Meet the Match
Kosovo Basketball Leader Advocates for Gender Equality
Elvira Dushku was still in elementary school in Pristina, Kosovo when her older brother invited her to watch him and his friends play basketball. No girls were on the court, so at first she waited patiently on the sidelines. But, after two or three times of sitting out, she couldn’t take it anymore and put herself in the game.
“I told my brother, ‘Why can’t I play with the boys, too?’” Elvira says.
The moment she stepped onto the basketball court, Elvira knew she had found her second home. One day, a former Yugoslavian national basketball team player, whose daughter attended the same school as Elvira, spotted her talent and asked if she was interested in joining the local women’s club. By the age of 14, she was playing at the highest level.
But, then came the war in Kosovo, and Elvira was separated from playing the sport she loved for nearly two years.
After the war ended, a former men’s coach approached Elvira on a mission to form a new women’s club, Univerziteti Priština. She joined the team and played competitively until 2007, winning numerous best player awards and national championships before she suffered a serious knee injury and retired.
“For me, playing basketball is about passion,” Elvira says. “This sport made me achieve everything I have in my life.”
At one point, women’s basketball thrived in Kosovo. In 2003, Elvira’s club had been invited to participate in an international league for the first-time—the FIBA- sponsored EWWL Trocal League. The club competed against teams from Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and Bosnia. The attention that came with participating in a major European league caused a shift in how women’s sport was viewed nationally.
“We’d play at stadiums around the country and they’d be filled—2,000 people and more,” Elvira says. “People were standing outside because they couldn’t get in. And we were girls! It was incredible.”
However, the club was not invited to participate in the next season of the league, and the sport dropped in popularity. After she retired from playing in 2007, Elvira began a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from AAB College in Pristina, and was hired as a reporter for the Kosova Sot newspaper. Around the same time, her basketball club asked her to return as its women’s sports coordinator.
In her new role, the disparities between men’s and women’s sport in Kosovo became even more apparent to Elvira. The club—one of the country’s largest—dedicated most its budget to the men’s team, and did not invest in its women’s team. Elvira had to go to the government, speak with the director of sports in Pristina, and make pitches for funding from small sponsors.
“Kosovo is a patriarchal society,” Elvira says. “We don’t have role female models either to challenge this. There are no women’s sports figures, like in other countries, who little girls can look to for their futures.”
In 2015, Elvira was hired by the Kosovo Basketball Federation and then promoted to its acting secretary general. She is one of the country’s few female sports executives. In March, she was also selected to participate in FIBA’s TIME OUT program, a partnership between FIBA, the European Union and Northumbria University in the United Kingdom, which allows for exceptional retired players like Elvira to receive a master’s degree in sports administration.
“I want to be a voice and role model in my country,” Elvira says. “I’ve heard parents say , ‘Elvira, my girl wants to be like you.’ This can continue to the other sports federations, where all the front offices are men. It can start with basketball.”
Since she began as acting secretary general, Elvira and the federation’s executive committee have ensured that coaches of men’s and women’s teams are paid equally, and that women’s teams are prioritized in scheduling of practices and games. She has many ideas for how basketball can be further used for the development and gender equality. She would like to start formal basketball leagues for girls and women, while also partnering with schools and physical educators in rural areas to develop more coaches.
“In the villages, 22 our 23 coaches may be men,” Elvira says. “I need the number of women coaching to grow because this is how we build role models. Girls see women playing and coaching and it sets a new goal for them.”
For her time on the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Elvira will work with two-time mentor Laura Dixon, head of external relations for Spurs Sports and Entertainment. A leader within one of U.S. basketball’s top clubs, Laura has extensive experience in using sport for local impact, particularly how to promote campaigns that mobilize communities and engage stakeholders to action. As the global popularity of basketball grows, the Spurs organization has hosted at least three delegations of Kosovoan basketball players over the years, most recently a U.S. Department of State Sports Visitor program organized with Elvira’s support. Laura and Spurs will be vital resources for Elvira, as both a female leader at the elite level of sport, and for providing her with the best practices for engaging girls and youth through basketball.