On The Court With Basketball Great Jennifer Azzi

By Shelley Alingas

At five feet eight inches, you would never guess that Jennifer Lynn Azzi was once a star point guard in the WNBA, medaling in seven international competitions for the USA national team. Or that she won gold at the 1994 Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg and the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. Or that, over the course of her career, she played 141 WNBA games for 4,889 minutes and set the single-season record for three-point percentage (.517) in 2002.

One of the best basketball players of her generation, Azzi can trace her career back to age 4, when — while still in nursery school — she picked up a basketball for the first time and fell in love.

“It didn’t hurt growing up in Pat Summitt’s backyard,” Azzi says, referring to the former head coach for the women’s basketball team at the University of Tennessee, located in her hometown of Oak Ridge. During her revered coaching tenure, Summitt never saw a losing season; Sporting News even named her one of the 50 Greatest Coaches of All Time — in any sport.

“Because girls’ basketball was pretty big from a young age, I was able to start in organized leagues in the first grade,” Azzi says. Eventually, she would lead her junior high team to a perfect record and win the state championship her senior year. Not surprisingly, colleges soon came calling.

“I remember the first letter I got from Stanford and [my father] just said, ‘Jennifer, you got a letter from Stanford University. Can you believe it?’ I said, ‘Where’s Stanford?”

At the time, Stanford was a losing program. But during a home-game loss during her freshman year, head coach Tara VanDerveer asked Azzi to buy into an ambitious vision: a sold-out stadium, cheering fans, and a national championship title. Initially skeptical, the young Azzi eventually embraced VanDerveer’s mission, and by her senior year in 1990, she’d helped the team win the NCAA women’s basketball national championship — the first in Stanford history.

In an interview about the fateful game against Auburn University that clinched the title, Azzi told an NCAA interviewer, “It was like magic. It happened, and it was supposed to happen.”

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Twenty-five years later, at her first coaching job as the head coach of University of San Francisco’s women’s basketball, she’s hoping some of that magic will rub off.

Steering a team that hasn’t seen the NCAA tournament since 1997 to become a winning program has come with challenges: “You have to be willing to go through the tough times in order to build something, in order to be successful,” Azzi points out.

In War Memorial Gym, Azzi directs her team like a sea captain overseeing the crew of a well-oiled ship. If necessary, she’ll take the helm, but it’s always without ego. Atypically for a head coach, Azzi’s speech is soft. There’s no need to yell, because when her mouth opens, her team instantly falls silent, ready to heed her command.

Azzi’s not only there to teach the next generation of basketball players, but also the next generation of women.

“When you’re a college coach, its about far more than just basketball,” Azzi says. “I think it’s a no-brainer that women should be in sports — coaching sports, playing sports. There are so many great things about playing sports: being part of team, goal setting, achieving, being physically conditioned.”

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Not long ago, Azzi’s career, and the fledgling careers of her disciples, may not have been possible. Before Title IX — the federal law barring discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs — was enacted in 1972, there were about 310,000 girls and women in America playing high school and college sports. Today, that figure is closer to 3.5 million.

In the mid-90s, Azzi played a key role in challenging basketball’s gender gap when she co-founded the all-women American Basketball League (ABL) before it dissolved in the shadow of the WNBA. Now one of her own, USF senior Taylor Proctor, has a strong chance to play professional basketball overseas.

Says Azzi:

“I feel really lucky to have been part of that because when I was growing up, you didn’t have opportunities to play here in the United States, professionally. So to have been part of helping to create that is something I’m — and our whole generation is — very proud of.”

When not coaching, Azzi also leads the Azzi Camp, which she launched in 2008 at Tamalpais High School in Marin County in California. The camp — which aims to educate and inspire aspiring basketball players between the ages of 6 and 13 — has since expanded into San Francisco, and will go into its eighth season next year. “I think it’s very important to help other people get to where they want to go in life. That motivates me,” Azzi says.

As for her own career, in 2009, Azzi found herself just 25 miles outside her hometown of Oak Ridge, in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, not far from where she first picked up a ball at age 4, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Summit would be proud . . . just as Azzi will be of the next generation of women that she coaches to greatness.

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