Niele Ivey knew that becoming the first woman coach in Memphis Grizzlies history was a big deal. Still, she underestimated it a bit.
“I know now,” she told me during a recent exclusive interview. “It’s a lot bigger than I even expected.”
Since being announced as an assistant to Taylor Jenkins in his first year as a head coach, the former WNBA star has been bombarded with interview requests – and not just from Memphis media either.
Ivey’s selection to the Grizzlies is also history at her alma mater, Notre Dame. She made the Final Four as a player twice there, and contributed to seven more Final Four appearances for the Fighting Irish in her 12-year career.
But this will be her first time coaching among men. Is she nervous?
“I’m definitely stepping out of my comfort zone,” said Ivey, 41. “But I’m definitely up for a challenge.”
I talked with Ivey recently about that challenge, her being a role model for women and what she sees in young Grizzlies cubs Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.:
Lee Eric Smith: Niele, obviously you’re not the first woman coach in the NBA, but this is still a really big deal. Have you spoken with San Antonio’s Becky Hammon or any of your other predecessors about what to expect?
Niele Ivey: I talked to Lindsay Gottlieb, and she was newly hired there in Cleveland and I’m really good friends with her. Kara Lawson, an ESPN analyst, I played against her at Tennessee, she reached out. I am going to connect with everybody once things kind of die down.
But they all have been just so supportive. They were basically telling me what to expect and those types of things. So I was appreciative that they reached out so quickly.
LES: I’ve seen footage of you coaching your son in grade school. But have you ever coached men before? At the end of the day, basketball is basketball, but I imagine there have to be nuances between coaching women and coaching men.
Ivey: I’ve observed a lot of USA Basketball on the men’s side but I’ve only really been hands on with my son.
But like you said, basketball is basketball. A lot of it is terminology – a lot of what we talked about on the women’s side at Notre Dame, it’s going to be the same thing. Maybe the terminology is a little different, but the game is still the same.
LES: Right. But is it a little intimidating? I have to imagine you wouldn’t have accepted the job if it was, but still…
Ivey: Oh no! Absolutely not! I talked with Taylor and we immediately clicked in the interview process. He’s awesome, super bright. It was just a really really good connection.
It’s gonna be challenging. I’m definitely stepping out of my comfort zone, but I’m always up for a challenge. So I’m sure there’s gonna be some things that I’m definitely not ready for, but I’m excited about it. I think when you’re excited about something and you’re passionate about it, you’re gonna be open to it.
LES: What has he told you about his vision for the team and how he expects you to help execute it?
Ivey: We’re going to talk more at the end of the month, when we all get together. But he wants to play up-tempo, he wants to foster an environment that’s competitive and unselfish and that allows for player development.
And that aligns with everything that I know from being at Notre Dame. That vision is what I’ve lived being under Coach Muffet McGraw and her program.
But he’s got a lot of young talent and he’s super excited. They’re coming off this amazing summer, winning the Summer League. He’s going to get two of his top players back in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. I love what Taylor is trying to create there.
LES: You know you’re going to be a hero in this town, right? Particularly for African American women?
Ivey: I knew that this is obviously a monumental thing. I mean, I know I’m making history for even Notre Dame. Being the first female coach, I’ve seen a lot of support on social media – people saying how inspiring I am. I don’t think I realized the magnitude of it until now that I’m in it.
I’ve received a lot of, um, support and outpouring from women, from a lot of people, from Memphis. I can tell that they’re really embracing me.
You never know what your path is going to be. I’m embracing this role, and I just hope to continue to inspire. If that’s the path that I am now in, I’m embracing it and I’m super excited and grateful for it.
LES: Alright, now let’s talk hoops! I’m anxious to get your scouting report on this roster. What are your observations about the team, and specifically, Jaren and Ja?
Ivey: I’m starting to study our guys, but I definitely watched Summer League and I have an idea of the team from the summer.
But as far as those two, Jaren and Ja, Jaren is with USA Basketball right now. He’s super athletic, and he’s got so many tools. Ja Morant, being a point guard, he’s an outstanding passer and also super athletic. They both bring a lot of passion, a lot of energy. They’re both young and hungry and you can tell they’re willing to do whatever it takes.
One thing that impressed me was, during Summer League, neither one played but they were both the biggest cheerleaders on the sidelines. And for me, I love that.
I love that they try to use their leadership by just being the biggest supporters. I think they’re both going to change the culture of Memphis and just bring a lot of excitement to the city.
LES: A few weeks ago, I wrote about Jaren and Ja bonding over arena food at Summer League. I wrote that it’s a good thing when your two star players are also good friends.
Ivey: Absolutely! Chemistry is huge. You want it, you want to love the people you’re playing with. That’s something I know from experience. And it’s something I know as a coach.
That stuff translates onto the court. Those bonds, they translate on the floor because you’re playing for more than yourself. I definitely feel that if you’re playing for your coaches, your teammates, your brothers, on the floor it’s going to translate to winning and to a very positive culture.
And I think they’re already creating that. I think they’re very intentional about that. I don’t know them yet and I can’t wait to meet everybody, but I love their personality.