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A special mother-and-son bond, built on basketball

Shaped by the women in his life, Detroit rookie Jaden Ivey is the NBA player he was always meant to be.

Jaden and Niele Ivey attend a Grizzlies game during the 2021-22 season.

Jaden Ivey just finished his rookie season, showing all the vitals for stardom someday. There was the ability to shoot and finish, a firm command of the floor, a shifty change of speed and direction, and a craving to compete. The Detroit Pistons, fingers crossed, suspect they’re set at his guard position for the next decade.

While it was robust, it was not the most wondrous or important rookie season in his own family. No, there’s no way Jaden could have matched that unless he broke into the league and defied all biological probability and played his entire rookie season carrying a child, not in his actual hands, mind you. That would not only make him rookie of the year, but of all time.

As it were, right about this time 22 years ago, Niele Ivey held a child, and a secret. She was more than a month into a pregnancy at age 23, unsure about the future, and those emotions were doubled. Because not only did she get the news midway through her rookie season with the Indiana Fever in this ambitious league called the WNBA, she also had to proceed, let’s just say, very carefully … and silently.

“It was a dream come true being drafted, then later finding out I was pregnant, that was a challenge to navigate being a young mother,” she said. “I just had a lot of worries and anxiety from that, not knowing what it would mean for my career, would I be able to come back, all that.

A photo of Jaden Ivey is on prominent display in Niele Ivey’s locker in 2002.

“So some of the challenge was being able to perform pregnant. It was a secret that I didn’t express with my coaches because I wanted to finish the season. Feeling scared and nervous, I carried all that throughout the summer.”

It was only the second year for the Fever franchise, where players were new to each other, so what better way to develop and identify friendships than seeing if you could confide in them? In that sense, it didn’t matter the profession. Whether they were lawyers, beauticians, physicians or teachers, when women can gather and discuss that subject that’s unique only to them, the bond is instant.

From Rita Williams to Alicia Thompson to Stephanie McCarty — and the team’s designated savior, the great Tamika Catchings, who was drafted 16 spots ahead of Ivey — the Fever became an extended family to someone about to start one of her own.

“I was excited for her,” Catchings said, “and she already knew that she had us to rely on as teammates.”

Ivey pushed forward. That WNBA season was 32 games, June to mid-August, a blessing for a player on an eight-month clock. She was a clever 5-foot-7 point guard with a sweet 3-pointer who led Notre Dame to the national championship that spring and was an All-American selection. With the Fever, Ivey finished second in assists as a trusty rotational player, but her most impressive contribution? She played all 32 games.

No maternity leave.

Because for true hoopers, no matter the gender, the desire to play is that strong, and in hindsight it worked out exactly the way the basketball gods drew it up. Given the circumstances, the son she delivered next spring was destined to dribble … on the bib, and on the court.

“He was on the court his whole life, literally, even before I gave birth,” Niele Ivey said. “For him to be a pro basketball player? I couldn’t have imagined it, but it sounds like it was meant to be.”

It takes a basketball village

Tamika Catchings holds Jaden Ivey at Fever practice in 2002.

In Jaden Ivey’s rookie year, 28 players on NBA rosters had fathers who also played at the highest level, and two others had mothers who did the same: JaVale McGee, son of Pam, who had him while playing professionally overseas just before the WNBA launched in 1997; and Jaden, son of Niele (pronounced knee-elle).

She raised him as a single mother, which is not to say she went through it alone.

“If I wasn’t holding him, Tamika Catchings had him,” Niele says. “He was at practice, and the manager was holding him. I had him everywhere with me. I was able to travel with him when he was a baby, and my teammates and I were always together. He had a lot of `aunties.’ He was raised by a village of strong women.”

Such is the difference between Jaden and his fellow NBA players: His early basketball idols were women. They were constantly talking to him, cradling him, keeping a watchful eye on him.

“Jaden was all of our `baby,’ so he was a part of our team just as much as she was,” said Catchings.

And this arrangement continued after his mother left the WNBA and took an assistant’s job back at Notre Dame in 2007. He was simply passed along from Catchings to Skylar Diggins-Smith. It was a surreal early basketball exposure for a young boy. Not until years later did he comprehend it, but he always appreciated it.

“If you’re a basketball fan and love the game, you look up to the men and the women’s game,” he said. “That’s how it is. I grew up in that environment and looked up to those players, the powerful Black women who play the game. It was a joy to be able to be in their presence, to get the love of the game from them.”

The WNBA teammates that Niele Ivey had and the college players she coached at Notre Dame served as the second layer for Jaden. She was the first, and as a player and then coach, her basketball influence was understandably strongest.

Niele Ivey holds Jaden at Fever practice in 2002.

As a result, Jaden Ivey the NBA player is polished and in some ways better prepared for the league and its lifestyle than most rookies.

“I learned about the game being around her, every day, going to the gym, how to work, how to study, learned all that from her,” he said.

But it went deeper than basketball, because parenting is always more than that. This was a mother and son on a life journey together, helping each other make the trip.

“It was Jaden and I, him being with me at work and me supporting him with all of his activities, school and sports,” she said. “Two peas in a pod, always together. We’re kind of attached that way, which is such a beautiful thing. A strong bond. He was a really great kid and I was always so proud and blessed to be his mom. He was definitely my heart. We grew up together, him being a young kid and me being a young mom.”

Jaden’s limbs flow with athletic genes. His grandfather, James Hunter, was a star for the Detroit Lions in the late 1970s and had 27 career interceptions. His father, Javin Hunter, was a receiver at Notre Dame (where he met Niele) and drafted into the NFL, where he played briefly.

Jaden did try football, at his father’s suggestion, splitting time with basketball, and didn’t choose one over the other until he reached high school.

“When I first got him in a gym, it was, let’s work on your layups,” his mother and first coach said. “It took a while for him to respect what I was saying. I think it was because I was mom, and kids say, `Aw mom.’ He gave me a bit of a hard time initially. Then he started getting serious about the game right around when he was 10 or 11 and that’s when I thought he turned the corner. All of a sudden it was, `Mom, can you help me with this? Can I come to the gym with you when you work out the girls?’ I said wow, he’s really serious.”

While Jaden Ivey was in high school, Niele was an assistant coach with Notre Dame and the Memphis Grizzlies.

Jaden’s talent soared in high school and up the recruiting rankings. At the same time, his mother’s basketball career took an unexpected and meaningful turn: She was offered an assistant coach’s job with the Memphis Grizzlies right before Jaden’s senior year. She said the decision to accept it was “a leap of faith” not made without deep thought, because Jaden stayed behind and attended an Indiana prep school. For the first time, mother and son were apart.

Taylor Jenkins, the Grizzlies’ coach, said Niele was a natural, raved about her hoop experience and mainly “her ability to connect with the players,” meaning, for the first time in her career, male players.

She especially drew close to Ja Morant — a rookie then — and to Jaren Jackson Jr.

“She was great with her scouting reports, knew the Xs and Os, and I knew right away she’d be a head coach soon enough,” Jackson said. “She was ready for this, built for this.”

Niele Ivey coaches then-Grizzlies forward Jae Crowder in 2019.

That opportunity happened quickly. Ivey’s taste of the NBA lasted one season, because in 2020 she replaced longtime Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who retired. And so far, in Ivey’s three years on the job, Notre Dame has reached the Sweet 16 twice.

Niele Ivey paid just as much attention to Purdue games; that’s where Jaden went to college. And like his mother’s time in Memphis, his stay was brief — two years on campus and then off to the 2022 NBA Draft, chosen fifth by the Pistons.

“That was surreal because I watched the draft so many years,” she said. “Being there last summer, seeing him shake the commissioner’s hand, hearing his name being called, I thought I was going to break down and cry but my emotions changed quickly to love and gratitude.”

Still pushing each other

Niele Ivey and Notre Dame celebrate during the closing seconds of a win in 2022.

To answer everyone’s obvious question: Yes, the mother still gives basketball advice to a son who was the third-leading rookie scorer last season at 16.3 points per game.

“She watches every game, gives me things that can help me improve,” Jaden said. “That’s why we have that special bond. It’s destiny to be able to have a coach for a mom. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she gives me room and lets me grow, but I always ask her things I need to improve on. She sees the game, knows the game, coached at the highest level.”

Watch a special Q&A between Niele and Jaden Ivey.

That said, Niele Ivey suspects the basketball maturity of her son, from opening night to Game No. 82, was more on his own.

“I thought he really adjusted to the rigors of the schedule, the expectations, the pressures,” she said. “His progression was amazing to watch. I come from a coaching perspective but also a parent’s perspective. I try to be positive and encouraging. When he was younger I was always hanging on the edge of my seat. I’m happy that I’ve matured since then and can sit back and enjoy a little more, now that he’s a professional.”

The impact that mother and son have had on each other’s destination is evident. Niele Ivey juggled motherhood, playing and coaching and aced all those challenges to hold one of the top jobs in college basketball. Jaden Ivey is already a core piece of the Pistons’ redevelopment plan, a 6-foot-4 combo guard who demanded and earned respect among his peers in short time.

Two-year-old Jaden Ivey shoots a basket alongside his mother in 2004.

Tamika Catchings said: “It’s pretty awesome to think back to little Jaden and to see where he is now. One thing that has always been so cool through his journey is how much he studied the game and worked so hard. Jaden was always in the gym. He’s set his mind on this for a long time.

“I’m proud of Niele and how she handled her journey as a professional basketball player early on to where she is today. To watch the shift from her focus on herself and her career to her child before any and everything was amazing.”

Yes, the difference between Niele Ivey and other mothers of NBA players is the degree to which she was hands-on. How many can say they taught their son the advantages of dribbling with the left and the right hand, sold him on the value of the pump fake, taught him the toughness required for defense and showed him the proper shooting form? All that, and how to treat women, who surrounded him his entire life?

This Mother’s Day, his first as an NBA player, gives Jaden Ivey plenty of reasons to reflect.

“This is why I’m able to live my life and play the game I love,” he said. “I found that because of her.”

Jaden and Niele Ivey pose for a photo in 2004.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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