turning to her mother for every decision, but the Gems forward has done things her own way, turning to Mullaney for guidance when required but facing no pressure to make any particular turn in her career.

“(Having my mother in my corner) has helped me a lot. Because obviously, she knows what paths work, and she gives me a lot of advice on that sort of stuff. But she tries to let me do it a lot myself. And if I do need her opinion on something, she'll always give me her opinion.

“But mostly she just tries to let me figure it out for myself; doesn't necessarily push me. If I want to do it, I'll do it. She'll obviously be there to help. But she's not forcing me to do it.

“So, she's been a massive help. Especially over the past couple of years and couple of months as well with deciding where to go with WNBL and college.”

However, it takes a team to make a champion, and Newcastle Basketball Association has been a haven for women’s basketball talent over the years. The association has produced players of the calibre of Suzy Batkovic, Jenni Screen, and Katie-Rae Ebzery, and that pipeline has continued to deliver in recent years. Earlier this year, Evans became the third Hunters player in five years to win the women’s Bob Staunton Medal as the Most Outstanding Player at the Under 20 Australian Junior Championships, following Cassidy McLean in 2017 and Isabel Palmer in 2019. Meanwhile, the association has produced as many Australian junior World Cup representatives over the last five years as the rest of New South Wales combined. Is there something of a “Wagga Effect” occurring in Newcastle? Evans doesn’t discount the idea, with the city’s status as a major regional centre perhaps even playing in the association’s favour.

“It's crazy though when you think of that and three girls from Newcastle (winning the Bob Staunton Medal). But, I don't know. We have such a good women's program with coaches and we have girls from under 16 trialling for Youth League.

“So, it's getting them in early with playing games against women, and getting them used to that sort of stuff. So, when they do come up to that next (level), it's easier for them to adjust because they've already been training against women.

“I feel like in most of Newcastle a lot of girls play netball. But I think like the girls we do get are pretty invested in basketball. So, I think at the end, definitely being a regional town makes it a lot easier.”

However, eventually the time comes for a player to expand their horizons, and Evans’ opportunity came in the form of a call from the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence. Although the program at Newcastle had served her outstandingly well, there was no hesitation in moving to Canberra.

“Once I got offered I was like ‘Yeah, that's where I want to be.’ Being down here is great. And you get given so many opportunities to train with and train against some of the best players in Australia. We had (Marianna) Tolo here for a bit and I got to train against her so that was great. But the opportunities that you get given down here are second to none, so it was an opportunity that I wasn't going to pass up.

“Training like a professional down here, it just prepares you for so much for WNBL and college. The coaching staff's great, they push you every day. The players here are great, the same, they push you every day. It’s a great environment to be in. I’ve spoken to a few girls and they said I makes the transition (to college) so much easier because they've been in a professional environment.”

Although the Centre of Excellence provided outstanding opportunities, the real chance to make the next step came when Evans led New South Wales to an Under 20 Australian Junior Championship gold medal in Mackay earlier this year. Not only was the tournament the catalyst for a flood of college interest, it provided Evans with one of the greatest memories of her junior career.

“(Winning the tournament) was great, especially because that's the only (Australian Junior Championships) medal match I've been in. So, it was a great feeling. I think we had such a good group of girls. You know, we're friends off court, such a good group of girls off court and then on court as well. There was no bitchiness or anything. It made it so much easier to play with (the group) and so much more enjoyable to play with. But it was such a great feeling after winning. I know all the girls loved it, (Head Coach) Tommy Garlepp was getting involved. He loved it.”

“I think it was 16s Nationals, or maybe bottom-age 18s, I know Saint Mary's reached out. It wasn't really until after 20s Nationals when a lot more schools started reaching out.

Suddenly, Evans was spoiled for choice in terms of her destination for college. Two stood out, though. Wake Forest, the former home of Opals Asia Cup representative Alex Sharp, and Michigan.

“I think before 20s I maybe was speaking to two schools, maybe even one. And then after the 20s, I sort of got bombarded with schools. It came down to were Michigan and Wake Forest; they were the last two I was speaking to.

“And then I just decided on Michigan because I love the coaching staff. They're such a good group of people. And then I spoke to a few of the girls and they're such a good group of girls. And I thought the playing style over there suited me a lot. And yeah, I just love the school. I love the people that were involved.

“You’ve definitely got to do your research before you're over there. Because you don't really want to go to the wrong school. A lot of schools sell you the same sort of information, like ‘We’re a family’ and that sort of stuff, but you need to definitely do your do research before you go over there.”

But why head over to college in the first place? Shortly after committing to Michigan, Evans was announced as one of the final members of the Sydney Uni Flames WNBL roster alongside Wake Forest commit Katie Deeble. But rather than stay with the Flames long-term, Evans will use this season to prepare herself for college against the best Australia has to offer.

“Even after 20s. I was contemplating whether to stay here, just because of the girls who have gone through to the WNBL. But then like, I was speaking to mum and I spoke to dad a bit, and college is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think WNBL is always going to be here. Something I can always come back to. But I definitely want to go to college now, I think that's sort of the place to be at the moment.

“I think (Flames Head Coach) Shane (Heal) does a great job at developing players and I definitely feel that is somewhere I want to be before I go to college to develop my game, and definitely get an insight into playing against more physical women (who are) stronger and smarter. Definitely, that’s where I want to be before I head over to college.

“I want to be able to like embrace physicality more, it's going to be everywhere over there. And I think playing against women will definitely help me with that. And playing against quicker, smarter players. I think it would definitely help me.”

Of course, Evans already has experience playing against some of the top college players as a member of the Gems side that picked up a silver medal at the FIBA Under 19 World Cup earlier this year. The Australian side faced the USA twice in that tournament, falling to a heavy loss in the group stage before giving the Americans a lot more trouble in the gold-medal game, eventually finishing as silver medallists. For Evans, it was an almost surreal finish to her junior career, whilst it also opened her eyes as to just what to expect at the next level.

“The experience was crazy. Being able to go overseas was crazy. I mean…COVID, no one was able to do anything and for us to go overseas was just unbelievable. Get to see like, a different country. It was just crazy. Playing for Australia, you know, there's no greater feeling; it was just butterflies the whole time. Like it's just an unbelievable, unbelievable experience.

“The first game against Egypt we started and the first play down the court, ‘I was like, Oh, that's definitely a foul!’ But they let it go. And I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ And then like the Egypt game was so much different to every other game because Egypt would play completely different than I would. You know, scrappy, they'd hit your hand and slap your hands. You play against teams like Mali who are just athletic and physical. And then teams like USA who are physical but smart as well.

“So, the playing styles were completely different, but it was so good to play against because you knew what you needed to do to adapt to those games.”

“The gold medal match didn't really sink in. It just felt sort of like another game. And then that ended and then we got a silver medal. I was like, Oh, wow. This is, my junior career basically done. I don't have any more juniors now; it's all seniors. So, it was sort of a bit too much to sink in.”

Whether anecdotally or through scientific studies, it’s been said that players often prefer to win bronze rather than silver, as it can feel like they’ve lost out on gold. There was no chance of that with this Gems roster, with Evans and her teammates fully aware of just what they had achieved in winning silver.

“For us, it was game by game and I suppose that Grand Final we were like, we're getting a medal no matter what. “Obviously we want a gold medal. But getting silver was still such a good achievement. We were all happy with what we what we accomplished. There was no ‘Ohh, we got silver.’ It was all ‘Yeah, we got silver, like this is crazy! We're second in the world, like we're second best team in the world!’”

However, whether playing in Canberra, Mackay, Sydney, in a World Cup in Hungary, or at Ann Arbor in Michigan, Evans never forgets her roots in Newcastle. In fact, she already has her eye on returning home to play – on one major condition.

“I represent Newcastle everywhere I go. It’s somewhere that's given me a pathway to where I am now. I can't thank Newcastle enough for the opportunities they've given me as well.

“If Newcastle get a WNBL team, I'll come back and play for Newcastle, 100%. I know everyone would come back to Newcastle. We’d have a very good team.”

But whilst Newcastle waits for its long-overdue shot at the WNBL, Evans will continue to do the city and the association proud both in Australia and overseas. And who knows, maybe one day, things will come full circle and the Hunters’ latest star will have an opportunity that has been denied to so many Novocastrians in the past: wear their hometown’s jersey at the highest level of women’s basketball in Australia.