She looked like a natural. On the floor in her home debut, San Antonio Stars rookie Nia Coffey ran, shot, rebounded and defended like she belonged.
Long and athletic, Coffey played less than eight minutes against the Phoenix Mercury last Friday, but flashed glimpses of the promise that made her the No. 5 pick in the WNBA draft.
In her first 60 seconds off the bench, she attacked the basket, drew two fouls, made three of four free throws and grabbed one offensive rebound.
From his home in Minnetonka, Minn., Richard Coffey watched his daughter on television and smiled. Richard cuts an unusual profile for a father: He played one season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and, with little effort, passed his skill and passion for the game to all three of his children.
Sydney, Richard’s oldest, plays professionally in Australia for the Ringwood Hawks. Amir, his youngest, was a star freshman at the University of Minnesota last season and looks like a future first round NBA pick. Then there’s Nia, his middle child, the 6-foot-1 forward who decided, rather late, that she wanted to hoop for a living.
“It’s awesome,” Richard said by phone from Minnesota. “Basketball has always been a part of our family.”
Nia cuts an unconventional profile herself. The daughter of an NBA player, she preferred track to basketball as a child. When her siblings were emerging basketball stars, Nia was establishing herself as an elite sprinter before the age of 10. And when she decided to hoop and became a McDonald’s All-American, Nia spurned offers from traditional Division I powers for a school that had not reached the NCAA Tournament since she was 2-years-old: Northwestern.
Major? She chose the esoteric, “Learning and Organizational Change.” The NU website describes the program as one that “explores how organizations and individuals within them use knowledge and learning to create and respond to change within their environment.” Nia’s take: “It’s business mixed with social sciences.”
Ambition? Almost every McDonald’s All-American envisions a pro career. Not Nia. The idea of playing in the WNBA came after her freshman year at Northwestern. And even then, Nia asked her father if he thought she could reach the highest level.
“Of course you can,” he said.
Nia grew up with athletic gifts she did not fully recognize or appreciate. Richard and Sheba Coffey, now divorced, raised Nia and her siblings to prioritize school over sports. That helps explain why Nia narrowed her choice of colleges to Stanford, Duke and Northwestern. She selected Northwestern after one visit and never toured another school.
At Hopkins High School, Nia recognized basketball, first, as a vehicle to a college education, and second, as way to have fun. True story: Nia attempted a dunk her senior year – an attempt that generated almost 10,000 views on YouTube – not to showboat but to get the team a free dinner.
(Dunk attempt appears near the 20-second mark.)
“My coach said if I attempted it he would take our entire varsity and JV out to Fogo de Chão (a Brazilian Steakhouse),” Nia said. “So we’re real excited and we want a good meal and they’re like, ‘Just try it. Just do it. We don’t care if you miss.’ So I decided, ‘I’ll do it for the team.’”
To improve her hops, Nia dunked volleyballs while training. But she never attempted an in-game dunk again.
Basketball runs through the Coffey DNA. Richard, a 6-foot-6, 212-pound forward back in the day, enjoyed a solid career at the University of Minnesota and played 52 games for the Timberwolves in 1990-91. Sheba played high school basketball.
When the children were young, Sydney and Amir became gym rats. They trained with Richard, played one-on-one and developed their game while Nia sat to the side, thinking about her next track meet. As Richard recalls, Nia, at 8- or 9-years-old, was ranked second in her age group in the country in the 100- and 200-meters and third in the 400 meters. In seventh grade, Nia ran on the high school varsity track team and placed at the state meet.
Her love for track soon waned, and she began to feel lonely in the gym. The solution, she decided, was to start mixing it up with her big sister and little brother. For Nia, that’s how the journey began.
She did not know what to expect at Northwestern. But she never imagined making history, which she did, as the first Wildcat freshman to earn first-team All Big 10 honors. After leading Northwestern to the third round of the WNIT in 2014, Nia contemplated the next season. As she wondered how she could lead the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament, Nia weighed her own future. And then came an idea: Maybe I can play in the WNBA.
Before the draft, Nia prayed. She asked God to put her on the right path to the right team.
What she did not do was ask for her first choice: the Stars. Nia knew some of the players, and her agent represented a couple of players as well. The Stars were young with two Top 5 picks in the draft. The future seemed promising in San Antonio and Nia wanted to help start the building process.
“At the end I was thinking, ‘It would be so crazy if me and Kelsey (Plum) ended up on the same team,” Nia said. “And then it happened. I’m like, ‘Wow! Not only am I on the team I wanted but Kelsey got here too.’ It’s just crazy.”
Crazy is a good word to describe Nia’s journey. From child track star to “Learning and Organizational Change” major, Nia has landed in the one place she never aspired as a dunk-attempting senior in high school.