SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Practice was over at Notre Dame. The coming weekend would be busy for the Irish women’s basketball team with a trip to Connecticut to play the No. 2 Huskies, but the coach still had late-night traveling to do.
First, she stopped by her office. The one with all the pictures of her son. There he is as a baby. Another one when he was maybe 6 years old. Another as a teenager. Then she headed for the car. It was just before 5 p.m. The Purdue men were playing against Iowa two hours away in West Lafayette, a victory would send them to No. 1 in the polls, and the vastly talented guard in the middle of it all for the Boilermakers was the same happy face in those pictures.
Niele Ivey had been the Notre Dame head coach all day, but now it was time to be a mother. The miles through the Friday night darkness did not matter. “Sometimes I’m very emotional about it,” she would say later. “I’ve struggled throughout the years, knowing I’m missing so much.” She got to Purdue’s Mackey Arena for the late tip-off, watched the kid in the picture score 19 points, waited around to share some words, then headed back to South Bend. She would not be home until 3 a.m.
“Sometimes I’m in awe of him,” she said of her son. “Every time I see him, he’s gotten better in some aspect of his game.”
Yeah, it was worth all the driving. It always is.
“I’m used to hopping in the car. I’m a road warrior.”
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This is a story about one woman in two worlds.
There is Niele Ivey, the Notre Damer for half her life. The star player who went 109-22 in her career with a national championship . . . then the assistant who was at Muffet McGraw’s side for a long and glorious ride . . . and now McGraw’s successor. The Irish have been to nine Final Fours in their history and Ivey has been around for all of them in one role or another.
“I love this university,” she was saying. “I feel like I’ve grown up here. A lot of my heart and soul goes into this program.”
There is also Niele Ivey, the mother of a Jaden. She can remember him as the child she took along on Notre Dame away games, firing away at the basket after Irish morning shootarounds. “Jaden, get on the bus,” she would finally have to tell him. “Coach McGraw is going to leave you.” She can remember his middle school years, when he was so determined to finally learn how to dunk, he put up a video camera and taped his futile attempts, to analyze what was going wrong. “I think he was trying to figure out all the mechanics of dunking,” she said.
Now he’s a college sophomore and the leading scorer for the No. 1 team in the land. He can dunk, all right. Lots of other things, too.
Can life get much better than this? Her second Notre Dame team is showing clear signs of growth, with a young roster and a 7-2 record. The Irish, coming off unusually difficult seasons of 13-18 and 10-10, started 5-0. Her son is a nationally blossoming star, for a team at the top of the polls. What a long road it has been from that time she was a WNBA rookie, scared to tell anyone she was pregnant because they might not let her play, and she needed the money for her baby.
Yeah, Ivey averaged 22 minutes a game for the Indiana Fever while pregnant. Jaden was on the court before he was out of the womb.
“To see him playing with so much joy, that’s my dream. As a mom, that’s all I’ve wanted,” she said. “For me as a coach, my goal is to just continue to trend and get better. Winning my first ACC/Big Ten Challenge, my first winning streak ... Everything is something first for me. So I celebrate everything.
“I just try to stay present and stay thankful, because I would never have imagined to be in this moment.”
Their journey together, mother and son, began in 2001. Niele had been drafted out of Notre Dame by the Fever. A WNBA rookie season would be challenging enough, and she was expecting a child. But no one could know. Back then, she mentioned, maternity leave meant a slash in salary.
“I was very tired obviously. I was holding this huge secret and that was hard,” Ivey said. “I was kind of emotional and scared. And physically it was just draining. Honestly, I should have documented that because I don’t know how I got through some of those practices and early-morning flights. I was just trying to survive. For me, surviving was getting through the summer and being able to financially take care of myself and him.”
Jaden was born Feb. 13, 2002. As a baby, he made road trips with the Fever, a big hit with the players. Later, when his mother returned to Notre Dame as an assistant, he was a familiar presence in the Irish camp. “It feels like it was yesterday he was sitting next to me on the bus,” she said.
Niele had her active child try several sports. Football, soccer, basketball. The last one became his love. His choice, not hers. “Because I’ve watched a lot of parents in the stands as a recruiter, I didn’t want to be the parent that was forcing him to play basketball. I wanted him to have a passion for something,” she said. “I was never the type that, hey, we have to go in the gym at 6 a.m. I always felt like I was wearing too many hats anyway — single mom, kind of mom and dad. I didn’t want to be coach as well.”
One day, she found herself screaming at him from the stands. “He’s like 6 years (old),” she said. “OK, I thought, I can’t be that parent. So I checked myself.”
Still, she had a lot of knowledge, and as her son grew older, he wanted to tap into that. Especially when she left Notre Dame temporarily to be an assistant for the Memphis Grizzlies. “Tell me everything,” her son said to her about the NBA.
The problem is, coaching sucks up the time. There were games Jaden played with no mother in the stands. When he lost a heartbreaking city tournament game in high school, Niele was crushed. “I was crying because I felt like he needed me and I wasn’t there, so that was hard,” she said.
Things are better now. The Purdue video folks have been helpful, getting her Boilermaker tapes if needed. Three vital letters for Niele Ivey are DVR. That allows her to follow every pass, shot and dribble of her son. Also, she has been able to slip away to see five games in person this season, though that will get harder during conference play.
“I think he’s conditioned to be OK if I’m not there, because I’ve missed a lot,” she said. “He knows even if I’m not there, I’m there in spirit. I’m praying for him or I’m sending someone to be there for me. He’s never said that to me, but I know it’s different when I’m there. Sometimes he’ll look at me in the stands and text me after the game. That game was for you. That’s what hurts me when I know I can’t make every game.”
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These days she is constantly hearing from former Notre Dame players and Fever teammates. They remember the little guy, too. Niele appreciates the irony. “It’s just so crazy it’s happened so fast, because he was the one in the stands cheering for them. Now he’s on the court and all the former players are texting me, 'I’m locked in, Purdue’s playing.’”
Mother and son share texts before each other’s games and talk often. When Purdue went to No. 1 this week, she sent Jaden a long message. She understands from her playing days the pressure of that spot. “I told him, 'You’re everybody’s Super Bowl now. Everybody’s trying to take down No. 1,’” she said. “I’ve been reminding him to stay locked in and stay hungry.”
Meanwhile, she tries to keep the momentum going for a Notre Dame team that has two freshmen and one sophomore among the four top scorers. Between the Irish sag in 2019-20, McGraw’s retirement and the constant uncertainties of the pandemic, it hasn’t been the easiest path for a woman in her first head coaching job, at the place she considers home.
“I have to tell myself that I have to trust the process still, too. That’s something I preach with my team. It’s going to take time,” she said. “I came in wanting to really build culture and wanted it to be my personality. It’s hard following a legend. I’m just trying to find a way to make my imprint on the program.
“I just want them to experience what I’ve experienced.”
So with the hot lights on Purdue now, which is it? Is he Niele’s son, or is she Jaden’s mother? “I am Jaden’s mom. I felt like when he was growing up, I was always Jaden’s mom,” she said. “It’s kind of funny now everyone’s starting to put the pieces together that we’re related. It allows him to be able to shine. So I get a chance to be in the background with him being in the forefront. And I like that.”
Once upon a time, they were playing games together in the backyard, Jaden never taking defeat from his mother lightly. “He hated losing. We’d play horse or pig and he hated losing. But then he got older and more athletic so then I stopped playing. He couldn’t take it,” she said. “I told him, 'I’m not going to play you 1-on-1. You’re going to get really mad and I don’t feel like dealing with that today.’
“He had to win every game we played.”
So far this season, he has. Mom has won most of hers, too.