Pistons’ Jaden Ivey and mother Niele share strong bond through love and basketball

Detroit News

Niele Ivey is no stranger to Madison Square Garden.

It’s a place she’s visited several times before, as a player and coach, but her most recent trip to one of the most renowned venues in sports was unlike any before. This time, she was there as a spectator to watch her son, Jaden, play his first NBA game.

Ivey, donning her son’s blue Pistons jersey that bears their last name, was overwhelmed with pride as she watched her only child play on the same court that she once did as a rookie in the WNBA during her first road trip with the Indiana Fever in 2001.

Two decades later, she’s inside the same building watching her son live out his basketball dream.

The Pistons suffered a lopsided loss to the New York Knicks in the preseason opener that night, but the silver lining was the explosive young Jaden Ivey, who led the team in scoring. Waiting outside the visitors’ locker room after the game was Niele, who affirmed her son like any mother would — especially one who knows what it feels like to take a tough loss.

She told him she was proud. She told him he looked confident and poised. More than anything, she said he looked comfortable out there with his NBA brethren.

“He looked like he belonged,” Niele Ivey told The Detroit News. “It was so fun to see that because you never know. It’s the Garden. It’s the Mecca of Basketball.”

Under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, Jaden finished with 16 points, four rebounds, two assists and a steal. His efficiency was also impressive, as he went 6-of-9 from the field, connected on all of his free throws and made his only 3-pointer.

Jaden didn’t care for his stat line because it wasn’t enough to help the Pistons earn a victory.

“We didn’t win, so I don’t think my performance was good enough,” Ivey told The News. “I feel like I didn’t do my part. I didn’t do something on the court that impacted winning.”

That team-first mentality and competitive drive derive from his mom, a former All-America point guard at Notre Dame who also spent five seasons in the WNBA with the Fever, Phoenix Mercury and Detroit Shock.

Ivey’s family ties to Detroit are widely known in the sports world. His grandfather, James Hunter, played seven seasons in the NFL as a defensive back with the Lions. His father, Javin Hunter, played high school basketball and football at Detroit Country Day before he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2002. His mother played under Pistons legend Bill Laimbeer during her lone season with the Shock in 2005.

“I’m gonna say this,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said after Jaden was drafted, “the history and story of Jaden is unbelievable. It’s like a fairy tale. Even from me, and I’ve been in (the league) a long time. To understand his grandfather played here, his dad went to high school here, his mom played in the WNBA here, successful college coach right now, it’s beyond belief. And like (general manager) Troy (Weaver) said, the good Lord wanted him here.”

Jaden was brought to tears during his introductory press conference in late June as the Pistons presented him with three additional jerseys: honoring his mom, dad and grandfather.

The family theme sounds like a plot that was written for a movie script.

However, the story of Jaden and Niele Ivey is one defined by sacrifice, faith, love — and, of course, basketball.

Jaden was introduced to the game as a child by his mother, who was a longtime assistant women’s basketball coach at Notre Dame from 2007-19, before ultimately taking over the program in 2020. That exposure helped him develop the same fiery passion for hoops that she had. His relentless work ethic, coupled with the nurturing and support of strong and successful women from the Notre Dame program, was the foundation that helped Jaden become the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s NBA draft.

“I think it shaped me to be who I was destined to be,” Jaden Ivey said. “I loved the game at a young age, and I thank God that he allowed me to do this for a living, to be able to play at the NBA level. It started at Notre Dame.”

‘We are all that we have’

Jaden grew up inside the practice gym at Notre Dame, the place that became a second home as the Fighting Irish reached six NCAA championship games in a nine-year span. There, he was surrounded by basketball royalty. Skylar Diggins-Smith. Jewell Loyd. Kayla McBride. Arike Ogunbowale. Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw. And of course, his mom.

Jaden only thought about going to women’s practices with his mom to play basketball as soon as he got out of school. His desire to immerse himself in that community was his idea of the perfect after-school program. He’d watch practices and afterward have an opportunity to shoot, sometimes on the team’s actual court in Purcell Pavilion. He’d spend eight to nine hours inside that gym, sometimes until 1 a.m.

“Every single day, I got to be around a great culture,” Jaden said, “to really just be around great women and great human beings at an early age. … I was really just thankful that I had the opportunity to do that at a young age because a lot of kids don’t get to be in a college setting and be able to put shots up every single day.”

It was a pivotal moment for Jaden’s development, as he learned how to work on his game, day in and day out. It was the foundation of his basketball intangibles that are on display now as a pro. His hunger. His desire. His grit. All that was groomed under the tutelage of the Notre Dame women’s basketball program.

Niele noticed her son was one of the most competitive, most skilled and fastest boys in his youth leagues, but once Jaden began playing high school basketball at Marian High School in Mishawaka, Indiana, his work ethic went into overdrive.

“I could tell that his dedication changed,” Niele said. “He had the desire to work out two or three times a day. His grind and mindset really changed after his freshman year.”

As a child, Jaden watched YouTube videos of some of the greatest ever to play the game, including Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and Michael Jordan — who is both Niele’s and Jaden’s favorite player. It’s part of the reason why he wears the exalted No. 23.

Jaden then began to set his sights on college basketball, a stepping stone to his ultimate goal of playing in the NBA, an aspiration he told his mom about as a kid.

He committed to Purdue ahead of his senior year in high school over a list of schools that included Indiana, Butler and Notre Dame.

“Obviously, I would love for him to stay right here (at Notre Dame) so I could watch him every day and all that kind of stuff, but I’m the type of parent that, I wanted him to blaze his own trails,” Niele said.

That he did. Jaden had a stellar two seasons at Purdue and became a consensus second-team All-America selection after his sophomore year, averaging 17.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He declared for the draft, and his athleticism and quickness matched what Pistons general manager Troy Weaver was looking for to pair in a backcourt with emerging star Cade Cunningham.

Niele’s basketball background made an impression on Jaden.

“It’s more and more now (mothers introducing the game to their sons). You have females getting into NBA coaching, which they should. I think a coach is a coach. I guarantee she’s just as tough on him as I am on my son,” Casey said. “He gets coaching from this side and once he gets home, he learns from her. It’s beautiful. She’s an excellent coach. She’s one of the coaches I feel like can coach in the NBA at some point, if she decides to. That’s how good a coach she is.”

Now that both of their dreams have materialized — with Niele as the head coach at her alma mater and Jaden getting accustomed to life in the NBA — the two are entering a new chapter of their mother-son relationship.

Basketball is always going to be a talking point, but it’s deeper than that.

“We are all that we have,” Niele said. “We’re both each other’s why. He goes hard for me and vice versa.”

Love and basketball

Before games, when the lights are low and the national anthem begins, Jaden bows his head, closes his eyes and uses that time to pray.

It’s a ritual that Ivey does before every game, something he learned from Niele, as she used her mornings to pray for her son’s safety and through the adversity she faced as a single mother.

“Sometimes, when you get to the highest level, you kind of just get distant from God, and I feel like that’s what has helped get me to this point,” Jaden said. “I have faith in him, and trust in him. I’ve always learned from my mom to be a prayerful person.”

Raising Jaden, who turned 20 in February, while she was a professional athlete and assistant basketball coach wasn’t easy for Niele. She sacrificed their time together when she had to go on the road for games in the WNBA and when she had to travel to recruit for Notre Dame.

“It was really hard, to be honest,” she said. “Being a single parent, trying to figure it out, I really relied on my faith during that time.”

Niele had a village of support from her mom, teammates and coaches to help with Jaden. The two would see each other every day, but that changed in the latter part of Jaden’s high school career.

In 2019, Niele and Jaden made the mutual decision to live apart from one another, as they each pursued their basketball dreams, another short-term sacrifice that would be life-changing for them.

Jaden spent his senior season of high school at basketball national powerhouse La Lumiere School, a prep school in La Porte, Indiana. Niele moved south to become the Memphis Grizzlies’ first female assistant coach in franchise history.

On his own for the first time without his mom, Jaden was getting a taste of college life, which expedited his maturity.

Niele missed her son. It tested their faith.

The distance reinforced the axiom that absence makes the heart grow fonder. That was certainly the case for Niele and Jaden, as the two grew closer, mainly through their constant communication. Every morning, Jaden received an inspirational text message from his mom. She sent inspirational scriptures from the Bible. Her intention was always to send something that resonated with both of them.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Jaden recalls as one of his mom’s messages. “There’s going to be struggles, but just keep working hard. Keep your head down. Keep thanking God for everything, and every single day you wake up, just thank him.”

With contrasting schedules, the two always carved out space from their busy days to FaceTime. Niele would talk to Jaden after his games. During his holiday breaks, Jaden would go to Memphis to spend time with his mom.

“It was really, really difficult to be away from him, and that was one of the hardest years I’ve ever had,” Niele said, “but it ended up being one of the biggest blessings for both of our careers, and our lives.”

Detroit debut

Niele was in Detroit on Thursday to watch her son play the Grizzlies, the same organization that welcomed her to the NBA. She sat courtside along the baseline, near the Pistons’ bench.

During his pregame warmups, Jaden walked over to his mom and gave her a big hug. The two spoke for a few minutes and the Pistons rookie returned to the court to prepare for the game.

When the starting lineups were announced, Niele pulled out her phone to record the moment, as Jaden was introduced on the arena’s massive video board.

Her smile said it all. She was proud of the boy she helped to become a man.

She took photos of Jaden going toe-to-toe against Ja Morant, a mentor and someone he models his game after.

Early in the fourth quarter, Jaden split a pair of defenders and drove to the basket for a ferocious dunk. Niele, again, smiling from ear to ear, rose to her feet and clapped.

“I think it’s beautiful. His mom is an excellent coach. I’ve watched some of her games on video and she does a good job of coaching. And you can just imagine her watching the former team that she used to coach with Memphis and her son playing against the guys he grew up with in Ja,” Casey said. “(Jaden) being a little kid and running around the gym. I thought it was special. I thought he was a little tight to start with. I know that’s the reason why he got in a little foul trouble, but it was a great moment for him and his mom to go through.”

Niele said she will again be in Detroit for Wednesday’s regular-season opener against the Orlando Magic — her son’s official NBA debut — and she hopes to attend as many games as her coaching schedule allows.

Now that Jaden is making a name for himself with the Pistons and has begun his NBA journey, it’s safe to say Niele won’t be a stranger to Little Caesars Arena, either.

Basketball has helped strengthen the bond between mother and son.

mcurtis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @MikeACurtis2

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