November 18, 2022
Inside Niele Ivey and Charmin Smith’s historic St. Louis homecoming
‘There's a lot of firsts that's going on right now’
ST. LOUIS – After Niele Ivey and Charmin Smith completed their postgame press conferences on Nov. 12, they lingered on the court at the Enterprise Center, talking with their families, friends and supporters. The head coaches of Notre Dame and California, respectively, had brought their teams to St. Louis for a neutral-site game, but as former local standouts, they each got raucous home-court welcomes.
The hospitality extended to their players, too, as the many children in the crowd clamored for autographs postgame. Cal’s players had to be pulled away to speak with reporters, and forward Evelien Lutje Schipholt admitted, “I kind of didn’t really want to come to media because there [are] a bunch of girls out there that are so excited. And I told them to wait and I’ll come back.”
No. 9 Notre Dame won the inaugural Citi Shamrock Classic 90-79, racing out to a 31-22 lead after the first quarter and weathering foul trouble and a late surge from Cal. Five Notre Dame players finished in double figures, including a 13-point, 10-assist outing from point guard Olivia Miles, while Cal guard Jayda Curry had a game-high 24 points on 4-for-9 shooting from deep.
“[Curry] made some move and I turned to [assistant coach] Heidi [Heintz] and I just said, ‘She’s really good,’” Smith told reporters.
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But Smith and her players weren’t satisfied with playing a nationally ranked team close. Lutje Schipholt, who finished with six points and six rebounds, said that the loss stung because she wanted to perform well for all the children in the stands looking up to her. Smith added, “We’re not encouraged that we played with the No. 9 team in the country. The goal was to beat the No. 9 team in the country.”
At the same time, though, Smith and her players understood the magnitude of the event beyond the scoreboard. The Citi Shamrock Classic was the first live broadcast of a women’s basketball game on NBC, and it featured Black women as the head coaches, Black women on the broadcast team and as officials, and majority-Black and female coaching staffs. It was also the first time Smith and Ivey had ever coached in St. Louis or coached against each other. It was a homecoming, a celebration of women, and a celebration of Black excellence all in one.
“This whole weekend is about empowerment,” Ivey told reporters on Nov. 11 at her high school, Cor Jesu Academy. “And I’m just blessed to have this opportunity to be a part of this incredible moment. … There’s a lot of firsts that’s going on right now. And I’m honored. I’m honored to be a part of it. I feel empowered. I hope I empower other people [who are] watching.”
Ivey grew up in the 1980s in North St. Louis, playing basketball with her four older brothers at nearby Fairgrounds Park. “They roughed her up,” Gary Glasscock, Ivey’s coach at Cor Jesu, told The Next. “And all of them were very good athletes and players themselves … She learned the game playing with them.”
Glasscock first saw Ivey play when she was in sixth or seventh grade, after a friend of his said he’d seen a player who could shoot from half court. Impressed with Ivey’s skill, Glasscock convinced her mother that she should play AAU basketball. By the time Ivey got to Cor Jesu for high school, she was a star.
“She was the best right away,” Glasscock said. “… [But] outside of her being very athletic and talented was definitely her work ethic. That’s what set her apart from almost anybody else.”
Ivey led Cor Jesu to its only state title and a perfect season as a junior in 1995, even though the Chargers’ roster that year lacked a player taller than 5’8. She still holds nearly a dozen school records and ranks in the school’s top 10 in nearly every statistical category, according to records that Cor Jesu shared with The Next. Her 1,977 career points are over 400 more than the next-closest player, and her 603 steals are more than double the next-closest player. Despite standing just 5’7, she also totaled 813 rebounds (fourth in school history), 600 assists (first) and 95 blocks (seventh).
Glasscock called Ivey the “smartest and best defensive player” and the “best pure shooter” he has ever coached. “She could do so many things with the ball. And she’s just a person that stands out,” he said.
Smith played at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, a public school about 10 miles from the private Cor Jesu. She described herself as a tall point guard who “brought energy,” “did the dirty work,” and looked up to then-Virginia point guard Dawn Staley.
Ivey, meanwhile, looked up to Smith, who is two and a half years older.
Both Ivey and Smith had played at the Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club, which was founded in North St. Louis in 1960 to give children — originally only boys and mainly African American boys — more athletic opportunities and resources in the then-segregated city. The future coaches competed together in fall and summer leagues, and when Ivey was in high school, she often got up extra shots there after Cor Jesu practices, sometimes stopping at McDonald’s for a strawberry milkshake on the way.
Smith went on to play at Stanford, where she helped her team to three Final Fours between 1993 and 1997. She then played in the ABL and the WNBA before becoming a coach. Ivey went to Notre Dame and then the WNBA, capping her five-year college career with a national championship at the Enterprise Center in 2001.
“I remember her winning a national championship in St. Louis,” Smith said on Nov. 12. “I was like, ‘Oh, she got to do it in front of her family.’ Thought that was really cool.”
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Ivey and Smith are two of several elite players who have come from the St. Louis area, a list that also includes WNBA players Kristin Folkl, Dionnah Jackson and Napheesa Collier and Notre Dame guard Mollie Peirick.
“I’d kind of say [St. Louis] flies under the radar nationally, talent-wise, and it shouldn’t,” Bradley Bruno, an assistant coach at nearby Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, told The Next.
“I feel like you kind of see the same types of players — hard-working, just kind of ‘chip on their shoulder’ type kids — coming out of St. Louis,” another top player from the area, former Metro North and current Saint Louis University center Brooke Flowers, told reporters on Nov. 11. “And it’s honestly been really amazing to see more and more people starting to come out of St. Louis or the St. Louis area and doing amazing things.”
Ivey called it “a dream come true” to be back in St. Louis and play at the Enterprise Center. She has watched the film of the end of the 2001 national championship game many times, and the memories came flooding back when she returned to the arena for the first time since then.
“I was like, ‘This is where we ran when we celebrated.’ I remember the locker room, everything,” Ivey said postgame. “So [it was a] full-circle moment. It was so incredible, even in shootaround, just to be here.”
Ivey had been emotional all week leading up to the game, she said, just from picturing her return to the city. She began her trip by taking her father out for a birthday dinner on Nov. 10, and the following day, both Notre Dame and Cal practiced at their head coaches’ high schools.
Cor Jesu was ready for the occasion: The video boards outside the gym read “Welcome home, Coach Ivey!” and “Cor Jesu says… Go Irish!!” and another welcome banner hung in the gym, near a white Cor Jesu jersey bearing Ivey’s No. 33. The school invited alumnae and current students to watch the end of Notre Dame’s practice, and hundreds of people packed the stands, spilling over into extra red plastic chairs or standing along the upper railing. Most of the fans wore red T-shirts that were sold as part of a ticket package for the game, featuring a green shamrock on the front and Ivey’s name and number in white on the back.
After Notre Dame wrapped up practice, the fans stayed for a pep rally with the Notre Dame band, cheerleaders and leprechaun. Ivey addressed the crowd, as did her high school advisor, who joked that she, then new to the school, felt unqualified to advise Ivey on her many college options. The Fighting Irish players sat and watched from the baseline, and at one point some of them appeared to get choked up.
“It was so awesome going to her high school and just seeing all the support and just how much impact she had on her community, that they love her so much here,” forward Kylee Watson told reporters a day later. “And it’s just so awesome to see someone that we love and care about so much … have that sort of respect that she obviously deserves.”
At Ladue, the Golden Bears met Smith’s mom — “She is such a sweet, sweet, sweet lady,” Lutje Schipholt said — and for Smith, the realization of where she was began to sink in. “Being in that gym and watching my team shooting and practicing in the gym where I played … it’s really special,” she said postgame.
After practice, both teams attended a luncheon that featured East St. Louis native, track and field Olympic gold medalist, and former UCLA basketball forward Jackie Joyner-Kersee, whose message to the players emphasized communication, teamwork and being coachable. The teams also visited the Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club to share their own advice with younger players and sign autographs, and they took photos in front of the Gateway Arch.
“[Smith is] excited about little things,” Lutje Schipholt said. “We drive past certain things [and] she’s like, ‘Oh, look at this, this, this!’”
That enthusiasm from the programs and their fans carried over on Nov. 12, with 4,212 people attending the game at the Enterprise Center. The head coaches combined to give away about 100 tickets to family and friends, and Ivey personally invited Joyner-Kersee, who had been a role model for her growing up. Joyner-Kersee sat courtside across from the Notre Dame bench and said during an in-game interview that she was impressed with both the teams’ competitive spirit and the fan turnout.
About one in five fans wore the red Ivey-Cor Jesu T-shirts, and some of them brought posters and green light-up wands. Smith, meanwhile, had a smaller supporters section behind her bench clad in yellow and blue.
“Seeing all the red shirts in the stands and whatnot, I was like ‘Dang, [Ivey’s] got a whole army here!’” Miles said, reflecting on the previous day’s practice and the game. “… It felt like a home trip for us, just the way they supported both her and Notre Dame.”
For Glasscock, the anticipated turnout evoked memories of Ivey and Cor Jesu playing against Folkl and St. Joseph’s Academy in the 1993-94 season. That game was moved to a bigger gym, at the all-boys Chaminade College Preparatory School, but still, the parking lot was full two hours before the game and cars snaked down Lindbergh Boulevard to see the matchup of stars.
“She was like everybody’s favorite,” Glasscock said of Ivey. “I mean, everybody just loved that kid. … And she hasn’t changed.”
Ivey was unflappable at practice as the fans stormed in, and she and Smith were just as locked in for the game, despite the crowd and the emotions of the weekend. Both coaches got considerable applause as they were introduced alongside the starters, and one Fighting Irish player patted Ivey’s shoulder in acknowledgment. But Ivey, clad in a bold green top and pants and red lipstick, was already seated in front of her bench, ready to give her final instructions.
Sixteen seconds into the game, Ivey jumped out of her seat to applaud a 3-pointer by forward Maddy Westbeld. She periodically paced the sideline, while Smith often sat on the bench or took a knee in front of it. But Smith was equally animated, including stomping her foot for emphasis as she called out defensive instructions. “Good job, good job!” she yelled later in the game, nodding vigorously, after an and-one by forward Jadyn Bush.
The head coaches jointly dedicated the game to Martin Mathews, a co-founder of the Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club, who passed away on Nov. 7. And they came together immediately after the handshake line to address the crowd. Ivey went first, offering several thank-yous and acknowledging the significance of the game.
“This is a really special [day] for me, for Niele, for our programs,” Smith added. “I will say, representation matters, and to see two black females as head coaches of these programs, as Niele said, it matters. And to all the young girls and the young boys that are here in this arena, these [players] right here, they are winners, they are warriors, they are people that you can look up to as role models and aspire to be … And thank you to NBC for finally realizing how cool women’s basketball is.”
Smith and Ivey embraced at center court as the crowd gave them a standing ovation, and then they departed to their respective locker rooms. The first thing Ivey told her team was to recognize the history they had made by playing that game.
“To be a part of a first, I think, is just amazing,” Ivey told reporters. “… We will always remember this game, and just to understand the magnitude of who they are as role models, who I am as a role model outside of basketball — like Liv [Miles] said, this is our bigger purpose … to serve the community and to inspire.”
That lesson was sinking in for Smith, too, throughout the weekend. In a quieter moment, after she did postgame media and talked with her supporters, she told The Next that she’d never reflected much on her legacy, even after learning that this homecoming was happening.
“I don’t know that I really have … I guess that’s kind of not like me,” she said. “I don’t see myself — I’m working on that. Like, maybe I don’t know the impact that I’ve had to [this] extent, so it was kind of good to be reminded. And … now, maybe I’ll sit and think because I told my team to know how great they are and to act and carry themselves with a certain demeanor, and I think that applies for me, too.”
That was part of the day’s significance as well: As much as the game showed the world why representation matters and what Smith and Ivey mean to St. Louis, it also showed Smith and Ivey how important they continue to be to girls’ basketball in the Show-Me State.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.