For coach Cori Close, success or failure in the game of basketball comes down to a simple choice. Either you give everything needed to succeed, or you watch somebody else celebrate.
This is the message that Close is delivering to the UCLA women’s basketball team.
It’s why Close is on the road, recruiting, right now. It’s why she’s the last one at practice, cleaning up trash, putting equipment away.
“We want to cure the disease of “˜me,’ and we want to produce givers and not takers,” Close said.
It’s a message of unselfish play, of passing the ball, helping your teammates, giving your all. But that’s not exactly the full story.
For Close, the story here isn’t one simply of basketball ““ it’s a story of life and of character, of being a complete person.
“I just don’t believe excellence and giving and self-sacrificing is a trait that you turn on and off,” Close said.
“It’s a character thing that’s inside you, and the more we build that from the inside, it comes out. And thankfully, it comes out on the basketball court as well as other areas of their lives.”
In the world of college sports, a coach whose focus is wider than winning is a bit of a rarity. And that is exactly the way Close and her staff want it to be.
“Our theme is being uncommon,” Close said. “I want to build this program by making uncommon choices with uncommon women and yielding an uncommon result.”
So often, Division I athletics is a business, an industry of wins, championships and money. Modern college football and basketball are the standard bearers of this trend, and the Olympic sports follow suit.
By those standards, UCLA is the picture of success, currently pacing the field with 108 NCAA championships.
But UCLA has another standard of success, one set by the great John Wooden. Every coach who works at UCLA answers to his legacy, which is considerable ““ Wooden won 10 championships at the helm of UCLA basketball.
Yet, when his players speak, it is not of the banners and wins; it’s about the man they are because of Coach.
“John Vallely comes into my office. He says, “˜I’m a better husband because of what coach Wooden taught me; I’ve started several successful businesses because of what coach Wooden taught me,’” Close said.
“Yes, he was a point guard on championship teams, yes he played in the NBA. But he never mentioned that one time. He talked about the man he was. … Really, at my core, that’s what I want people to say about our program in 10 years.”
It’s the style of basketball, of coaching, that Close has learned all the way up the ladder, starting in her playing days. Her coaches, and then her bosses, and even Wooden himself, all believed in and taught her this brand of basketball.
It’s a philosophy that has been formed deep within the center of Close’s personality.
But when programs start talking about building better people, about creating student-athletes, about personal development and growth, the naysayers are quick to rush in.
It’s an excuse for lack of wins, they say. A diversion from the lack of on-court success, they cry.
With Close, though, it’s exceedingly clear that her talk of character and integrity is no false front. It’s simply who she is. The character of giving and self-sacrifice is not some curriculum she has devised to present to her team.
As the players are quick to acknowledge, Close puts these principles on display every day.
“I think any coach who expects something from their team has to demonstrate it themselves, and I think coach Cori has done a great job of that,” said senior guard Rebekah Gardner.
Freshman forward Kacy Swain had similar feelings.
“She always tells us, “˜Be thankful, clean up after yourself, be positive,’” Swain said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a day where she’s not in practice smiling and just being positive towards everyone, trying to make everyone better.”
Assistant coach Shannon Perry is quick to point out as well, that a focus on character growth does not preclude excellent basketball coaching. In fact, Perry said, the two go hand in hand.
“She wants the team to be about each other, that’s the biggest thing,” Perry said.
“The key message is work hard all the time and be there for each other. Everything she’s saying is all bound up in that. … It’s a team sport, so her philosophy enters the court. It is about the court, at the end of the day.”
It hasn’t been an instant transformation for this team. The team hasn’t suddenly become a group of utterly selfless individuals who have no thoughts of self, only of team.
But they’re getting there, the coaches say, and the players are beginning to see how the off-court philosophy translates into on-court details.
“It has to do with us having each others’ back, she talks about that a lot,” said sophomore guard Thea Lemberger.
“Us playing as a team, doing stuff for each other and making the right choices. She thinks that making the right choices off the court directly correlates to making the right choices on the court. That would be going the extra mile to help your teammate out when you’re exhausted, they’re exhausted, but doing it for them.”
This season has not gone as smoothly as all parties involved would like, by any stretch of the imagination. The season started with a pair of devastating injuries.
Senior forward Jasmine Dixon, done for the season before it even began; her replacement, redshirt junior forward Atonye Nyingifa, went out with an ACL tear in December, before conference play began.
The team is currently floating at .500 and has only the slimmest of hopes of making the NCAA tournament.
Adding to all that, this is a new staff.
After former coach Nikki Caldwell took the same position at LSU last April, UCLA had to rebuild its staff. And whenever a new coach comes in, there is an adjustment period.
But that’s alright. This isn’t a dream season, no.
But Close is okay with that, as long as there is growth, both on the court and off the court.
If she can get her team to make the choice to give everything they possess to those around them, then it won’t just be a story of winning basketball.