Mishawaka Marian guard Jaden Ivey and his mother, Notre Dame assistant Niele Ivey, discuss his strong junior season
MISHAWAKA – Jaden Ivey can’t even begin to calculate how much of his young life has been spent in the place they call The Pit.
Over the past dozen years since his famous mother, former Notre Dame All-American point guard Niele Ivey, moved back to become an assistant women’s basketball coach at her alma mater, her only child has honed his game in the practice dungeon beneath the main playing floor at Purcell Pavilion.
“When she’s working, I’m in the gym just putting up shots every day,” says Mishawaka Marian’s junior floor leader, an early candidate for IndyStar Mr. Basketball in 2020. “It’s been a lot of hours, thousands of hours, down there for me. I can just go shoot whenever. It’s always home.”
Some of Jaden’s earliest basketball memories are of rebounding for Skylar Diggins-Smith, Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd before and after practices. Back when he wasn’t much bigger than the ball he was dribbling, Ivey would show off his someday moves and a boundless energy that kept his mother searching for leagues in which to enroll him.
Soccer, pee-wee football, flag football, karate — it didn’t matter what it was. She just needed to find a way for him to burn off all that energy.
His favorite outlet, though, was always The Pit.
“When I was a little boy, I just loved to watch Skylar put up shots,” Ivey says. “I’ve been blessed to watch great players and learn from them. They’ve just seen me grow and they’ve helped me a lot on my game. We used to do drills.”
As Jaden grew older, Notre Dame men’s director of basketball operations Harold Swanagan, a contemporary of his mother’s in South Bend, would let him into The Pit at all hours.
“Coach Swanagan, I’ve known him ever since I was a child,” Ivey says. “Anytime I wanted to get in the gym, he would just let me in. I’ve known coach (Mike) Brey for a long time. Whenever I needed to get in the gym, they would be open to it because they know my mom is a coach.”
Not just a coach, of course, but one of the school’s all-time greats.
FIRST ROLE MODELS
Niele Ivey was the point guard on Muffet McGraw’s first national championship team in 2001. Over her final four seasons, the Irish went 109-22 (.832) and reached the Sweet 16 three times.
Ivey, a 2016 Ring of Honor inductee, went on to play five seasons in the WNBA, four of them with the Indiana Fever, before starting her coaching career with two seasons at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
She famously played her entire rookie season with the Fever without informing the coaching staff she was pregnant with Jaden. Over the rest of her playing career, Jaden was often in the stands as a network of family and friends helped out.
When McGraw summoned Ivey back to campus in 2007, the timing couldn’t have been better. Jaden was getting ready to start kindergarten, and Niele made a point of taking him with her on recruiting and scouting trips whenever possible.
“His first role models, his first sports heroes were women,” Niele Ivey says. “He’s been exposed to great talent and great women’s basketball — great coaching, a Hall of Fame coach. He’s grown up in this family environment, but it’s also competitive, successful, traditional. Making this move here changed his life for the better.”
Former Notre Dame wide receiver Javin Hunter is Jaden’s father. Javin, a former basketball walk-on who made 63 catches from 1999-2001 and was a sixth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens, was the son of former Detroit Lions all-pro defensive back James Hunter.
Jaden’s father, who earned an MBA and now works for Tesla’s Gigafactory in Buffalo, N.Y., has been a distant presence in his young life and his paternal grandfather died in 2010. Still, Jaden says he has benefited from their guidance as well.
“It’s hard because he’s away, but I talk to him all the time,” Jaden says of his father, who moved to upstate New York last summer but made it back for the Culver game this season. “We always have conversations. He’ll text or call about the game. He’s always asking about the game and how I did.”
Jaden, who recently turned 17, played football until the eighth grade, when he decided to concentrate on his mother’s sport. Initially, that wasn’t a popular choice with his dad.
“He wanted me to play football,” Jaden says with a smile. “I’m like, ‘No, basketball is always going to be my sport.’ No one knows this, but he’s pushed me so much actually. He’s always wanted me to be the best. That’s something I’m going to keep working on.”
From his grandfather, Jaden says he learned about “the love of the game” and the importance of family.
“He was always there for my grandmother and my dad,” Jaden says. “He taught me a lot about valuing your family and being there for your family. He taught me if you love the game, the things it can do for you. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
With both football and basketball excellence in his blood, Jaden isn’t about to settle for mediocrity.
“I want to be the best,” he says. “I don’t just want to play the game for fun. I want to be the best and I want to get to the league. I want to be more than just a player. I want to be the best.”
It was a season-ending loss to Culver in last year’s sectional that launched Jaden into overdrive when it came to his talent and his future.
His mother, who was coaching at the ACC tournament at the time, could instantly tell how much impact that single “devastating” loss had on her son.
“Everything shifted,” she says. “His motivation, his drive completely changed. There was just a focus. Academically, he took another step. The light totally went on.”
Rising early to squeeze in extra workout sessions before school, Jaden went on to have a standout summer while playing for Indy Heat, a Nike-sponsored AAU program out of Fort Wayne. He grew two inches (to his current 6-4 and 175 pounds), distinguished himself at tournaments in Atlanta and Indianapolis and earned his first scholarship offer after an elite camp at Purdue.
Butler and Notre Dame soon followed with offers as well, the latter coming after he wowed youth campers with his play while scrimmaging with current Fighting Irish players and more than holding his own.
“Coach Swanagan said, ‘Get in there one time,’” Ivey says. “They saw I could play really well this summer.”
While Brey later made Ivey his first scholarship offer of the 2020 recruiting class, there is no guarantee this son of two former Notre Dame standouts will stay home for his college years. A decision probably won’t come until November at the earliest.
“I’ve got a lot of time,” Jaden says. “I’ll just let it all play out.”
Niele Ivey, who was recruited out of St. Louis two decades ago and had to overcome a season-ending knee injury as a freshman, is just pleased to see her son blossoming.
“Jaden’s a late bloomer,” she says. “He was under the radar the whole time. No one really knew about him because South Bend doesn’t have a big market for AAU.”
DREAM BECOMES REAL
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In the meantime, Ivey is determined to push the Knights (16-3 under coach Robb Berger) deeper into the Class 3A state tournament than they’ve ever gone before.
“We want to get to state,” he says. “This program has never been. Football, yes, but basketball no. It would mean a lot for this community just to get there.”
He went for 24 points in Friday’s 70-53 road win over Penn despite missing two starters and foul trouble that limited him to just 2:14 of first-half playing time. Ivey also shook off a minor injury to his shooting hand suffered while diving for a loose ball.
About 16 hours later Ivey was back on the court with a wrap on his right hand, but he still went for 25 points and eight rebounds in a 63-39 blowout of visiting Bremen. His right calf cramped up as he tried to punctuate the victory with a fourth-quarter dunk, but that embarrassing miss couldn’t wipe out the powerful dunk he threw home late in the first half after slaloming through zone traffic off the left wing.
His mother liked that one so much, she posted a team-produced film clip of it on her Twitter account, complete with a string of emojis.
As recruiting coordinator for the reigning national women’s champions, Ivey knows the NCAA rulebook inside and out. But that hasn’t kept her from huddling several times with Notre Dame’s compliance officers, just to make sure nothing is out of line with Jaden as his recruitment intensifies.
“I know the process, so it was kind of cool to be on the other side, the receiving end of it,” Niele Ivey says. “It’s honestly been awesome. It’s always been something I dreamt of for him, but for it to actually be there in the summer, that motivated him even more. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, wow, it’s starting for him.’”
She figures some recruiters have been wary of approaching her, perhaps because of her experience or maybe because of the assumption it will hard to pry an Ivey out of South Bend. Regardless of how things play out, she will never forget the moment Jaden called with news of Brey’s scholarship offer.
That time she was the one in The Pit, running the women’s team through practice while Jaden was across the street at the new men’s basketball practice facility.
“He called me right away,” she says. “I missed the call, and one of the managers said, ‘Hey, Jaden’s calling you.’ She handed me the phone and he told me. I was in shock. That was just incredible for him to be looked at by the University of Notre Dame.”
Follow IndyStar Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter at @MikeBerardino.