BLOOMINGTON – Ron Patberg remembers the phone calls, the crying, the questions left unanswered.
Here was his daughter, Ali, her freshman season with Notre Dame basketball over before it started because of a torn ACL. Here was the 2015 IndyStar Miss Basketball out of Columbus North struggling to come to terms with her spot on the bench. Here was a former MaxPreps National High School Player of the Year, raised in a family grounded in faith, being told to trust in a plan she couldn’t see that would propel her past a sophomore season with a limited role and its own set of issues — a second surgery before the season because of a bone spur, later pneumonia and the flu.
“First off you’re coming back from knee surgery, ‘Am I as good as I was? Is my knee healthy?’” Ron said. “What people think is important to her, I think that played in her mind. ‘I’m just not as good as I was. I’m not as talented as I thought I was.’”
Mentally, Ali wasn’t in a good place. She needed to discover her identity outside basketball. She needed a new home. She needed the Indiana Hoosiers.
“Up to that point basketball was all I did, everything I did, and it was taken away from me,” said Ali, referring to her injury. “That was really hard. But, it was also a blessing.”
Born to Play
Ali grew up in the gym.
It wasn’t just that her dad, Ron, and mom, Julie Davis, both played basketball at Hanover College. Where Ron went to coach, Ali followed.
When she was 3 years old and Ron coached the freshmen boys at Columbus North, Ali would grab the little rubber ball she dribbled along the wood floors of their house and try to take it through the ball-handling drills the boys maneuvered.
“She would sit at a 10-foot goal with that little ball and just shoot and miss, shoot and miss, shoot and miss,” Ron said. “Constantly there was a drive that, ‘I’m going to do this and I’m going to make it.’ And it was either (age) 3 or 4 she made a shot and then it was on to the next thing.”
When Ali was in sixth grade and Ron coached the eighth grade boys at Saint Bartholomew Catholic School in Columbus, she’d sometimes practice with the team. And it was at that age Ron started to see the player Ali, who when she was younger would choose to watch basketball on TV over cartoons, would grow up to be.
Someone who could score at will but always put team success over personal glory.
“(My parents) always preached that it was about the team, it wasn’t about me,” said Ali, whose parents divorced when she was 6. “There were never games where I came off the court and they talked about how many points I scored or how many rebounds I got. It was always about who I was as a teammate.”
That held true as she played AAU ball for her dad and, for a while, former IU men’s basketball star Damon Bailey, on teams full of Division I talent.
She never thought much about what basketball could do for her future as she established herself among the best in Columbus, the state and even the country. She was focused on the tasks in front of her.
“When she would work out, I don’t know if this is good fathering or not, or parenting, but we would say, ‘There’s somebody in the country or maybe in the state that’s working today,’” Ron said. “‘You may be the best player in Columbus, are you the best player in the state? Are you the best player in three states? Are you out-working them?’”
Ali took notice when colleges did, in eighth grade.
Leaving a Legacy
The court vision, the strength, the skill, everything Columbus North coach Pat McKee saw in Ali during open gym activities when Ali was an eighth grader told McKee she’d be a star. McKee even thought Ali could start on varsity right then, if rules allowed.
And once she donned the Bull Dogs uniform the results showed why.
Career averages of 18.9 points, seven rebounds, five assists and 2.6 steals per game. Eleven school records by the time she graduated, including assists (534) and points (2,026). Ninety-nine wins and nine losses. Four-straight sectional championships, two regional crowns and the Class 4A state title Ali’s senior year she’d dreamed about winning since she was 3.
All of that contributed to why she earned McDonald’s High School All American honors, among her many other awards. But as she showed all her life, that’s not where her focus was.
“We weren’t concerned with who’s in the paper and who scored the most points and who’s doing this,” said teammate and longtime friend, Debie Gedeon. “We were concerned about winning.”
McKee estimates Patberg could have scored more than 3,000 points if that’s what she cared about. Coaches, including her dad, an assistant on McKee’s staff, had to tell her it was OK to shoot more. She could have let her recruitment drag on, too. Instead she committed to Notre Dame as a sophomore.
“I couldn’t focus as well on my high school team and my teammates there and sometimes I felt like it was a distraction to them,” Patberg said. “I didn’t want them to think that’s what I was focused on. I wanted to win a state championship.”
Ali was the player who chose to wake up early to work out in the gym in the morning before school and who little kids flocked to during the summer basketball camp Columbus North holds. A genuine ball of energy who’d belt out “Breakaway,” by Kelly Clarkson, with her teammates on bus rides that loved giving back.
“The little kids were so excited to see her,” Gedeon said. “They’ll have her sign their camp shirts and they’ll wear the number 14 and say, ‘I can be like Ali Patberg, too.’”
When McKee says parents in the community want their daughters to grow up to be like Patberg, he isn’t talking about what she can do with a basketball.
A Fresh Start
She chose Notre Dame for all the right reasons — academics, proximity to family, program success — but after the surgeries and illnesses she felt in her heart the opportunity she had with the Fighting Irish wasn’t what it had been.
There were talks with Irish coach Muffet McGraw about staying.
But while Patberg discovered in South Bend who she was off the floor, that she wasn’t a basketball player, just someone who played basketball, she wanted to rediscover who she was on the floor elsewhere. And it wasn’t long before she took a visit to Bloomington.
“Growing up I was a big IU fan,” Patberg said. “Honestly the coaches, the team, just felt like family right away. I felt at home. And for me, I know that’s important because growing up how important family was to me and feeling comfortable. So, when I felt that right away I knew.”
She’d have to sit out again. She’d watch Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill lead Indiana to its first WNIT title while Notre Dame won the NCAA national championship. But she wasn’t scared like she was her freshman year, worrying about whether or not she could be the same player. She was able to practice every day and regain the confidence she lost.
And she wasn’t sitting alone. Fellow-transfer Brenna Wise was, too.
“Going through what we went through together, going through tough times together, being there for one another, it builds a bond like sisters, family,” Patberg said. “We get each other so well. We’re both super competitive and we work super hard.”
“It took a lot for me to leave my family,” added Wise, who transferred from Pittsburgh and grew up there. “She was like, ‘My family will be your family. I’m here for whatever you need.’”
They pushed each other through extra lifting and workout sessions. They counted down the days until they could play again. They became more and more like sisters, even fighting and quickly making up like siblings do, and now Wise is quick to call Patberg the sister she never had.
IU coach Teri Moren saw Patberg take advantage of the opportunity to learn the Hoosiers’ philosophy and implement what she’d taken from her time at Notre Dame.
“Her success is not accidental,” Moren said. “She’s put in the work.”
A Bright Future
Patberg finally felt like herself again on the court during practices last season, and the dividends are paying off for the Hoosiers, who are 17-6 and briefly cracked the top 25 this season for just the fifth time in program history.
She assumed the role opened by Buss’ graduation, and from the point has paced the team with 15.7 points and 5.2 assists per game.
“Ali’s a good juice kid,” Moren said. “She’s always positive with her teammates. When they get discouraged or they make a mistake or whatever in the course of practice, in a game, she’s the first one there to go and build them up. That takes a special person, to be a point guard and have a lot of pressure running our basketball team, but she still — because of the person that she is — can separate herself and give herself to her teammates.”
It’s something Gedeon, McKee and her dad, who tries to make every game he can and even flew out to see Ali play at UCLA, all see when they watch the Hoosiers play. Something the 50 to 100 people McKee estimates travel from Columbus to see her play every game at Assembly Hall see, too. Like when sophomore guard Jaelynn Penn went coast-to-coast for a layup in the final seconds of the first half of IU’s win against then-No. 15 Michigan State and there was Patberg, so ecstatic her celebratory push to Penn’s chest knocked Penn to the floor.
“Playing now with my team here at IU,” Patberg said, “every game is a dream.”