The Washington Mystics were preparing for a game against the Tulsa Shock in July when center Emma Meesseman reached a turning point in her WNBA career.
As the Mystics were running drills, Meesseman's teammates began hounding her because she wasn't loud enough when calling out defensive coverages.
That's when center Stefanie Dolson pulled Meesseman off the court and took her to the back of the arena to give her a lesson in basketball presence.
"She taught her how to yell," Mystics guard Kara Lawson recalled recently. "Stef would scream and then she wanted Emma to match her volume, have her say words, our coverages and yell them. Her point was just, 'Emma, I know you can scream. You just proved you can scream. You gotta have that volume on the court.'"
Meesseman, who has only 50 percent of her hearing in both ears, couldn't have had a better teacher than Dolson, who personifies volume, from her purple-dyed hair to her gregarious personality.
The two have become close friends over the past year, helping each other mature and becoming one of the best young frontcourts in the league. Though she is still working on it, Meesseman has become more vocal and more of a team leader, while Dolson is often the beneficiary on offense when opposing defenses focus on Meesseman.
"Stef has brought it out for her," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. "They've developed a really good bond between them. You can see it when they play together on the court."
Earlier this month, the Mystics were in New York to play the Liberty, who were off to a surprising 3-1 start. Meesseman entered the game leading the team in points, rebounds and blocks, and though she didn't post her best numbers that night, the rapport that Thibault referred to was on full display.
With Washington leading by 11 with about a minute left in the third quarter, Meesseman effectively put the Liberty away with a combination of speed, court awareness and assertiveness that was not always present during her first two seasons in the WNBA.
First, Meesseman raised her left hand and called for the ball in the post. Upon receiving the entry pass, she pivoted and faced up against her defender just outside the paint before driving past on the inside. A step ahead and with the defense now collapsing toward her, Meesseman fired off a no-look pass around a Liberty defender to Dolson for an easy layup.
"I think playing with her last year and then in Russia, we kind of know how each other works," Dolson said. "So I know if she's making a move. She's really good at reading defense. I knew she was gonna make it, so I was ready for it."
While playing with Meesseman for Spartak Moscow in Russia last winter, Dolson watched as her confidence grew on offense.
"Over there, when you're a foreigner, you're looked to score a lot more," Dolson said. "She had the opportunity to just go one-on-one."
"I love the fact that she never uses it as an excuse. On the court she's never like, 'I can't hear.' I respect that a lot about her." Stefanie Dolson on Emma Meesseman
Away from basketball, Dolson also continued to learn more about Meesseman, who grew up in Belgium. They rode together every day to practice -- which to Meesseman's chagrin often included impromptu lip-synching sessions. There were dinners together and shopping trips to Red Square. Living in the same building, whenever there were bored or homesick, they would pop in and out of each other's apartments as if they were in an episode of "Seinfeld".
Dolson also learned more about Meesseman's hearing impairment and what it's been like for her to live much of her adult life away from home.
"There's always something I don't know about her," Dolson said.
"I love the fact that she never uses it as an excuse. On the court she's never like, 'I can't hear.' I respect that a lot about her."
Entering Tuesday's game against the Los Angeles Sparks, on a per-game basis, Meesseman led the team in minutes, points, rebounds, steals and blocks. Thibault said he believes Meesseman, who just turned 22 in May, still hasn't reached her full potential.
"I don't think she still understands how good she is," Thibault said. "She's an All-Star player. I don't even think it's close, that she's one of the best power forwards in the league right now."
When Meesseman arrived in Washington in 2013 for training camp, she had packed enough clothes for only two weeks, not thinking she'd make the roster. Her first year, she played about 15 minutes per game but was extremely shy around her teammates.
"Everything was so new to me. It was my first time in the USA -- I never believed I would play in WNBA at that age, and I still looked at my teammates as they were All-Stars," Meesseman said. "They all really helped me, but I never really got that close."
Meesseman had an inkling things would change when the Mystics drafted Dolson in 2014. They didn't meet until training camp, but Meesseman became familiar with Dolson's stardom with the Connecticut Huskies, which ultimately included a dance-off with Jimmy Fallon and a viral blooper at the White House.
"I thought she would be somebody who would bring some energy on the court and the locker room. That impression was confirmed pretty fast in training camp. She made me laugh since day one." Emma Meesseman on Stefanie Dolson
"I thought she would be somebody who would bring some energy on the court and the locker room," Meesseman said. "That impression was confirmed pretty fast in training camp. She made me laugh since day one."
They were locker neighbors and began talking by commiserating over having to guard Kia Vaughn in practice. Dolson also enjoyed the challenge of getting Meesseman to come out of her shell. One of her first overtures was creating a specialized handshake, which they still perform during pregame introductions.
"I'm not really somebody who opens up fast towards other people, but with Stef being so open about everything, it was pretty easy for me to just talk to her," Meesseman said.
Meesseman revealed that she wouldn't normally tell her teammates about her hearing impairment unless asked. Lawson learned about it from Thibault when she joined the Mystics, but Ivory Latta didn't realize until midway through their first season together. Her teammates and coach all agreed that her hearing has never been an issue.
"When we play in a loud gym, I make sure to remind the guards to make clear signals, but they already do that," said Meesseman, who wears hearing aids in both ears.
Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings, who also is hearing impaired, experienced similar feelings of isolation at one point in her career and was often shy and bullied in school. Growing up, she regularly relied on her older sister, Tauja, whom she called her "spokesperson." When Catchings' parents divorced, though, she moved to Texas with her mother and lived without Tauja for the first time, forcing her to become more independent and outspoken as a basketball player, a transformation she is witnessing now with Meesseman.
When told that Dolson has been a catalyst for Meesseman's maturation on the court, Catchings laughed and replied, "I bet."
"We needed it," Latta said of Meesseman's newfound vivacity. "She's come back. She actually has a lot of energy: laughing, joking and talking. It's a great thing."
After the win over the Liberty, Meesseman playfully threatened teammates with practical jokes and they returned by shouting, "I love you, Emma" as she tried to focus on postgame interviews.
"This year I can say that I'm comfortable being here -- I'm getting older," Meesseman said, smiling. "I'm not nervous anymore."
Lawson, a 13-year veteran, knows just how important Dolson's friendship has been to Meesseman's increasing level of ease, both on and off the court.
"They have a great relationship," Lawson said. "They really support one another. Their bond got stronger overseas this year. They're both around the same age and just really skilled players. We're lucky to have them both.
"[Meesseman's] our best player. I thought last year she was our best player, to be honest with you. And as we improve around her, she's gonna get even better."