‘She’s got this ultimate care factor’: How Niele Ivey made an imprint with the Grizzlies

Detroit Free Press

Roughly an hour and a half before the Detroit Pistons took on the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday, Niele Ivey was minutes away from pulling off one of the biggest wins of her career.

The seventh-ranked Fighting Irish women’s basketball team defeated third-ranked UConn, 74-60, in South Bend. Ivey, in her third season leading the program, is positioning the program for another deep NCAA tournament run.

Between her final season as an assistant at Notre Dame and her first season as head coach, though, Jaden Ivey’s mom was an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies, during the 2019-20 season. The Grizzlies still very much appreciate what she brought as a coach. The Pistons and Grizzlies were about to battle, but they were united in rooting for Niele.

“Quick shoutout to Niele, I think she’s in a tight battle right now,” Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins said during his pregame press conference Sunday. “The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are playing UConn, I think, right now. I think they’re in a tight battle, it’s in the fourth quarter. Hopefully she’s able to pull it out.”

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Niele Ivey was unable to attend the Pistons’ 122-112 loss to the Grizzlies, but it was a moment for her and Jaden. Both Iveys share a close relationship with the Grizzlies, and particularly with Ja Morant, with whom Jaden shares a brotherly relationship. Niele was one of the first coaches Jenkins hired in Memphis. She handled pregame scouting reports and also did individual skill work with players. Her positivity and energy rubbed off on everyone.

As a former Notre Dame and WNBA point guard (with the Detroit Shock, among other teams), she had a firsthand perspective of the rigors of transitioning from college to the pros. As a fifth-year senior, she helped lead the Fighting Irish to their first national championship in 2001 while averaging 21.2 points, 6.9 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game. She’s seventh in Notre Dame history in made 3-pointers (190), fourth in 3-point percentage (40.5%), fourth in total assists (747) and second in total steals (348).

Her decorated résumé and extensive experience in collegiate recruiting and player development made her an ideal fit for a young Grizzlies team. Morant, who tallied 33 points and 10 assists to lead Memphis to a win Sunday, was a rookie during Ivey’s season with the franchise. (Michigan State alumnus Jaren Jackson Jr. was in his second season.)

“Her ability to connect with the guys was unbelievable,” Jenkins said. “Being in the women’s game for a long time, I didn’t have any doubt that she was going to come in. She was super successful as a player in college, coach in college, played in the WNBA. She knows the game, she can teach the game, and she just has this personality, this positively, where she’s got this ultimate care factor. I tried to surround myself with a lot of people that just care for others and care for players and invest in their craft. We only had her for one year, wish we could’ve had her for more. She left a huge imprint on our players and our staff because of that care factor, that investment in other people.”

“I just remember that she was super involved, super nice,” Jackson added after Sunday’s game. “But she knew her (expletive). You see where it got her. We always knew she knew her stuff because she was coming from basketball. She was super involved and we were lucky to have her.”

Through his mom, Jaden got a taste of the NBA while he was still a high schooler at La Lumiere in Indiana. He took advantage of his opportunity to learn from Morant, a player with whom he shares similarities. Both are elite downhill athletes who rise quickly for dunks. Both thrive with the ball in their hands. Morant’s game was, and is, a model for Ivey to follow.

Morant’s pregame routine typically involved him talking to Niele while sitting on the sideline, about the upcoming game or anything else. They forged a close bond. It trickled down to Jaden, who would sit and talk to Morant for hours whenever he was able to make the trip to Memphis to watch the Grizzlies play or practice.

Ivey has gotten off to an encouraging start to his rookie season, averaging 15.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game. His early success isn’t a surprise to the Grizzlies who got to know him and his mom. Like Morant before him, Ivey is still adjusting to the increased pace and physicality of the NBA. He had rookie moments on Sunday, finishing with 10 points and six rebounds on 2-for-9 shooting.

Jenkins and Jackson both saw Ivey’s success coming from afar.

“With her and Memphis, my very first year, unbelievable coach, and then having Jaden pop around every now and then, he was at school at the time before he went off to Purdue,” Jenkins said. “We got to see him off and on every now and then, but not a whole lot. But just got to learn from her the type of person that he was. We would sit and just talk about his unique journey growing up as a player. But as a person, how humble he is, how much of a hard worker he is and then you get to see him from afar when he goes to Purdue, the stellar two years he has and then obviously a top-five pick.

“He always had confidence and he always told me he was going to be the best,” Jackson added. “He definitely was about it.”

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