Napheesa Collier Never Gave Up
How UConn's senior All-American channeled tough love from her coach and misunderstanding from her critics into superstardom, a WNBA future and another Final FourApril 5, 2019
She'd hear the word bellow out of coach Geno Auriemma at a practice, and she'd know she was about to get called out. Again. Another mistake.
And the worst part? She knew he was right.
She was playing too deferential. Too timid.
Napheesa Collier had a long way to go.
But that didn't mean it didn't kill the now-senior UConn forward to hear it from the team's legendary coach.
Auriemma knew how to press her buttons. How to mine more out of her. He'd dog her about stretching out of her comfort zone around the hoop, developing a mid-range game.
At one practice, he called her selfish when she failed to dive for a loose ball that was rolling out of bounds.
And he'd yell these generalizations.
"Phee, you don't ever get a rebound!"
"Phee, you never stop the ball!"
Collier wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing he got under her skin, though. She burned to prove him wrong.
Gabby Williams, who was a year ahead of Collier at UConn, remembers how rough it was. "I've watched Phee get pushed to the point where she just didn't think it was possible to go any harder," says Williams, who's now on the WNBA's Chicago Sky. "They were asking her to do things that she just didn't think she was capable of doing."
Like the 11-man drill, a continuous 3-on-2 full-court exercise that is one of the toughest in practice. Players are running faster than they can breathe. There is no stopping. Only passing and cutting and scoring.
Williams pulled Collier aside at one point, telling her: "It's gonna be hard. You're gonna be tired no matter what. It's how you approach it, mentally."
"It's not for everyone," Williams says now. "But everyone doesn't have 11 national championships."
And Collier wanted one of her own.
So she didn't break.
The freshman who had so far to go turned herself into one of the top scorers and rebounders in the program's history—and has it two wins away from a 12th national championship.
She also turned herself into a player who will hear her name announced near the top of the WNBA draft on April 10 and has earned praise from some of the sport's top stars.
"I love the fact that she can put the ball on the floor and that she can stretch the floor," two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker tells B/R. "She plays bigger than she is. That's the type of game coming into the WNBA that will translate, because that's where the WNBA is now. It's positionless.
"Obviously, I'm in no way a Connecticut fan, but I'm a Phee fan because I know how much work she puts in."
To come this far, Collier had to.
"It was about believing in myself..." Collier says. "It was about trusting myself and knowing that I know how to play, I'm here for a reason, and I need to start proving that to myself."
As a young girl, Collier used to fall down often. On sidewalks, on basketball courts. She was so tall and stretchy, she'd trip on her toes all of a sudden and stumble to the ground, her long legs tangled underneath her.
"Oh, there's that line monster!" her mother, Sarah, would joke. "The line monster got you again!"
And lines weren't the only thing coming for Collier.
She was constantly the subject of hard fouls from opposing players. She'd leave games with fingernail marks trailing up and down her arms. She'd head-fake and bang her way to the basket, and someone would snatch the scrunchie off her ponytail.
That is, when teams finally let her play. Sarah and Napheesa's father, Gamal, couldn't find a team that would give third-grade Napheesa a chance in Jefferson City, Missouri. "We already have too many girls," coaches would say. "We just don't have any room."
Not one spot? Not even for a girl who already had a natural instinct for where the ball was and where it would be? Nope. But when a team finally did give her a jersey, she proved to be a force. She just flew. Grabbing rebounds, running the floor. "She was blocking shots, getting deflections, just everywhere," says Kay Foster, her former youth coach with the Missouri Lady Warriors. "You can't teach that."
Not that basketball was everything to her. Mom and Dad made sure of that. "We didn't want our kids to think that a sport defined them," Sarah says. So before games, you could find Napheesa curled up in a corner with a mystery novel from her favorite author, Ruth Ware.
But when the game started, she gave everything. "She never needed to talk about it," says Dan Rolfes, her high school coach at Incarnate Word Academy in St. Louis. "She just led by example."
Once, her coach on the Missouri Phenom club team, Reggie Middlebrook, told her that scouts were coming to see her for a two-day showcase in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but that she only needed to play one of the days. He didn't want her to get injured.
"Well, I want to play both days," Collier told him.
Middlebrook allowed it but under one condition: no diving for loose balls. Two minutes into the first game she played in the showcase, an errant pass flew, and Collier dove for it. She had to. "What did we just talk about?!" Middlebrook screamed. Gamal laughed and yelled out from the stands: "She doesn't know how to turn that switch off! You're gonna have to take her out of the game if you don't want her doing that!" Middlebrook subbed her out.
"I've had kids that worked hard," Middlebrook says. "But nobody like Pheesa.'"
Her parents taught her that. Boasting was forbidden. Probably the closest she has come to talking smack was heading into sixth grade, playing against a team of soon-to-be high schoolers. Collier dove for a loose ball with another girl. The girl yelled a few curse words at her, finishing with: "Get off me!"
Little Collier got back up, put her hand on her hip and looked over her shoulder at the girl, giving her a little hip shake: "Make me!"
It was one of the proudest moments of her young life.
Other than that, she stayed even-keeled. She's always been soft-spoken but direct. Calm. It's a demeanor that has often been misunderstood, labeled not assertive enough. Not fierce enough.
"Mom, my teammates don't get me," she'd say as a young girl. "They just don't get me. They don't know I'm funny!"
And she was kind. In high school, she once turned down a wide-open layup to kick the ball out to a teammate at the three-point line because the teammate was on the cusp of the 1,000-point mark. "If someone on the other team fell," says her brother, Kai, "she tried to pick them up."
Gamal started telling Napheesa when she was about 15 that every time she steps on the floor, she makes an impression. People will form opinions about her by the way she plays and the way she carries herself upon first meeting her.
"So, what do you want your story to be?" he said.
"You write your story, your legacy. So, how do you want it to be?"
Collier wasn't sure. Not yet.
Collier was deferring. Overpassing, overthinking. She was a freshman at UConn, exhausted from conditioning, from weights, having never lifted before. She was barely able to hobble up the steep steps around campus after practice.
Every day, she was just trying to survive.
Then there was Breanna Stewart, a senior who never seemed to tire. She was so dominant, so poised, she already looked like a WNBA MVP. So during the first few weeks of practice, Collier fed Stewart the ball on most occasions, instinctively looking to dish before even squaring up and taking a peek at the rim to see if there was an opportunity for herself.
Sometimes she'd forget the plays, concerned with where she needed to be instead of just being. The Huskies offense isn't designed for specific plans. It's an outline that breeds creativity and requires intelligence. Make the right reads and you'll succeed. But Collier came in more structural than spontaneous. In high school, most plays on her team were diagrammed.
"The talent was there," says Marisa Moseley, a former Huskies assistant coach who is now the head coach at Boston University. "There was never a time when she wasn't trying to beat her opponent down the floor and get a bucket."
"She's got that killer instinct in her," says former teammate Azura Stevens, who's now with the WNBA's Dallas Wings.
But Collier's confidence dropped. Sometimes she didn't feel like she belonged. She wanted to be coached, though. Always has. As a second-grader, she came home from soccer practice one day, frustrated: "Mom, Coach kept telling everybody, 'Good job, good job,'" she said. "But nobody was doing a good job!"
Just like Collier knew she was not doing a good job early on at UConn.
And she knew she'd hear about it. She didn't think of transferring. Not when her parents had one rule in their household: that Napheesa and her siblings, Kai and Wanza, weren't allowed to say It's not fair or It's not my fault.
Collier, like any first-year player, was trying to fit in. To earn her place. To be respectful. "She just thought, I'm here to be a teammate—not understanding that, you know, you gotta cut everybody's throat," Gamal says.
Auriemma made sure she learned the lesson, challenging her to play better defense, be more physical, get in better shape.
It was, in Gamal's view, "brutal."
After that freshman year, Collier was sure of one thing: "I never wanted to feel like this again."
No more second-guessing. Collier was going to fight for a starting spot. "She played with a ton of heart," says Kia Nurse, her former roommate, who's now with the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
Collier trained twice a day that summer with Alex Bazzell, who also trains Parker and Atlanta Hawks rookie star Trae Young. The first sessions began at 6 a.m. Stepping outside of the paint, she developed a soft touch. Over and over, she labored on her footwork.
Collier would compete against three men's college players in a grueling drill where one would throw the ball off the glass and she would battle the other two for the rebound. Then the two players would smother her and she'd have to beat them to half court. Then it was the third player's turn to guard her one-on-one down on the other end of the floor. She'd have to score 10 times total. Up and down the floor, she'd have to push through exhaustion while finding ways to change her pace and handle the ball under pressure.
She hated it, but she didn't stop.
"Her level of consistency is something I haven't seen," Bazzell says. "She's never had a bad workout. She never just goes through the motions. I've never seen that from anyone."
Collier came into her sophomore season much improved, but again, the coaching staff challenged her. The Huskies were doing a rebounding drill when Collier failed to box out a male practice player. "That's why you aren't going to play this year. That's why you'll never play," Collier remembers Auriemma saying to her.
OK, OK. I'm going to show you, she thought. The male practice player didn't get another board over her for the rest of practice. Or for the next few practices.
Then, one day, Collier went into Auriemma's office. He told her she was a good player. Coach thinks I'm good? Me?
"But," Auriemma said, "if you do these things, you could be a great player."
He told her she needed to continue to expand her game to mid-range and three-point range and improve her ball-handling.
After that, she began to trust her instincts. And she shined, leading the team in scoring (20.4 points per game) and rebounding (9.1 per game) as a sophomore while shooting a blistering 67.8 percent. She was named a first-team All-American, but for the first time in five seasons, UConn didn't win a national championship. The Huskies lost to Mississippi State in the Final Four.
Collier continued to be asked about her demeanor all the while. Why are you so quiet? Why are you so calm? People didn't see her for what she is: goofy and outgoing, always playing pranks, like hiding behind basketballs and then screaming to scare her UConn teammates. Some spectators said she didn't have emotions, didn't have personality.
They still say those things. Every comment hurts. It's that familiar, painful feeling she felt as a young girl of not being understood.
"That makes me so mad," Collier says. She'd feel pulled to defend herself, to explain that it makes no sense for her to show her opponent she's frustrated by losing her composure, or to celebrate when she makes a key basket, either.
"You don't run around and boast when you pay a bill or make a deadline," Gamal would tell her as a girl. "That's just what you're supposed to do."
It didn't help that her stats dipped a bit last season as a junior (16.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, 58.3 percent shooting), though she remained a vocal leader of the team. She was playing a new position on the perimeter, something she had never done before, and felt unsure of herself.
And the way the season ended definitely didn't help.
The thoughts still sometimes flood her mind when she thinks of The Shot—the game-winning jumper Arike Ogunbowale hit over her last March to lift Notre Dame past UConn in the Final Four.
If only I had counted down the shot clock. If only I had gotten closer. Just a little bit closer. If only I wasn't so wary of a drive. Of an easy layup. Of failing to close out. If only... If only... If only...
In that moment, Collier felt what anyone who has ever loved basketball has felt: the need to have a do-over, to turn back time. But she couldn't.
She could only try to move past it.
And skate. With her entire team.
A week after the loss, the Huskies went to Ron-A-Roll, a roller-skating rink about 20 minutes from campus. She had a choice: She could continue to wallow, to blame herself, to mourn her team falling short for the second straight season, or she could whirl past all of it. At least for a few hours.
Collier laced up the white laces of her tan skates and began to pump her arms, her legs. Faster. Around and around, she zipped across the rink, settling into a groove. A smile broke through. More laps. Then laughs. Everyone kept falling down. Twice. Three times. Five times. Collier was one of the more graceful players, but she too wiped out.
Each time, players picked each other up, laughing harder. They didn't have to think about what critics were saying: UConn's lost it. They're just not the same. Is this an end of an era?
No. Collier wouldn't allow that to happen. Not after all she's been through.
She showed up her senior season back to All-American form, averaging 21.2 points and 10.8 rebounds. You can see why the WNBA is so excited about her. She has become the most consistent player in women's college basketball. She blocks shots and defends players much taller than her 6'2" frame. Her fadeaway is automatic. And she can face up or step out, too.
"She does a little bit of everything and does it every day, every game, every time we're on the floor," says Chris Dailey, UConn's associate head coach.
Still, as if Collier needed the extra motivation, she was not named a finalist for the Naismith Trophy as a senior—and UConn received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament despite a 31-2 regular season that included a win over Notre Dame, which did receive a No. 1.
"That lit a fire within us. We were so confused and shocked by the No. 2 seed, not really understanding where it came from," Collier says. "I think we do still definitely feel disrespected. So, I mean, watch out, I guess."
She's using the tournament to right all wrongs, averaging 21.8 points and 13.3 rebounds per game and helping the Huskies earn a remarkable 12th straight trip to the Final Four after an 80-73 win over top-seeded Louisville on Sunday.
In the waning seconds of the Louisville win, she broke from her normally reserved on-court demeanor, flashing a smile as she jogged back to UConn's huddle. She couldn't help it. The basketball gods had just given her a friendly roll on two crucial free throws.
Dailey wasn't having it, though, shouting, "The game's not over!"
Collier quickly wiped the smile off her face, but her mother, Sarah, knew the jubilance wasn't all the way gone. "She was still smiling on the inside," Sarah says.
This Collier, the one who knows who she is and what she can do, isn't the one who showed up in Storrs four years ago.
So when she is asked yet again why she is the way she is, by reporters leading up to the Final Four, she takes a deep breath. "I can't control what people think about me or how they see me," Collier says.
Then she remembers why she's here.
"No matter what people say, I definitely wouldn't change how I play," Collier says. "I didn't come here to get individual awards. I came here to win championships."
That's what she wants her story to be.
Mirin Fader is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.