The U.S. women’s basketball program spent much of the last decade looking for its next point guard — the one to succeed three of its greatest leaders — Teresa Edwards in the 1980s and ’90s, Dawn Staley in the early 2000s and Sue Bird ever since.
Bria Hartley could have been that player. At the University of Connecticut (where Bird also played), Hartley started and won national titles her last two seasons in 2013 and 2014. She made the WNBA All-Rookie Team in 2014.
Also in 2014, Hartley was the second-youngest of the 27 players on the world championship training camp roster. She did not end up making the 12-woman world team. After an injury-affected 2015, she wasn’t among 25 Olympic team finalists named in January 2016.
Hartley considered her options. She knew about an opportunity to play for France, given one of her grandmothers is French. Obtaining a French passport could be valuable for playing in European leagues, where salaries were known for being exponentially higher than the WNBA, but there could be roster limits on American players.
And then there’s the Olympics. The U.S. is the hardest team to make, winner of every Olympic title dating to 1996.
Ultimately, Hartley chose to become the fourth acclaimed American point guard to play for another country in as many Olympic cycles.
Becky Hammon was the most famous, earning a bronze medal for Russia in 2008. She was followed by Lindsey Harding, who left for Belarus in 2015. And Courtney Vandersloot, who became a Hungarian citizen after missing the Rio Olympic team.
Hartley’s case is different because of her family’s French background. Asked why she sought the nationality switch, Hartley stressed that lineage and that she knew about the option years before becoming a pro.
Hartley said she received her French passport in February 2016. She hoped to play for France at the Rio Olympics. She still needed approval from USA Basketball and FIBA, which did not come until 2017 and 2018.
USA Basketball has record of a request from the French federation for Hartley’s transfer in May 2016, the month after the U.S. Olympic team was announced and two months before France’s Olympic team was announced. (France’s national team director wrote in an email that his recollection is that Hartley expressed her desire to play for France to its coach in October 2017.)
USA Basketball did not immediately approve the request for a few reasons. USA Basketball hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss the matter with Hartley. It still considered Hartley a national team-level prospect, and at a need position. The U.S. could play France, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, in the Rio Olympic knockout rounds.
“With Sue and D [Diana Taurasi] getting older, they just weren’t sure what they were going to do at the point guard position,” Hartley said. “I think they were just keeping their options open.”
U.S. national team director Carol Callan spoke with Hartley while attending the 2017 NCAA Women’s Final Four. Hartley confirmed her intent to play for France.
“We want to make sure that they actually want to do it [transfer],” Callan said, “because once you go, you can’t go back.
“In general, we don’t necessarily want to stand in the way of someone being able to play for another country if that’s what they want to do, other than right before the Olympics. Had the request come in even after the Olympics, that would have been easier to deal with.”
The French federation contacted USA Basketball later in 2017 with the follow-up transfer request. Hartley had approval from both national federations.
Then it went to FIBA. Hartley said the international federation rejected the request at first and asked for further proof of her French connection.
“Cases relating to the change of a national status of a player require an in-depth study of the player’s links with the country s/he wishes to represent, which often go beyond the mere presentation of a passport,” a FIBA official wrote in response to questions on Hartley’s case, including a question on the timeline of the transfer request and approval. “This is particularly the case when a player holds two nationalities and is asked to present concrete links with a given country.”
Hartley ended up also missing the 2018 FIBA World Cup during the review.
“If I got my passport when I was younger, started this process when I was younger, it would have been a lot smoother,” said Hartley, who had son Bryson in January 2017.
In October 2018, two weeks after the World Cup ended, the French federation announced that Hartley became eligible for its national team. She played at the 2019 European Championships (EuroBasket) and helped France to a silver medal, ranking second on the team in scoring.
There have been critics. Notably from followers of her new program.
“They’re like, she’s an American playing on the French team,” Hartley said. “She’s not really French and stuff like that, so I know I’ve dealt with that. But, for me, I feel like I have French blood. I just didn’t grow up [in France].”
France is ranked fifth in the world. The Olympic groups haven’t been set yet, but it’s possible Hartley could compete against the U.S. in Tokyo next summer.
She could stare into Bird, the fellow UConn Husky whom she was a candidate to succeed in the U.S. program. Or another point guard who establishes herself over the next year as next in line. Perhaps Sabrina Ionescu.
Hartley said it would be an exciting contest. She feels no different wearing the red, white and blue of another country.
“I always took a lot of pride in my French heritage,” she said. “Especially growing up in New York, light skinned, a lot of people are like, are you Spanish or something like that? I was always like, no, I’m French.”
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