The remarkable story of Purdue's Jaden Ivey and his mom, Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey

Dana Hunsinger Benbow
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — The shadowy nights in that empty underground gym, the basketball echoing on the court — a haphazard symphony of dribbles pounding at the hands of a 6-year-old heading toward the basket, looking up at the rim.

That goal, it seemed unreachable to Jaden Ivey.

Mornings came early, the campus nestled in South Bend just waking up, joggers traipsing past the grotto, stopping a moment for their morning solace.

Inside the practice gym at Notre Dame, beneath the main playing floor at Purcell Pavilion, the dribbles were echoing again. Jaden was already there, not too many hours after he’d been there the night before.

It was all such a big world, a colossal, magical world. He was so tiny. But he remembers the giants.

Skylar Diggins, she let him rebound for her. Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd would crack up as the miniature Jaden showed off his basketball moves, asking him to join in on drills. Coach Muffet McGraw would watch, her stern look softening to a smile as she sized up the little phenom.

This was Jaden’s life growing up, immersed in Division I basketball. His mom, Niele Ivey was an assistant coach for the Notre Dame women alongside the legendary McGraw. Jaden watched practice, waiting for those few minutes he could jump onto the courtand shoot. Staying after. Coming in early.

“She was always in the gym,” Jaden said of his mom this week, “and so I was, too.”

Jaden has just come from the gym on this day — his new gym at Purdue. It’s Monday in West Lafayette and the freshman guard has just finished lifting and an intense workout, two days after he helped Purdue to a 75-58 win over Nebraska, scoring 15 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. Playing 32 minutes, more than anyone else on the team.

Two weeks after he scored his career high 20 against Northwestern to lead Purdue to a 75-70 victory.

One month after he hit a 3-pointer with five seconds left to topple No. 18 Ohio State, 67-65. A game that afterward, he talked about the “slump” he’d been in and how desperately he wanted to win, to do something great.

And ... how much it meant that his mom was there that night to see him drain that shot.

“Our relationship is amazing,” he said. “She’s always there.”

His mom. Notre Dame. The basketball’s echo in his mind. Those early memories of basketball never leave him.

But Notre Dame wasn’t the beginning of basketball for Jaden, not even close. He was on a court, the big stage, long before that. It was the summer of 2001 and his mom had just landed a spot with the Indiana Fever.

Niele Ivey: ‘Moments it was so hard’

Niele Ivey didn’t tell a soul in the basketball world that surrounded her. This would be a secret, that she was 23, carrying a baby and going pro.

She had just finished a flourishing career at Notre Dame, an All-American point guard for McGraw, who had decided she wanted Ivey after seeing her play pickup in high school at the YMCA in St. Louis.

Ivey had just come off helping Notre Dame to its second national title, averaging 16.5 points and 5.5 steals per game as they defeated Connecticut and Purdue on the way to that championship trophy. Over Ivey’s final four seasons, the Irish went 109-22 and reached the Sweet 16 three times.

Then she was a top 20 pick in the 2001 WNBA draft by the Indiana Fever. She was pregnant as she played her rookie season, starting 26 games, averaging 22 minutes.

Jaden was born Feb. 13, 2002.

“I always say I turned into survivor mode,” Niele Ivey said this week. “I said, ‘This is my profession. I need to get back so I can play for me and him.’”

And she did. Single mom and professional basketball player became a doable combination for Ivey, albeit tough.

“I remember having moments it was so hard,” said Ivey, now 43. “I sacrificed, we both did, but we both learned how to navigate together. I’ve been very blessed.”

She had help from family and friends. And her teammates. Ivey wasn’t the only mom on the Fever; three other players were mothers in that 2002 season.

A tiny months-old Jaden was there in a carrier on the practice court at then-Conseco Fieldhouse. Tamika Catchings loved to tote him around. He traveled on the team plane to away games in New York, Detroit and Washington.

Sometimes, though, Jaden had to stay home. Ivey always took a framed photo of Jaden to put in her hotel room. It wasn’t the same.

“When I call, I hear him in the background,” Ivey told IndyStar in 2004, “and I get sad.”

Jaden said he doesn’t remember those Fever days, those tough days for his mom. His first memories are at Notre Dame.

But he does know what it means, what his mother did for him.

“Because of what she had to do not only on the court but off the court, being a single parent, that’s just saying how strong of a woman she is,” Jaden said. “Having my mother by my side all the’s amazing knowing you have someone like that in your life.”

On Jaden Ivey: ‘Best of the bunch’

Explosion. Ivey likes that word to describe what Jaden has done lately on the court. Yet, sometimes it’s hard to think of him, that chubby little guy she carried about, as an explosive DI basketball player.

“Oh my gosh, I am so proud of him,” said Ivey, who played five seasons in the WNBA before starting her coaching career at Xavier University in Cincinnati, “just to see him at this point.”

She remembers when she first put a basketball in Jaden’s hands. He was about 2. She bought him one of those mobile, plastic goals for Christmas and sat it next to the tree. He’d shoot on it in the living room. In his room. In the kitchen. Outside.

As he got older, though, Ivey realized Jaden would be doing more than basketball.

Jaden’s father is Javin Hunter, a former Notre Dame wide receiver whom Ivey met on campus. He was drafted by the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and now lives outside of Indiana. But Jaden has talked to his dad through the years and his dad wanted him to play football.

So Jaden did. He played Pee Wee football, then flag football, in addition to basketball, soccer and karate.

“First time he played basketball, being in stands I couldn’t even take it,” said Ivey. “I didn’t want to be that parent in the stand. I had to check myself and be a fly on the wall, wear more of the mom hat.”

As Jaden got older, it was tackle football and basketball. By his freshman year of high school, he had honed in on what he wanted to do — basketball. And that wasn’t pressure from his mom, Jaden said.

It was all him.

“It was always my dream to play,” he said. “When I’d see everyone else playing basketball I just wanted to do it myself. When I knew I could potentially be a good player, I just took...” He took it to another level.

Throughout Ivey’s first season, Purdue coach Matt Painter has called him an attacker, long, quick handed and, at times, too unselfish in his passing — bypassing opportunities for a layup or a foul.

His teammates have said they are impressed by this freshman, who is so confident. Who, when he puts his mind to something, can do it. But who sometimes lets his mind get in the way.

“His future is bright, once he lets the game come to him,” Purdue’s 6-10 forward Trevion Williams told IndyStar earlier this month. “He’s overthinking things, and he’s still playing really good. I can only imagine what it will look like in a year or two.”

“Jaden Ivey? He’s the best of the bunch, just a silly athlete who gets to the rim whenever he wants,” IndyStar sports columnist Gregg Doyel described him recently, “has the size and strength at 6-4, 200 pounds to finish there, and has the basketball IQ of a coach’s son...If he can find some consistency on his shooting stroke, forget it. It’s over.”

‘Nothing was given to him’

Ivey said her son’s work ethic has never failed him.

“I think his work ethic has been his No. 1 key to his explosion,” she said. “He’s always wanted this moment. He’s always prepared for the big stage. He’s always wanted to be on the big stage.”

Ivey describes Jaden as a player with drive, determination and passion.

Jaden describes his mom as a coach much the same way: “I just see that passion and that energy that was always positive when you’re on the floor. Even when there can be times that are tough, you lose a game, she has that drive.”

Most of their conversation, Jaden said, centers on basketball. How could it not? A DI coach, a DI player, an incredible mother-son bond over the sport.

“There is not one time where we don’t involve basketball,” he said. “We see something on the internet about basketball, we talk about basketball. It’s got to be something basketball.”

Ivey looks at Jaden with pride and awe. He has been on this journey, after all, right alongside her.

“Nothing was given,” she said. “He earned everything.”

Last month, two nights before Jaden made that last second 3 to give Purdue its win over Ohio State, he was in the gym. Purdue had just beaten Penn State 80-72.

But Ivey had come back to the court to shoot. He was there almost alone, some cleaning personnel and a handful of media people inside.

He was back at an empty court, just like that 6-year-old, the basketball echoing.

“My mom, she’s the reason why when I’m knocked down, I’ve got to get back up,” Jaden said earlier this month. “I’m thankful for the opportunities with my mother those late nights in the gym. That’s definitely shaped me in a positive way.”

Niele Ivey was a point guard with the Indiana Fever when this photo was taken with her then 2-year-old son Jaden in Indianapolis. Niele is now the head women’s coach at Notre Dame and Jaden is a freshman star at Purdue.
Purdue freshman Jaden Ivey celebrates Jan. 21 after sinking the game-winning shot at Ohio State.
Jaden Ivey, shown here in January 2019, was a star and NIC MVP at Marian before transferring his senior year to LaLumiere School. Ivey, who is the son of Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey, is now a star freshman at Purdue.
Niele Ivey, shown here with Muffet McGraw at the 2011 Final Four in Indianapolis, as a former player and longtime assistant coach at Notre Dame. She is currently in her first year as head coach of the Irish. Her son, Jaden, is a star freshman at Purdue.
Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey claps on the baseline during a game against Virginia Tech Dec. 17, 2020, in South Bend, Ind. The first-year Notre Dame coach said Thursday that not making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 24 years, will serve as motivation moving forward.