Aug 12, 2013
by Chris Masters (Associate Athletic Media Relations Director)
MADRID -- Monday was a day reserved for memories for the Notre Dame women's basketball team. As the Fighting Irish travel party fanned out on various sightseeing and entertainment side trips around Madrid before reconvening for a farewell dinner that night, it was all about creating those last few moments with teammates, friends and colleagues that these 40 people will be able to share for days, months and years to come.
For two members of the Notre Dame group, the trip has brought back memories of a previous visit to Spain during their respective playing days. Back in 1992, associate head coach Carol Owens was in the second season of her professional career as she suited up for a team in the city of Vigo, located in northwest Spain, where she would play for one season, the middle portion of a three-year pro run for Owens before she entered the coaching ranks.
"I've been very fortunate to play and coach in many different places around the world, but Spain was one of the most memorable of my career," Owens said. "I still remember a lot about the city, the people, the culture and it was an important factor in developing me into the person I am."
Assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Niele Ivey enjoyed a similar opportunity to play in Spain in 2005, coming to the northeast Spanish city of Zaragoza, likewise playing one season (her only overseas campaign) during the latter stages of her five-year professional career that was contested largely on the domestic front in the WNBA and ultimately led to her transition into coaching.
"Spain actually is a lot like it was when I played here, with the shops, the narrow side streets, the people and the architecture," Ivey said. "Sure there are some things that have changed, but when we got to Barcelona and then here to Madrid, it brought back a lot of memories from when I was a player. That's what makes Spain such a great country -- there's so much history and it comes out in everything that you see on a daily basis around here."
Owens was not far removed from a standout career at Northern Illinois University, graduating in 1990 and twice earning All-America honors while finishing as the school's all-time leading scorer and record holder in 13 career categories, as well as the first player of either gender to register 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career. However, at that time, the WNBA did not exist and playing overseas was the next best option for a player of Owens' caliber. So, after a season in Japan, the Chicago native opted to sign a contract with her Spanish club and ventured to the Iberian Peninsula.
"Basketball in Europe, particularly in Spain, has always been and continues to be very good," she said. "It was a great opportunity to keep playing, getting better, and doing something I loved. As it turned out, it was also important in my personal growth, because it taught me how to think and live for myself. I was dropped into a city where I didn't know the language and it was up to me to figure out how to not only communicate, but survive and thrive in a foreign land. That really matures you in a hurry."
As is often the case with Americans on foreign clubs, Owens proved to be the focal point of her team's success, averaging 24.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per game with a .651 field goal percentage while helping Vigo reach the EuroCup.
Ivey's choice was much different, as the former Notre Dame All-American, the school's all-time leader in assists and steals and the point guard on Notre Dame's 2001 national champion already had four seasons of WNBA experience under her belt, most significantly helping the Indiana Fever to their first-ever playoff berth. She also was learning to manage as a single mother, with her son Jaden having been born only three years earlier. However, as she soon discovered, playing overseas was one of the best decisions Ivey ever made.
"I already had to grow up pretty quickly with Jaden, but then taking him along on the move to Spain was an added challenge," she said. "It was not easy to adjust and the best comparison I can make is to what they show in the movie `Love and Basketball'. You're all alone in a strange city, not knowing the culture, the people, speaking a strange language, and wondering how in the world you're going to make it. So you learn and you mature quickly -- I was able to enroll Jaden in a Spanish immersion school and even to this day, we both look back on that year as one of the highlights of our lives."
Ivey achieved more modest success during her one season in Spain, averaging 5.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game while proving to be a solid inside-outside tandem with former Michigan State forward (and Indiana Fever teammate) Kristen Rasmussen.
While both Owens and Ivey only spent one season each in Spain, it was a year that would prove vital to their future development and a friendship that now stretches nearly two decades. After one more pro year (Owens in Italy, Ivey with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and Detroit Shock), each elected to turn their focus to coaching. Owens served two seasons on the staff at Michigan before being hired by Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw in 1995. One of Owens' first tasks as an assistant coach with the Fighting Irish was the recruitment of a rising standout point guard from St. Louis named Niele Ivey.
After Owens and Ivey enjoyed a five-year stretch as coach and player (Ivey missed the majority of the program's 1996-97 Final Four season after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in the fifth game of the year), Ivey returned to her alma mater in 2007 in her own role as assistant coach after two previous years on the staff at Xavier University, where she worked for former Notre Dame aide (and then-XU skipper) Kevin McGuff.
Three years later, the friendship came full circle when Owens rejoined McGraw's staff at Notre Dame following a successful five-year run as head coach at Northern Illinois from 2005-10. Since the pair were reunited, the Fighting Irish have advanced to three consecutive NCAA Women's Final Fours, including two national championship games, and have won two BIG EAST Conference regular-season and one BIG EAST postseason title, not to mention piling up a staggering 101-14 (.878) record over that span.
Today, both walk the streets of Madrid with smiles on their faces, remembering the twists of fate that led them to this place -- not only to find their personal footing, but to set the stage for the wondrous future success that would await them since their last visit to Spain.
"Playing overseas is an experience I'd encourage any player to do," Owens said. "I learned so much in such a short amount of time and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had that opportunity. If a player today has that chance, they should take it, embrace it, learn from it and grow from it. I'm sure they won't regret that decision, because I certainly didn't."
So, while the current Notre Dame players spent just 10 days in London and Spain, when they pack their bags Tuesday and return to the United States, they will also pack their own set of memories, of lessons learned, of a unique cultural and life experience, and the formation of friendships that will likely shape their futures both on and off the court for years to come.
Following Sunday's win in a steamy gym on the outskirts of Madrid, Monday was a day for cooling off around the Spanish capital, with many of the Fighting Irish players opting to head to a local water park ... other staffers headed around the streets of Madrid for some last-minute sightseeing and souvenir shopping, while still others visited the Real Jardin Botanico de Madrid and the Parque del Buen Retiro, the latter being the largest open green space in the city (and among the largest in the European Union) ... during its farewell dinner, the Notre Dame travel party sang "happy birthday" to its strength & conditioning coach, Craig Cheek, who celebrated his 38th birthday on Monday ... late Sunday night, the team also said goodbye to its tour administrator, Leo Jenkins, who had to depart early Monday morning to return to London and meet his next tour group -- the University of Iowa men's basketball team, led by head coach (and former Notre Dame assistant) Fran McCaffery and his wife, Margaret (a former Fighting Irish women's basketball standout from 1988-92 and later an assistant on McGraw's staff at her alma mater for the 1995-96 season, when she worked alongside Owens and helped work with current Notre Dame associate coach Beth Cunningham) ... the Fighting Irish will depart from Madrid just before noon local time (6 a.m. ET) Tuesday for a nine-hour flight back to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport -- after passing through customs and the bus ride back to South Bend, the team is expected to arrive on campus at approximately 8 p.m. (ET) Tuesday.
WORD OF THE DAY
Gracias -- No matter how you say it, whether in Spanish, English or any other language around the world, the sentiment is the same ... thanks.
That's really what is on the minds of the entire Notre Dame travel party as we get set to come home on Tuesday -- thanks to our University, our administrators, our coaches, our student-athletes, our support staff, our families and everyone who had a hand in making this trip possible, including the great folks at Anthony Travel, led by John Anthony, Yvonne Noell and tour administrator Leo Jenkins.
Most important of all, we thank you the fans -- without you and your unwavering support, Notre Dame women's basketball would not be at the heights it has reached today. You inspire us, you motivate us and it is one of the great honors of our lives to represent you at the highest levels of college basketball.
Please know we thank and appreciate you every single day and we can't wait to get back on that court at Purcell Pavilion in November and keep creating new and exciting memories for you and your families to enjoy for generations to come ... GO IRISH!