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BenFred: From Fairground Park to the NBA, Ivey's inspiring basketball climb continues

BenFred: From Fairground Park to the NBA, Ivey's inspiring basketball climb continues

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The boys once told her no.

Now she will coach and coach against the best male basketball players in the world.

Niele Ivey wins.

The St. Louis sports hero has done it since a little girl defied her brothers' basketball teasing.

“Too small,” they jeered years ago. “Too slow.”

They learned.

“I always looked up to playing my brothers,” Ivey recently said by phone. “That’s where my passion for the game originated."

Look at where it’s led her.

Ivey lifted her Cor Jesu team to a Missouri state high school championship in 1995. In college, she helped Notre Dame win its first national championship under Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw. That was in 2001. She went on to play five seasons in the WNBA. Since returning to her college alma mater to coach in 2007, Ivey became McGraw's top assistant as Notre Dame made seven Final Four appearances, six of which turned into title games. One became another championship victory, in 2018. Many believe Ivey will be the future head coach at Notre Dame. And maybe that happens.

But Ivey, 41, recently made history again when she became the first woman on the coaching staff of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. As their new assistant coach, Ivey is just the ninth woman ever on an NBA coaching staff. Her strong background in player development and the youth movement on Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins' team made Ivey a perfect fit. It also helped that the Grizzlies selected Murray State point guard Ja Morant with the No. 2 pick in this year's draft. Ivey knows a thing or two about that position.

The Post-Dispatch recently caught up with Ivey. The following Q&A has been edited for space and clarity. If you're reading this, she hopes you make the trip to see her on the Memphis sideline this season.

P-D: Congratulations, Coach. Was this jump from the women's game to men's something you always had in mind?

Ivey: "I just wanted to get out of my comfort zone, to be honest. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from a Hall of Fame coach for 12 years, and I feel like this was an opportunity for me to even grow more. Coach McGraw is always learning, always growing. And when this opportunity presented itself, she was the first person I told. This was a great opportunity for me to learn. And then it comes with the whole, you will be a trailblazer, and all of that stuff. But initially, just learning from a different level. Being in one place for a long time, I’ve always wondered how so-and-so runs their program, or how they implement their offense. I can’t wait to absorb so much information. When you surround yourself with greatness, it can only rub off."

P-D: You have said you can offer a unique perspective to the NBA thanks to your time coaching the women's game. Some would argue that basketball is basketball. What's the difference, and why can it be a strength for the Grizzlies?

Ivey: “Where I learned, fundamentals were really, really important. I learned to perfect things in a very detailed manner from the women’s game, because we didn’t play above the rim, you know? Everything had to be detail-oriented. Our fundamentals had to be solid. The way we set screens. Passing. Angles. Ball handling. Shooting. All of those things, very, very fundamentally sound. We didn’t have athletes that you could just throw a lob to. We have to have talent and athleticism, but we didn’t have that (kind). So, my perspective is a little bit different."

P-D: Speaking of player development, your son, Jaden, is a basketball player who has committed to Purdue. How did raising and coaching him help prepare you for this new job?

Ivey: "When I wasn't coaching with Notre Dame, I'm in the gym with him. Watching his practices, watching his AAU practices, watching how his coaches interact with him. Being there, being a voice of reason for him when he was struggling with things, or figuring out how he sees the game. I've had opportunities to observe and watch USA Basketball. I've had five or six days just sitting in the gym watching really great individual skill work, individual talent. That's definitely something that made me more comfortable."

P-D: Can you describe the reaction you have received since the news of your hiring in Memphis?

Ivey: "It's been such a positive response. My phone is still blowing up. It speaks volumes to the basketball community, men or women. Memphis completely embraced me. I've had such great feedback from fans, family and friends in St. Louis, people who have followed my career. There are a lot of new Memphis Grizzlies fans. It's brought positive attention. For me, that's awesome. I knew the magnitude of it, because I talked to Coach McGraw about it. It's really awesome to feel that I'm inspiring young girls, young women, a lot of people. That is what it's all about. It's something I'm going to embrace. It's a door that was opened for a reason. I want to make everyone proud, and do a really good job."

P-D: There is some symbolism in your story, right? The little girl whose big brothers used to try (and fail) to keep off the court is now coaching in the NBA.

Ivey: She laughed, and agreed.

“We were playing in Fairground Park in north St. Louis. When I was younger, I would tag along and watch them. That’s where it originated from. Then, when my brothers were at Chaminade, I would be the little girl on the floor, trying to shoot at halftime. The student body would cheer me on. It’s so funny that it’s all come full circle."

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