Purdue star Jaden Ivey and his mom, Niele, shooting for titles

By Laken Litman
FOX Sports Writer

Jaden and Niele Ivey absolutely do not want to see each other for the next few weeks. FaceTime would be OK. Calling, texting or even tweeting is fine, too. But definitely no in-person visits.

That’s because Jaden, a 6-foot-4 sophomore combo guard averaging 17.4 points per game, hopes to lead Purdue to the men’s NCAA national title, while his mom, Niele, the head coach at Notre Dame, hopes to take her team to a women’s NCAA national title.

Jaden’s Boilermakers are a 3-seed and play 14-seed Yale in the first round Friday, and Niele’s Fighting Irish are a 5-seed and host 12-seed Massachusetts in the first round Saturday. After making nine total Final Fours as a player and assistant coach, Niele is in her first NCAA Tournament as the Notre Dame head coach.

The mother-son basketball duo will try to catch each other’s games on TV as much as they can, and should Purdue or Notre Dame lose early, Jaden and Niele plan to support the other in person. But they both have the same goal: making it to their respective Final Four and winning a national championship.

Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey tries to make it to as many of Jaden’s Purdue games as possible. He grew up watching her games. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

“I hope to not see my mom, and she hopes to not see me,” Jaden said.

“I 1,000 percent agree with him about that,” said Niele, who will put Purdue’s game on the projector in her team meeting room Friday after the Irish practice. “That’s the hard part and the beauty of our story. I’m coaching basketball, and he’s playing. We’ve had incredible blessings with our careers, but the sacrifice is that we miss a lot of each other. He knows where my heart is, and I know where his is.”

Niele is a two-time national champion at Notre Dame — she won as a player in 2001 and as an assistant coach in 2018. She was picked 19th in the 2001 WNBA draft by the Indiana Fever and joined Muffet McGraw’s Irish staff in 2007. She left her alma mater in 2019 to be an assistant coach for the Memphis Grizzlies, becoming the ninth active female coach in the NBA that season. 

When McGraw retired, Niele was named her former coach’s successor. It was a dream come true not just for Niele but for Jaden, too, who wore his mom’s college jersey to her introductory news conference in April 2020.

“It’s a blessing to see her accomplish her dreams,” Jaden said.

Jaden was born nine months after Niele was drafted by the Fever. He was too young to remember his mom’s playing days, but he has watched plenty of highlights and shares her competitiveness, passion and work ethic. 

“She’s got game, man,” he said.

Some of his fondest memories are of growing up in the Notre Dame gym and going with his mom to practices and games. He remembers shooting hoops and chasing balls down for such former Irish stars as Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jewell Loyd and Natalie Achonwa, the players who were his first mentors and still are today. Achonwa, who now plays for the Minnesota Lynx, was in the stands at the Big Ten title game. 

While Purdue has never made it to the Final Four under coach Matt Painter, Jaden has been to seven of them with his mom while she was an assistant at Notre Dame. Niele says her son was always on the edge of his seat. When Arike Ogunbowale hit the buzzer-beaters of all buzzer-beaters, first to beat UConn in the 2018 Final Four and then again to beat Mississippi State for the title, Niele remembers Jaden first jumping into her arms and then running onto the court and jumping into Ogunbowale’s.

Jaden was the only child of a single parent. He was a high-energy, athletic kid, and Niele always had him playing team sports. She sensed that Jaden was getting serious about basketball in sixth grade, when he narrowed his focus, stopped playing football and soccer, and wanted to play AAU ball. 

Then in high school, his mindset changed. He asked Niele to take him to school at 6 a.m. so he could get in the gym before class. He wouldn’t let her pick him up until midnight because he wanted to keep practicing. On weekends, he’d shoot at Notre Dame. There were no days off. 

“His grind was different,” Niele said. “He motivated and inspired me. If he’s up early, then I’m going to work early. And every year he got better. That’s when I knew: Not only is he talented, he has that dog mentality, and he’s willing to do the work.”

Niele would have loved for her son to go to her alma mater but left the decision completely up to him. As a coach and a recruiter, she enjoyed her son’s recruitment process and found it educational. She listened intently to each coach’s philosophy and vision, and she took what resonated most with her as a parent and has implemented those things when she connects with parents of players she is recruiting. 

Jaden is thriving at Purdue. Yes, he has the IQ of a coach’s son, and you can’t fight his genetics. But he has blossomed this season, evolving from a freshman figuring things out to a potential top-five NBA Draft pick as a sophomore. This season, he is averaging 17.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. His 3-point shooting has improved from 25.8% last year to 35.6% this year. He’s explosive and plays above the rim. His pace in transition ranks among the fastest in the country.

“He’s always going 100 mph, and I was the same,” said Niele, who was an All-America point guard at Notre Dame.

In the Big Ten tournament, Jaden averaged 19.7 points and 6.3 rebounds to guide his team to the championship game, in which Purdue ultimately lost to Iowa. 

Still, it has been a very successful season for the Boilermakers: In December, they reached No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in program history, and they enter the NCAA Tournament 27-7.

Now, Ivey hopes to lead the Boilermakers to the national championship.

“It’s so fulfilling for me to watch him out there because I know how hard he’s worked,” Niele said. “Nothing was handed to him. Everything was earned. And for me, to watch him live out his passion and his dream is what you want as a mom. I’m just really, really proud of him. I love seeing him have so much joy on the court.”

Niele was able to attend about 15 of Jaden’s Purdue games this year, including the Big Ten title, and Jaden went to South Bend for the Boilermakers’ football game last September. Their schedules don’t always sync, but that doesn’t stop mother and son from communicating every day. It could be tweeting about the other’s accolades or Jaden FaceTiming his mom to see his Dalmatian puppy, Gigi, whom she babysits.

They’re always texting about basketball, whether it’s Ja Morant dropping 52 points or one of them sending a pre- or postgame motivational message. At the beginning of NCAA Tournament week, Jaden was feeling stressed, and his mom shot him a text that said, “Pressure makes diamonds.”

Basketball has always bonded this mother and son, but they never could have imagined they’d be experiencing the sport in the way they are right now, sharing a unique journey.

“It’s amazing,” Niele said. “What’s even more incredibly special is that Jaden was with me when we won in 2018. He’s seen the highs and the lows [of the tournament]. All of those Final Fours we came up short. He’s always traveled with me and been behind the scenes watching and supporting Notre Dame women’s basketball. Now he has his own opportunity to have his own journey, and that is special.

“It’s really cool that our mission is the same.”

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously covered college football, college basketball, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the Olympics at Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. Her first book, written in partnership with Rizzoli and Sports Illustrated and titled “Strong Like a Woman,” will be published this spring marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

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