Jennifer Azzi Q & A
When Jennifer Azzi finished her career at Stanford in 1990, there was no professional women’s basketball league in the United States. In 1996, Azzi and several other players saw a chance to change that. They joined forces and founded the American Basketball League. The ABL began play in 1996, but financial problems forced it to close its doors in 1998. Azzi then entered the 1999 WNBA draft, and was the first pick of the Detroit Shock. She led the team with 106 assists and was second in scoring with 10.8 ppg. But tensions within the team, and general exhaustion, found her considering retirement the end of the season. She decided to return, and became the point guard for the Utah Starzz when she was traded at the beginning of the 2000 season.
WB: It’s been over 5 years since the ABL was founded. What lessons have you taken away from that experience?
Azzi: One of the main things is not to be afraid of taking chances. After the league folded, I remember in an interview they asked me how I was feeling. I said, “One of the things is that I think I have redefined success.” I think success is taking a chance to doing something you really, really believe in. In that situation, you can’t ever fail. I mean, if you “fail,” it’s in the world’s terms of failing. I think trying your best, trying to make something work, you learn life’s greatest lessons. You learn the most about yourself, how you can survive, what you have faith in and what you’re willing to risk.
WB: Was it difficult making transition to the WNBA because of your changed role — the control you had in the ABL to “simply” being a player in the WNBA?
Azzi: It’s never been about control for me. Ever. If anything, it’s just the opposite. I don’t want control. I just want to have really good experiences. The control for me has always been about controlling myself. Just coming every day with a positive attitude and working really hard. I love to work hard. People like to make things so complicated, but it’s just not for me.
Going in to a situation like Detroit was really tough, because people wonder some of the same things you’re saying. “Can you handle that kind of shift?” Or, “Oh, you lost that control.” And it’s never, never, never been about that.
WB: Often people describe the role of the point guard as on of being “in control.” What’s your take?
Azzi: I think the best point guards are the most giving. In every sense — with the ball, with encouragement. Look at Magic Johnson or John Stockton. They’re the ones that are responsible for everyone else. Responsibility is not control. That’s a huge difference. If anything, it’s just the opposite. You have to not take things personally. You have to just play.
I’ve always played like this, and I’ve gotten a lot of flack for it. I generally score towards the end of the game because it’s kind of “wait and see what everyone else is doing.” Try and get them going first. And then snap in to (scoring) when you need to.
I think that’s why (Utah coach Fred Williams) wanted me so bad. He understood that about me — definitely more than (Detroit coach Nancy Lieberman-Cline). He understood that I could handle that role and I would make (Natalie Williams and Adrienne Goodson) better players with each other. Not that they’re not already amazing players. It’s not being so concerned about my game and really being concerned about theirs.
WB: Physical activity has been a through-line in your life. What does it give you?
Azzi: Maybe that’s the sense of control — in controlling myself. Just yesterday I drove over to the beach and went for a run. That kind of space and time with yourself is one of the only things in life you can control. I always feel so much better when I’m running and working out and playing basketball. It’s always been the physical part of it that I’ve just loved.
WB: What would you tell a total stranger about Jennifer Azzi, the professional basketball player.
Azzi: It’s probably about 1% of me as a person. It’s been a huge part of me on some level, but then a small port of me on another. It’s just been all the things about it that have been an expression of me as a person.
WB: What are three words that describe you on the basketball court?
Azzi: Love, energy, and commitment.
WB: Are those different than who you are off the court?
WB: It’s been over 5 years since the ABL was founded. Can you reflect on the experience of starting the league?
Azzi: It had a huge impact on me. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. It meant so much to me and to all the players involved. Any time you feel like you’re more than just an employee, or you’re more than just an athlete, it really brings out a lot of other things in the feeling that you have in your job. I was so motivated in just trying to give it a shot. We all knew that it was a big risk, that it was a big chance. But I didn’t want to go back overseas, and it was a now or never sort of situation.
WB: How would you explain the ABL’s legacy to a young fan?
Azzi: The ABL created the competition to propel the WNBA. I don’t if kids would understand something like that. But, it’s also about not waiting for other people to do something that you really want to do. If most people are willing to think “out of the box,” then there’s a lot of things in life that, if you want them, to just go after it. Yeah, on paper if failed, but in so many other ways it was a huge success. Everyone lives that was touched by that league will remember it. And will remember it as something that was very special and very positive. For young girls, for women, for families. Across the board it was kind of a different sort of league.
WB: What made the ABL different?
Azzi: A real love for the game. It was driven by players who had been through hell with their careers. It was like, “All right, I don’t want to go live in France again. I don’t be away from this country to do this job when we have everything here to make that work.” A lot of the players, now the “older” players, have been molded a little more differently because we had to struggle so much with playing overseas. And changes…. When I was going in to 6th grade, our Junior high school was still playing six on six. So, we’ve seen a lot of changes in our sport. And, I think having seen that, you know what changes are possible. You know it’s okay to struggle. I wouldn’t have played and fought through things as long as I had if I didn’t really love the game. And that’s why I think that was what the ABL was all about: loving the game.
WB: What were your challenges coming in to the WNBA?
Azzi: There was a kind of letting go. Knowing that I don’t have to follow the same mentality or whatever that felt like existed (in the WNBA). That I could still just be myself, and do my thing, and play because I love the game. It’s not that I don’t like the WNBA. I like it a lot, or I wouldn’t be doing it. I think we have a great opportunity in women’s sports. It’s not a matter of that there was animosity there, it was just that it was hard to lose what I lost.
WB: After you graduated from Stanford, you were on the ’96 Olympic gold medal team. This year, you were an alternate. How were the experiences different?
Azzi: I only went back as an alternate because they asked me to. I was part of the team, and then I left the team. I think it was because I didn’t have the same drive to do that. It pretty much takes your entire life when you are part of something like that. I felt the shift in me in the last 2 or 3 years. Half of me is ready to move on. For me, whatever I’m doing pretty much takes all of me, and so if I’m not invested like that in it, it’s really hard.
WB: Some critics commented that the Men’s US Olympic team lacked a sense of urgency in competing for the gold, that they simply expected to win. Do you envision that happening with the Women’s team?
Azzi: I think the biggest mistake, and the worst thing that happens to us, is being compared to the men. It isn’t the same. It’s never going to be the same. But at the same time, it’s the best thing and the worst thing being involved with the men. It legitimizes a lot of things with us, and it gives us the resources and the money and all those things to help the WNBA. But then, at the same time, you don’t necessarily want the comparisons from the negative side.
It’s just human nature whenever you’re being paid. I look at it like this: If you’re being paid a whole lot of money to do something, then it doesn’t mean the same, and it can’t mean the same. Or, if you’re not getting a whole lot of money, then you have to enjoy what you’re doing. I think that’s pretty normal. You either love your job, or you’re making a whole lot of money and you love something else. Ideally, it’s great to have both.
I think that’s why I get so conflicted. I have to love what I’m doing. And if I don’t, then I really, really struggle. Especially with something like basketball, because it has been such a part of me, and I’ve been so passionate about it. If you start to lose that, it gets really hard. Then you have to focus on the times it is hard and say, “Okay, well today it’s a job.”
WB: You’ve said you’ll play as long as the desire to play is there – what does desire mean to you?
Azzi: You know what I’m tired of? I’m tired of the life style. I’m not so tired of the game itself, or the time that I’m actually on the court. I love my team in Utah. It’s not about those things. It’s about, “awwww, moving again” for a few months, and traveling, and I HATE to fly… It’s all those kinds of things that drag you down some times that may people don’t quite understand. And, yeah, it’s NOT a huge salary. So is the sacrifice worth that kind of thing? That’s when I need to make sure that I still love what I’m doing, because then the salary really doesn’t matter. If I can survive, then I’ll survive doing anything.
WB: You’ve spoken about coaching after basketball. What kind of coach do you think you’d make?
Azzi: I think I would be tough. But it would be a “tough love” coaching. More physical. I think I would keep it all physical. I hate when people make it mental. People say basketball is half mental, and it is. But, from a coaching perspective, there are some things you have to do to motivate people, but you’re not responsible for people believing in themselves. I think that’s the biggest mistake coaches make — if they feel like they’re the ones that have to make players believe in themselves. You can’t be in that role, because then a player puts you in a false position and you can’t be critical. They’re going to be too fragile. So, I think establishing, “I’m trying to make you better. You need to listen to what I say and don’t take it personally.” I think that’s the BEST thing you can tell a girl, too. Don’t take everything personally. It’s physical. That’s how I’ve been as a player. The more I keep it physical, the better I play.
WB: What does Cynthia Cooper offer as coach?
Azzi: I think she’s going to bring a lot to the game. I have so much respect for her. Sometimes when I see her I just want to sit her down and pick her brain. How did you do what you did, coming from (playing) overseas for so many years. She’s the mentally toughest player – both she an Sheryl – that I’ve ever seen. She’s got so much confidence, and belief in herself and her ability. That separated her from most of the league. If she can teach that or instill that in her team, they’ll do really well.