Spend time talking basketball, talking life, just talking with Niele Ivey and it was easy to understand that the former Notre Dame women’s basketball point guard was ticketed for the big time.
Traditionally, that meant becoming a head coach for a premier college program. That was then. Now, it’s a different time and a place where professional doors previously closed to women are kicked open.
They opened Monday afternoon for Ivey, named an assistant coach for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. It’s seemingly a stunning step for someone who spent her entire coaching career on Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw’s staff at Notre Dame — the last 12 seasons — but for those who know the game, who know Ivey, who know the forward thinking of the billion-dollar business of the NBA, it’s really not that big of a deal.
Ivey’s built for this. She can do this.
The move arrived eight days after the premature announcement from her son Jaden, who’ll be a high school senior. Expected to sign in the fall to play at Purdue, he was set to start his final year at Marian High School. He posted last week on social media plans to spend his last year of high school at LaLumiere, a private boarding school in LaPorte. The next morning, the announcement vanished, though he assured the Tribune via text messages that the move still would happen.
Turns out something had to happen first.
A day after Jaden Ivey’s social post disappeared, news of his mother’s potential hiring in Memphis started to gain steam down south. Slowly, the dots were connected. With her only child’s immediate future secured, Ivey could chase her next basketball challenge.
Some may wonder why Ivey would leave her alma mater — a place where plenty had her pegged as McGraw’s eventual replacement — for the NBA. Why now? Why not?
If you believe you can coach any level of basketball, and Ivey believes she can, the NBA is the pinnacle of the profession.
Several already blazed the trail that Ivey now follows. Becky Hammon is entering her sixth season as an assistant to coach Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. Also a former college player, Hammon’s been the head coach of the Spurs’ summer league team the past few seasons. She’s a respected voice. Not because she’s a woman, but because she knows basketball.
One of the first hires of former Michigan coach John Beilein when he stunned the basketball world in June by taking the Cleveland Cavaliers’ coaching job was Lindsay Gottlieb, who was the head women’s coach at California.
For as much women are celebrated in the college and WNBA games, the NBA carries itself as the biggest and the best of the basketball worlds. The league’s proven that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what sex you might be, if you have a bright mind for the game, they’ll find you. They’ll hire you.
The NBA isn’t a celebration of a single gender, something the NCAA Women’s Final Four has become, and honestly, almost uncomfortably at times. The NBA is a collection of the world’s best basketball players and the game’s brightest basketball minds — men AND women.
Ivey becomes the ninth woman to join a current NBA staff. The 41-year-old deserves to be in those pre-game meetings and in the huddles with first-year Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins at FedEx Forum. At Madison Square Garden. At Staples Center. At United Center.
The players will listen to her. They’ll respect her. They’ll have to, mainly because she’ll work as hard as anyone in the league for years. That’s the way she is.
Forget that Ivey’s never coached beyond college. Forget that she’s never been a head coach at any level. She’s played the game. She’s coached the game. She’s lived and breathed the game.
That was evident in the time the Tribune spent with her last March in preparation for a second-round NCAA tournament game against Michigan State. Ivey had the scout for the Spartans, a team the Irish would beat by 18 points. She had only a small window of free time — during lunch — to talk in the one day between games.
Her stir-fry chicken could wait. Basketball, for her, couldn’t.
She talked for five minutes. Then 10. Then nearly 15. Might have gone for 20 or more. The immediate takeaway? Her future was white-hot bright.
Ivey’s scouting reports were drafted as if she was studying for medical school. Or law school. All basically formulated overnight. She talked about watching games and games film. Of writing and rewriting her report. Of staying up late into the night until somewhere past exhaustion. She grabbed a couple hours of rest, then would be up again the next morning making sure every single scenario was addressed for McGraw.
That’s the kind of drive, the kind of detail, the kind of determination it takes to get to where Ivey now stands.
Ivey proved it long ago, proved it when she helped McGraw win her first national championship as the Irish starting point guard in 2001. Proved it as an associate head coach in 2018 when Notre Dame won its second national championship. Proved it on the recruiting trail. Proved it at practice. Proved it on the bench. Proved it almost every day she called her alma mater home.
Monday seemed not so much a good-bye, but a see-you-again sometime down the basketball road for Ivey and the Irish.
“It really speaks to Niele’s expertise that, out of all the coaches in the country, she was chosen for this position,” McGraw said in a statement. “The NBA is setting an excellent precedent of hiring and promoting women.
“This is going to be a great learning experience for Niele and hopefully one day she can take all that she’s learned and bring it back to our program.”
That’s for one day down the road. Maybe way down the road. For now, Ivey’s going other places as a coach. Big places.
Nobody deserves it more.