Suns rookie Alex Len credits his hoops-playing girlfriend for his growth as an English-speaker

Kelly Dwyer
August 6, 2013

Confident and fluid in the English language fewer than two years after arriving in America from Ukraine with nascent knowledge of the English language and United States customs, Phoenix Suns rookie center Alex Len has some smart and simple advice for anyone looking to broaden their dialect horizons:

“If I could give a suggestion of how to learn the language quickly, find a girl,” Len said recently. “That’s the best way to learn it.”

In a great feature by Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic, Len discusses his relationship with girlfriend Essence Townsend, who is about to enter her senior year as a center for the Maryland Terrapins’ women’s basketball club. Coro smartly credits their burgeoning relationship for building the sort of off-court buttress that led to the Phoenix Suns confidently selecting Len fifth overall in June’s NBA Draft:

It began innocently enough at an ice cream social for basketball players to start the 2011-12 school year. Townsend, a junior then, was just being social when she introduced herself to Len, yelling as people often do so that a foreigner can understand English.

A teammate told her, “That’s going to be your future man,” and she got mad.

Len friended her on Facebook. They high-fived in hallways. They rebounded for each other.

“One day, I guess he finally got the courage to ask me to come hang out,” she said.

From there, the relationship not only grew in romantic terms, but also in Townsend’s progress with Len’s developing acumen with the English language. She worked with him via Google Translator, pushed him to attend the early morning classes he despised, and their pairing has developed enough that Townsend accompanied Len and his mother on a Hawaiian vacation soon after Len was selected by the Suns.

The 6-7 Townsend has grown a bit, too, moving from the person that was yelling at an 18-year old Ukrainian kid to being sympathetic of just how much Alex had to learn in such a short amount of time.

From Coro’s piece:

“I felt awkward at first because I wasn’t sure how his English would be, but it was really cool and nothing was forced,” Townsend said. “It was genuine. I could never, in a million years, think that I could go to another country and be thrown into the fire with new classes and culture, no friends and playing basketball. It’s mind-boggling.”

It’s something we take for granted, when expecting these NBA prospects to rise like (and sometimes dive into) a Phoenix, fully formed. The prevailing questions about Len’s NBA potential, surrounding his top five selection in June, had more to do with his ankle surgeries and worries about his overall strength. It had little to do with the fact that, less than two years ago, Alex Len had no idea how to communicate with English-speaking teammates while at something as innocuous as an ice cream social.

That’s all changed, and Len is set to become a professional an entire continent away from the person who helped him acclimate to this country. Townsend will be in Maryland for another year, and though Len will take in a few East coast trips, visits between the two will be few and far between. Even Len’s midseason “break,” the All-Star weekend in New Orleans, will probably be truncated by the Rookie/Sophomore Game that he’ll likely be asked to participate in.

For now, then, there’s Skype, and more summertime chances to sneak in more love and basketball before school starts, and NBA training camps begin. No translation needed, there.

Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
Watch: Stephen Curry's intense offseason workout regimen
Former All-Star Chris Gatling pleads guilty to theft, forgery charges
Kobe Bryant says he has ‘shattered’ recovery time for a torn Achilles