A Notre Dame champion’s driving force: ‘It was a genuine love’

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Niele Ivey looks back on those photos often — a younger version of herself, the newly crowned 2001 national champion, basking in confetti and the glow of a perfect moment.

She had helped orchestrate Notre Dame’s comeback in front of a sold-out Savvis Center, 10 minutes away from where she first fell in love with a game. On a twisted ankle, no less. And when Purdue’s last-second shot rimmed out, she sprinted over halfcourt and leapt into the arms of assistant coach Kevin McGuff. He was the first person she saw then.

She looks back at the photos and sees the joy radiating from her body. In her mind, there was no way to make it any better. It was one of the best moments of her life.

But not for any of the reasons she thought.

Now, in photos from that night, it’s Philippe she sees most clearly. It’s Philippe she sees first.

She can spot him immediately, there in the second row sporting an Irish shirt, his dreadlocks tucked into a crocheted tam he made himself, flanked by Ivey’s three other brothers and her parents.

Seven months after these photos were snapped, Niele and her mom, Theresa, would arrive at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis and be led down a series of hallways by a hospital escort and police officer. A doctor would take them into a cold room, where Niele would feel a weight in the back of her throat but know that she needed to stay strong as her mom clutched her hand.

They were there to identify Philippe’s body.

Not his radiant smile or his joy. Not the sum of 26 years of a beautiful life. Not the mind of a brother who, a day earlier, had rubbed Niele’s six-month pregnant belly and reassured her, “Everything will be fine.”

But the body.

When the doctor pulled back the curtain, it was Philippe. Her mom’s voice still echoes in Niele’s head, pleading for him to get up, just get up. Of all the memories of Philippe that have faded over the years, this one — the worst one — refuses to leave.

So, instead Niele holds on to that other moment in St. Louis. When the whole family had been together. When everything still made sense. When Philippe’s joy cut through the confetti and his smile was even brighter than his baby sister’s, who had just won a national title.

He’s the one — not the net or the title or the trophy — who brings her back into this moment again and again.

Niele Ivey is an organized person. A scheduled person. She studied history because it was a knowable subject — events could be dated, cause and effect could be found. But her first year out of college had come with a lot of unanswered questions.

She was frustrated with the on-again-off-again relationship with her boyfriend. She was entering the third trimester of her pregnancy not knowing what to expect of labor or motherhood. Her second WNBA season loomed, and with it the fears of whether or not her body and mind would be ready.

It was a last-minute decision to drive to St. Louis that November weekend. Home wouldn’t answer any of those questions, but being with her family might make it all feel a little less daunting. And on that five-and-a-half hour drive, Niele knew she was most excited to see Philippe. He would help her make the most sense of this chaos.

Philippe was her brother closest in age. With five Ivey kids (and just eight years in between Nick, the eldest, and Niele, the baby) their small three-bedroom house had always been brimming with activity and friends. The four boys shared a room, either side flanked by a bunk bed, and Niele could always be found there hanging out with her brothers, playing Atari or Nintendo.

Everyone on the block knew the Iveys and their corner brick house. Knew that if you smelled some fresh bread or cake, it was coming from Mrs. Ivey’s kitchen. Knew that the big garden in the backyard was producing fresh okra, beans, tomatoes and greens.

Philippe was the quietest of the brothers but offered the sagest advice. He didn’t argue with anyone. Everyone liked him, and Niele liked him especially because, when they were younger, he always picked her first when they went to the YMCA to play basketball or let her have an extra turn in Monopoly, and when they got older, he was the one who was the best listener. They spent most of their summer days at a park near their house, and they spent their evenings on the big front porch.

When Niele decided to go to Notre Dame, Philippe was the one who beamed brightest with pride. His baby sister was the first in their family to go to college. He told all his friends.

“Their connection was something special,” says Cedric, the middle Ivey brother. “It was a genuine love.”

Niele arrived in St. Louis that November after the sun had gone on Friday night. On Saturday morning, Philippe asked if she wanted to go to the park and walk a lap.

Niele shared her fears and uncertainties. She wanted answers and clarity. Midway through the walk, Philippe — who hoped to have a big family himself — looked at his sister and placed his hand on her belly. When he did, Jaden kicked and Philippe reassured her that everything would be fine, she just had to stay the course, she just had to trust herself.

“I feel like I got to absorb his energy, and I needed that at the time. I needed that balance,” Niele says. “I just felt grounded after spending time with him and talking with him and him reassuring me. My soul needed that.”

The next day, Niele and Tonya Jackson — her best friend since they were 15 — decided to go to a St. Louis Rams game. One of Niele’s friends from Notre Dame was playing for the visiting Panthers and had gotten them two free tickets.

Philippe offered to drive them so she wouldn’t have to walk to find parking. At six months pregnant, even though she was still working out twice a day, Niele was starting to feel the strains of her changing body.

After the game, she and Tonya waited at the corner of Washington and 9th as the crowd dissipated into a trickle. It wasn’t like Philippe to be late. It wasn’t like him to not pick up his phone or respond to texts. Ultimately, Niele’s mom came to pick them up.

On the drive home, no one spoke.

“The worry began to set in,” Tonya remembers. “It was just very quiet.”

Niele prayed she would see her green, two-door Mercury Cougar sitting outside the house when she returned. Her dad had gotten it for her the summer before, ahead of her fifth year at Notre Dame. She had never had a car before, but she was excited for the freedom that one would bring, excited for the spur-of-the-moment trips home — like the one that brought her back to St. Louis that weekend — that a car would give her.

But it wasn’t there.

That afternoon, a police chaplain walked up the stoop and onto the front porch. Along with a police officer, they explained that in the course of a police chase, a pursued vehicle ran a red light at 90 miles per hour and struck Philippe’s car as he pulled into the intersection on his way to pick up Niele and Tonya. He was killed instantly, they believed. When Cedric later spoke to people who lived blocks away from the crash site, they told him it sounded like an explosion.

When Niele and Theresa got home from the hospital, they waited in the kitchen. When her dad Thomas walked in, Niele stayed quiet as her mom told him. The day before had been his birthday. He had been so happy that all five of his kids were home, so happy to have a full house.

For the first time in Niele’s life, she saw her father cry.

They buried Philippe a week later. She wore a black dress to his funeral that she had to buy in the maternity section at some store in the local mall because she hadn’t packed anything formal for her weekend home. There was no reason to bring such an outfit

The church was filled to capacity. Everyone had a different story of Philippe helping them, and never asking for the credit. He had always been so quiet, but the memories boomed. For months after his death, strangers came by the Ivey house with money, saying they wanted to finally pay Philippe back for something he had done for them.

“You could realize in that moment the magnitude of who he was as a person, of his soul and how he touched people in such a beautiful way,” Niele said.

For a week after the burial, Niele stayed in St. Louis. But being in the house where she grew up with Philippe was too hard. His absence lived in every room.

She remembers looking through the newspapers for mention of his death, and when she finally found a three-sentence clip, she cried.

“It was this small paragraph,” Ivey says. “How traumatizing that was for us, that it was just another day.”

She wanted people to know Philippe the way she did.

The older brother who traveled up to Notre Dame to build Niele’s dorm furniture and move her in and out every year. The friend who learned how to fix a car just because his buddy’s broke down and he couldn’t afford to take it to the shop. The person who was vegan before it was trendy. The man who fell in love with martial arts and hoped to go to China to learn more about its history. The artist who crocheted scarves and hats for friends and built a marble chess set.

The one who had always pushed Niele to pursue more.

And the longer she stayed in St. Louis, the more she knew she had to return to South Bend.

“Philippe was the spirit driving me,” Niele says. “I knew that he would’ve wanted me to continue going forward.”

Notre Dame was where Niele felt the safest. When she arrived as a freshman, she told Philippe how different it felt from where they grew up. There was less going on, fewer people around, and both of those things wrapped Niele like a blanket.

When she learned she was pregnant halfway through her rookie season in June 2001, she had felt so scared of the unknown. Pregnancy had not been a part of her plan. She hid it from the Indiana Fever staff and most of her teammates, masking the morning sickness, dreading the 6 a.m. flights and what those would do to her stomach.

But she knew the moment her rookie season was over she’d return to the place that made the rest of this pregnancy feel manageable — to South Bend. And she knew, once she had her baby, she’d stay there, recovering and working her way back into basketball shape so she could enter training camp just six weeks after giving birth. It was where she felt she could do the near-impossible.

But those three months in South Bend — between Philippe’s passing and her son Jaden’s birth — are still a blur. She can’t remember how she got back to campus that November or how she celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s. Or if she celebrated at all. She remembers then-Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw showing up to her apartment and giving her the keys to her car.

“Use it as long as you need,” she told her.

Niele was grateful for the car, but more grateful she wouldn’t need to go to a dealership only to have a salesperson ask her the worst question: Why are you looking for a new car?

She didn’t drive much. Niele mostly only floated between her apartment, the doctor’s office for routine visits and the Notre Dame weight room and gym. There were only so many intersections in between those three places.

But there was the light that permeated the profound sadness and emptiness of those three months. As devastating as November had been, and as much as that lingered, everyone was looking forward to February, when she was due. She had already picked out the name Jaden, had even told Philippe that day in the park. And when Jaden arrived in the world, she gave him Philippe’s middle name — Dhananjay.

“I felt like Jaden really was going to save us,” Ivey said. “And I didn’t mean to put that on him, but he definitely saved us.”

National champion Niele Ivey (33) succeeded Notre Dame ‘s Muffet McGraw in 2020. McGraw retired after 33 years as head coach. (Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos via Getty Images

For a long time after Jaden was born, Niele didn’t go home.

She was a busy new mom. She was still pursuing her WNBA career. There was so much going on.

The truth was that it was too hard to even think about St. Louis.

If she spotted a Missouri license plate, she’d cry. If she saw a Bronco like Philippe’s beloved car (that old 1972 yellow Bronco that everyone ragged on him for), she’d cry. If she saw the Gateway Arch on TV, she’d cry.

Eventually, she did return home. But it would take another 10 years to go to the scene of Philippe’s death for the first time. And until then, she’d purposely concoct routes to avoid being within blocks of that downtown intersection.

But there’s a peace that comes with enough time and space and perspective. It was a peace that Philippe seemed to innately have, even as a kid. And it’s a peace that Niele always admired in him, and one that many say Niele has herself.

So eventually, Niele made peace with that intersection. It’s where Philippe was taken from her; it’s not where his memory or story continues to live. That’s everywhere else — in kind moments and big smiles; in walks through the park; in fresh bread and front porches; in Jaden, who has become a father himself.

She sees Philippe in the 2001 national title and her career at Notre Dame, where she’s in her fourth year as head coach. The No. 10 Fighting Irish open the season Monday against No. 4 South Carolina at Halle Georges Carpentier Arena in Paris.

“When I think about him, I think of all his incredible qualities,” Niele says. “Your older siblings always teach you things. And that’s what he taught me — to live with a sense of purpose, to live with kindness, to treat people with kindness.”

When Niele was 23, she thought that national championship night was perfect.

Now, at 46, she looks back at photos, sees Philippe smiling and knows how right she was.

(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; photos: Courtesy of Niele Ivey; Chris Schwegler / NBAE via Getty Images


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