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Brown, Rennie find home sweet home away from home
By Dominic Palumbo

lou brown, jessie rennie
Left - Jessie Rennie; right - Lou Brown

Five years and 95 miles separated the lives of two Lady Vol basketball players - graduate student Lou Brown and freshman Jessie Rennie.

While Melbourne and Bendigo, Australia, may both be in the state of Victoria, the likelihood of Brown and Rennie both coming to America to play for the same program at the same time is just a bit unlikely.

In October of 2018, redshirt senior Lou Brown went down with a torn ACL. Mere months after arriving on Rocky Top, her final season of college basketball was cut short. Then, there was a ray of hope.

Brown was granted a sixth year of eligibility and was given the opportunity to play out the final chapter of her college career, while also completing her master's degree in journalism and electronic media.

"Being able to finish my degree was truly a perfect situation," Brown said. "But, in saying that, it has been a bit tough. Being around here, I'm 24, I'm going into my sixth year of college. This is not where I expected to be, looking back three or four years ago. I assumed I'd be a bit more into my life at this point, but at the same time, I'm in no rush and I'm playing basketball in one of the most amazing places to play basketball. I just try to stay present, stay where I'm at, while just staying in the now. At the end of the day a big part of me staying this sixth year is going to set me up for whatever is after."

Her final chapter is occurring right alongside the opening pages of Rennie's career.

"Jessie is my little sister," Brown said. "As soon as she came in, I knew how daunting it can be. I also think another reason my knee (injury) happened was to help her with her transition."

A transition that is quite different from those of non-athlete students and domestic student-athletes.

"Coming in as an international student, there's a lot more you have to do," Brown said. "Whether it's through the international house for school, through athletics, getting social security numbers, getting phone numbers and bank accounts set up, all of it. So, when she came in, I went out of my way and made it a point of 'I've got her.' I told her, 'Whatever you need, I've been through it all. Ask me anything. There are no stupid questions, whatever it is, I'm here for you.' And being so far away from home it's hard, and you want to know that someone has your back no matter what."

"It's a very big move," Rennie added. "I've been here nearly seven months now, and I absolutely love it. To start with, it was a little bit daunting. I'm 19, but moving away from home is always going to be scary, especially to another country on the other side of the world. Having Lou here has made things a thousand times easier. From big things like knowing the ins and outs of college in general, and then the basketball side of it, too. Just little things like – I always give the example – setting up my bank account and my phone account. Things like that, which I was just like, 'I need to get organized.' She was right there. She had done it all. She learned from Cheridene (Green), so Cheridene helped her. She helped me, so hopefully I can pass it on to another international student one day."

Little things that seem normal and unassuming. Things that many domestic students don't need to worry about, but they are things that must be done so aspiring international athletes are able to live out their dreams.

While the friendship of the duo from down under continues to grow, their meeting didn't come immediately.

"I actually didn't meet her literally until I turned up here," Rennie said. "She was meant to be my host for my official visit, but she ended up having to head home in March, so we never ended up seeing her. I knew of her. I knew who she was because, obviously, we're from the same state, playing in the same leagues and stuff. Being a little bit older, I never actually played against her. To start with, I didn't think having an Aussie or not having Aussie would really matter that much, but I love it."

Since that first meeting, they have taken off and grown together on the court and most notably off of it. Whether it's a small conversation, a trip to one of Knoxville's many sights or a simple walk up to Cumberland Avenue, the two are often together, walking stride-for-stride to wherever the next destination may be.

"The first day we were both here together on campus we walked to the Cumberland strip together, and ever since then that's been our thing," Brown said. "We'll walk to the strip together and back to get food and things like that. You know we have a really good relationship, and I'm just glad that I was here for her first year to get her set up so when I leave she can go off and be her own Australian on her own."

Before their meeting, however, there was one big hurdle to climb. Before the bank accounts could be set up, before the countless jaunts to Cumberland Avenue that filled their off time, before anything, they had to weave through the challenges of a previous coaching staff departing and a new group taking its place. What seemed like a hurdle was simply a situation that both girls navigated with ease.

"It was hard, and the coaching staff plays a really big part and has a lot to do with the school you're at, but I mean, it's Tennessee," Rennie said. "The program, the history, just everything about this school sounded exactly right for me. I was definitely not considering not coming here."

"It's been good. It's been really good," Brown said. "It all happened so quickly, trying to develop relationships with the coaches. I myself am a bit different and I have a different relationship with the coaches compared to the other players on the team, but it's been good. The coaches have made sure that we're all comfortable, and they've tried to make sure that we know we're a priority and that we're important to them. They want to make sure that we have a good relationship with them off the court as well, so I really appreciate them for that."

A successful transition and a phenomenal relationship have Brown, Rennie and the rest of the Lady Vols poised for a successful 2019-20 season. As the current season reaches its mid-point and the Orange & White begin conference play, the relationships that were made in June and July have reaped incredible benefits in November and December.

A high-profile victory on the road at Notre Dame, seven consecutive wins to begin the year and consistent production across the board have Tennessee in a great position to begin SEC action. Yet, when the season eventually ends, and the curtain falls on 2019-20, Brown in particular will be looking towards the next step in her life. For both her and Rennie, professional dreams can be realized not only abroad in Europe, but back home. Over the last four years, Australia has seen immense growth in its women's basketball league — the WNBL — and in the popularity of the game as a whole.

"We have a really good league in Australia, the WNBL," Brown said. "Which is starting to get a lot more exposure. Women's basketball is really starting to grow back home, which is really promising to see. When I first moved over here, women's basketball had been ripped off TV. It wasn't televised at all and, honestly, I think America is to thank for the amount of growth there's been recently. Just the media coverage and how social media has taken over and pushed sports over here has helped a lot, and it's starting to do that in Australia as well. I'm really excited to head back home, play in my league back in Australia."

It's a league that is one of a multitude of opportunities for Tennessee's two Aussies to continue to play the sport they love, long after they hang up their Orange & White gear.

"There's so, so many opportunities in Australia for me to play," Rennie said. "There's the NBL1 competition and then there's the WNBL—which is the women's national basketball league—which is obviously equivalent to the NBL. It's a really, really, good league. I want to go play in Europe after I'm done here to get a new experience, but I know I can always go home to Australia to play."

While Knoxville is currently providing a new home and a place for Brown and Rennie to grow themselves and their game, it could one day help to propel both to the professional ranks of the league in the place they originally called "home sweet home."

Published January 21, 2020

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