LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Out of the multiple tattoos on Louisville star Emily Engstler, the one that stands out the most is on her left calf.
It shows a basketball hoop towering over her number 21 and the 59th Street bridge in Roosevelt Island, New York behind the basket. When she was seven, her family moved there from Queens and she found a hoops sanctuary in a place they called Blackwell. Engstler grew up playing pickup games with men, where she said she became more physical and vocal.
"Besides getting better skill-wise, I think it shaped me as a tougher player," Engstler said. "Everybody says I have that New York City grit in me. And I think I lost it a little bit in my first couple years of college. I was out of shape. Then, I got here and I think Louisville really brought that out in me again."
It's fitting because the transformative Syracuse transfer got the tattoo right before coming to the Cardinals. That grit now shines in the versatile senior forward's competitiveness, effort and toughness as the catalyst for one of the country's best defensive teams.
"I think this program is just a lot more special than people realize," Engstler said. "So it's not where me or Chelsie (Hall) came from or where we'll go after. I just know a lot of people in women's college basketball, we know exactly the things that are going on: who likes you, who doesn't like you. And I really, truly believe this is the most unique program I have ever been to."
The senior places a high value on self-expression. She valued her time with the Orange as a homegrown star but respects the way the UofL staff treats its players, looking at them more as adults and trusting their decisions.
"I can sit in practice and take a seat not because I'm tired: I just needed to take a seat for a second," Engstler said. "And no one will say a word to me. I'll get up two seconds later and now, it's my time on the court. You cannot do that in certain places. I can be at practice and laugh for 15 minutes straight about something funny, and nobody would say a word to me. Because they know for a fact that when they look at me and say, 'Emily, here, let's do this thing,' I'm there with a serious face.
"There's just a lot of trust in this program and a lot of freedom where we feel like we can be ourselves. And I can be 21. Yeah, I'm old, but I'm also not 40. I'm not sitting at a desk job with children. People say 'Well, you're in college, you should be this.' And of course, we're not 14-year-olds. We know what's right or wrong. But at the same time, I think people put all this pressure on athletes and they don't truly understand we're still people and kids. But this program really gets that. And that's something I really appreciate."
Her expression also shows during games. She thinks women's basketball officials don't let women play as physically as men are allowed to play and are too harsh on players for showing their emotions. While admitting to letting frustration get the best of her at certain times, Engstler credits the Cardinal coaching staff for allowing her to be more vocal while also working on how to better manage some of those emotions.
"I think the really good thing about Coach (Jeff) Walz is that he's good at teaching me how to be someone who fakes it," Engstler said. "Let's be realistic: At the end of the day, I'm not going to change fully to the point where I'm this perfect, calm person now. So you have to figure out ways to smile, even though in my head, I'm probably cursing them out. And on the bench, I like that we can talk.
"I think sometimes it's taken wrong from the outer view, because they don't know what we're saying. But even if it's, like, aggressive, sometimes we're really just communicating, which I never got to do at Syracuse. So I appreciate that. Even when it's me saying, 'Well, I'm really mad right now,' and him saying, 'Well, you can't do this.' I'm just happy that we can talk about it. Because then I'll calm down and be like, 'Okay, cool.'"
On the court, the marriage between the two has been near seamless. Walz has consistently compared Engstler's rare defensive instincts to that of Louisville and WNBA legend Angel McCoughtry. They've thrived more in the Cardinals' man-to-man defense as opposed to the zone she played at Syracuse because she can creatively operate off of her feel for the game, which better prepares her for the WNBA.
The 6'1" forward is leading the ACC in steals with 58 and averaging almost three thefts per game. She's aggressive in playing passing lanes, physical on the boards and capable of pushing ahead in transition as a ball-handler. Engstler is averaging 11 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game too. She credits those days at the park for her aggressiveness and physicality, but also thinks her conditioning is better now at Louisville.
"I feel like I always had a decent IQ," Engstler said. "And I think a lot of girls do. To me, it's whether you're willing to risk it or not. I'm extremely risky. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. But I think I'm good enough to where I can take those risks, and probably get it 80% of the time, which is a number I'm willing to accept."
It's a style of play fitting for her personality. A creative thinker and writer who loves poetry, she views her body as a notebook, with her tattoos representing "who I am or who I love and what I love." Her favorite part of the tattoo process is sharing her ideas with the artist, a close friend of hers named Chung, and him drawing out the designs.
"We could sit there for hours before he even puts it on me," Engstler said. "Because we'll just talk about exactly how I want it tweaked and stuff like that. And I swear it's just like a creative writing piece or poem. You're just not actually putting it down. But you're watching this thing you've done in your mind come to life. And then after he's done, it's just the coolest feeling."
Bearing the Blackwell pride on her body as a product of that process, the New Yorker keeps home close to her heart.
"I want to carry it around with me because I know I won't be there forever," Engstler said. "And I know for a fact that when I go back one day, it's also not going to look the same. And I'm such a wimp when it comes to a good, heartfelt story."
Like one of fully feeling like herself in a new place, seeing the player who first learned how to hoop on that park court.
"I think I do feel a little better in my own skin here," Engstler said. "I love being here, seriously."