Great Momentum

Coach Cori Close talks about a UCLA team on the verge of greatness.
by October 14, 2014

Kari Korver, jumping off her seat on the bench. If you watched UCLA last season, it was a common sight.

It might have been after a made basket, when Korver developed the habit of giving every one of her teammates seated alongside her a hearty high-five.

But it more likely came after a Bruin played great help defense, leading to a steal. Often, Korver didn’t need a reason to leap to her feet and cheer on her teammates.

As a freshman, Korver played in all 34 games and made eight starts for the Bruins team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament round of 32. She hit 1.5 threes per game. That was 2012-13.

She missed all of 2013-14 after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and lateral meniscus in her right knee.

By midseason, three starters were out with ACL tears. By the middle of the season, two other starters were so banged up, they couldn’t practice, somehow rousing themselves for the conference games on the weekend.

By the Pac-12 tournament, senior Thea Lemberger, so often the closer throughout her career, was ruled out with concussion. The Bruins still took Colorado to the edge before falling.

There’s a reason for this backstory. Last season meant so much more than a mere prelude to something better. Because when Cori Close had barely taken her seat in the conference room at last year’s Pac-12 media day, she was met with The question.

So, how about next year’s freshman class?

Monique Billings, Recee’ Caldwell, Jordin Canada, Lajahna Drummer, Kelli Hayes. The first No. 1 class in the women’s program history.

When pundits looked at UCLA, they inevitably pointed toward 2014-15. When the talent arrived, they figured, the expectations would follow.

But even as Close fielded those questions, she’d already decided something. She was going to remain steadfastly devoted to this team, the 2013-14 one. To have done otherwise would have been a disservice.

So after a bitter loss at Cal last January, Close was her demanding self. She wasn’t going to mail it in, even as the losses began to pile up. She wanted to see more toughness, she needed to witness an uptick in mental focus. She wasn’t going to stop coaching her team. She was going to devote every ounce of herself to making this bunch the best it could possibly be.

Because without this past season, UCLA wouldn’t be on the verge of greatness. Paradoxical though it might seem in this age, where immediate gratification reigns, there’s something to be said about a strong foundation put in place.

Consider the returners: junior Nirra Fields (17.6 points in ’13-14) is playing for Canada at the FIBA World Championships. In just 17 minutes in the qualifier for the quarterfinals, against the Czech Republic, she poured in 15 points. Soon she’ll be noted as one of the best players in women’s college basketball.

Consider the newcomers, and the way they want to fit in. How they were fully aware of what their future teammates were doing. By winter of last season, they were already raring to get going. Over Christmas break, Close assigned a book for her team to read. The incoming freshmen wanted to read it, too. When Caldwell, one of the heralded freshmen, returned to Westwood after helping the US win Gold at the FIBA Americas U18 tournament, she told the UCLA official website that the next item on her agenda was getting back to campus, and getting back to work.

She knew the Bruins had a strenuous non-conference schedule, and she wanted to get ready for it.

Last season, UCLA kept getting back up. You could hear the pride in Close’s voice when she spoke about that team. As she said, once, “I’ve asked them every day, ‘Are you willing to grow, and are you willing to be a great teammate today?’ If you do those two things, I’ll be happy.”

And, as Close said, “I’ve been happy most of the year.”

SLAM: The way that the ’13-14 UCLA women’s basketball team handled adversity was inspiring. How do you even begin to describe that season?

Cori Close: [Laughs] In my 21 years of coaching, that was probably the year of the biggest dichotomy. On the one hand, it was really difficult, and hard and disappointing—culminating the night before we faced Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament, and I had to tell our team that Thea [Lemberger] was done playing for her UCLA career. She’d had a concussion against Colorado the week before, that we didn’t even know was actually a concussion. But she wasn’t going to be able to play. It was very difficult and very emotional. On the one hand, we had all these hard things going on; it seemed like one disappointment after another after another. Then, on the other hand, I think it was the year that turned our program into a healthy culture that I feel reflects our philosophy.

I got this email from Brad Smith, who’s one of the most successful girl’s basketball coaches, and won several National Championships. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame this past June. He said, “I’ve been watching your team play a lot, and I really think you’re going to be on the Final Four stand one day soon. And you’re going to think back to this team as your ‘bricks and mortar’ team in your own Pyramid of Success.” I’ll never forget that, and I think he’s absolutely right.

After our banquet, Kari Korver’s dad came up to me and said, “Did I miss something? Did we win a National Championship—because that’s what it felt like today.” And then he got in his parent, pastoral voice with me and said, “Now your trick is to go win it all—and maintain this same vibe.”

It’s really hard to put into words. There was such a dichotomy. So many really cool things of growth and perseverance that will never show up in a win/loss or stats sheet. But I remember writing our incoming freshman class a letter, right after the season, and I said, You need to come in here with great humility, and you need to have an awareness that our team is healthy and ready to receive you because of the work of this (’13-14) team. You need to know that. When you come in, you’ll be ready to soar. There’s going to be great momentum, and it’s going to be so fun, and you’re not going to know how much sacrifice has gone in to creating this as a healthy culture, and a healthy environment that knows what it means to live by a champion.

I wrote our incoming freshmen, that are so highly touted, and have all this buzz, and I challenged their humility. That was really based on last year’s team, and their sacrifice.

I think I’ll be forever grateful for that team. I don’t think that’ll be a team I forget any time soon. It’s interesting; last year at UCLA, we had the highest attendance figures in over a decade. And we lost the most amount of games we’d lost in over a decade. And I’m like, Why are people coming? Why are they coming, when they could go to a Lakers game or a Clippers game?

They’re coming because they’re connected to the players’ journey, and the players are absolutely giving everything they have to each other on the court. In addition to that, they’re serving their community in a way I’ve never been around with a team.

People were coming not to be entertained, but to participate in the growth journey of spectacular young women. I think that’s a great illustration. Here we lose more games than we’ve lost in 10 years, and yet we have these higher attendance numbers. That’s the only explanation I can give.

SLAM: You’d assigned your team a book to read over Christmas break last season. The incoming freshman class wanted to read that book. Even then, they were looking for ways to participate in the group dynamic. Did that give you confidence that they could mesh once they’d arrived in Westwood?

CC: Yeah, absolutely. As spectacular as it is, we never called them the No. 1 class in the country. That really was never our goal. We never were after that title. What we were after was a group of young women who were passionate about doing something special, and who were equally passionate about growing as people, and growing a program, as they were with accomplishing things as a basketball team.

You don’t get that very often. In fact, I remember an interview I saw with [Diana] Taurasi, about why was Sandy [Brondello] was so successful when she took over the Phoenix Mercury this season. What was it about her, why was she able to make such dramatic changes and grow that franchise so quickly? (The Mercury won the 2014 WNBA title.) Taurasi said that there was an interesting balance. There was a veteran group that was open to change, and was willing to grow. And usually, when you have a very veteran group, they’re a little stuck in their ways. The way that really resonated with me was, I feel like we have, now, a group of young women who are really talented, and a good mix of older and younger, and we have a lot more pieces and ways in which we can attack basketball games.

They’re really excited about change, and they are embracing hard challenges. They are open to be taught; they have a teachable spirit. That’s what makes me excited about that freshman class. They’re really talented, and they bring so much on the court, in terms of abilities, and the giftedness they bring. At the same time, they’re teachable, humble and willing to serve each other and sacrifice their own agendas for the greater whole.

You just don’t find that at such a youthful stage. That’s what gets me excited. Today (Monday, September 29) we had a fitness test, and the freshmen did a spectacular job. Four of them passed on their first try. To watch them step into hard challenges…it’s inspiring. Everyone’s always talking to me—I was just out on the road recruiting, and people say, “Oh, you have the cavalry now!” And I can honestly look them in the eye and say, I like them more now, after 12 weeks of working with them, than when I was recruiting them. You don’t say that very often.

SLAM: Talk of that No. 1 recruiting class seemed to seep into everything last season. All eyes seemed turned toward 2014-15. Was it difficult to manage the season at hand?

CC: I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It wasn’t always easy. But I always say love is not a feeling, it’s a commitment. I really loved my seniors last year. I loved Lemberger, I loved Atonye Nyingifa. I never wanted them to look back, and think there was one moment I looked past their senior year to the next year.

We as a staff sat down after we signed that class, and I literally came in and I said thank you—the only kid I went after, we lost—so I mean, my assistants did an awesome job. I’m really the only one who screwed up a recruiting job! I came in and congratulated them. I said, Thank you, you worked your tails off. No one would’ve guessed in our third year, we’d be able to sign a class like that. I thanked them profusely. Right after that, I said, This will be the last time we talk about them. And that was in October.

Even before we had some of the injuries, we just said, we were never going to refer to them. We wanted to invest in them, we wanted to enjoy those freshmen, just like we would any other class, but never was our team going to hear us talk about “next year,” or “that class.” We never once referred to that. That’s a commitment we made, primarily to our two seniors, but also our entire team, that we were first of all not going to speak about that to each other as a staff, and we sure as heck were not going to let the players hear us talk to us about that.

So it was a very short-lived congratulations, and then, “Let’s get to work.” It was interesting. I can’t remember what point it was, but I was talking to a colleague at another university, in April, after the Final Four, and it was the first time I let myself get excited about the new freshmen coming in, because I did not let my heart, or my mind go there one time before. And my friend said that was the first time she’d ever heard me get excited about them. And she was right. I couldn’t allow myself. I had too big a commitment, too much love and care for the team I was called to serve that year. No distraction would have been acceptable.

SLAM: The season ended with that loss to Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament. At what point did you turn your focus toward this season, and begin to build?

CC: I gave them three weeks off; we didn’t do anything. I remember watching March Madness on my couch, and just thinking. I’ve been coaching a long time, and there’s very few times I’m on my couch without preparing at the same time for my own game. On the one hand, I was like, It’s weird. Usually…you’re not beating yourself up, but you’re thinking, Oh, we maybe could’ve gone a little further if I could’ve done this. It’s a self-reflective time, and usually it happens during the Elite Eight or the Final Four.

But this year, I didn’t have any of that, while watching. I told myself, my staff got the most out of that group. I was just thankful. We played as much to our potential as we could have. Here we won 13 games, and I was sitting there, thinking, Oh my gosh. I felt satisfied. It was like Coach Wooden’s definition of success, that it’s peace of mind, knowing you did the very best you could. To be the best you could be that day.

When you define success that way, I really had a peaceful feeling. As soon as I could acknowledge, ‘I think we did everything we could do’—of course, there’s always things to learn from, and push forward. You’re never perfect. But there was a peace, that our staff had poured everything into that team. If you’re measuring it by growth and toughness, we challenged them to grind and grow and give, and they did that. As soon as I could acknowledge in my own mind, and it was really during the NCAA Tournament, ‘OK, I have peace,’ then I could start really dreaming about next year. I think it was right about the Sweet 16 games of men’s and women’s basketball, on a Saturday. I thought, OK. I could allow myself to turn the page.

I love development. Since we’re a quarter school, we could work with the players who were healthy during the spring quarter. So then I get excited, and I started to gain some momentum, started to think about…it’s not only the six freshmen that have joined us, but the four players we redshirted. We have 10 new players who’ve never played together. Part of that is scary; part of that is really exciting. What we’re going to be able to do.

SLAM: You mentioned the debuts this November. There’s so much talent. Savanna Trapp, Paulina Hersler, Kari Korver, Kacy Swain are all back. This team could be highly competitive, but a lot of disparate elements have to fit together. What has that been like this offseason?

CC: This is the first year I’ve felt like the quarter system is an advantage. We had that time in the summer, with summer access, and we’ve tried things. We scrimmaged more. We played more than I would normally do. It was pretty much small group development, fundamentals, and then, let’s try things five-on-five, see what we can learn about them, who fits well together, what styles do people gravitate toward. It was a learning curve.

So by the time we came back right now, we know where the team identity is going, how we can put this team in the best position of strengths, strategically, Xs and Os-wise. We got a chance to do that this summer. It is hard. We’re still learning, we’re definitely a work in progress.

I think we’ll be good early, but I think we have a chance to be great late. I’m really not concerned…we have a really, really tough non-conference schedule (UCLA makes trips to North Carolina and UConn, and hosts Texas, Nebraska and Notre Dame), so I’m not concerned with wins and losses. I am concerned about our mental state staying really good. And learning from everything, that there will be a significant growth with each particular game.

I just think, it’s really like an art project, a painting you’re creating. You think it’s going to look a specific way. Then you start to paint part of the picture, and you go, Oh, it’ll look good if we do this. I’m not much of an artist; I’m a photographer, but I feel like we’re painting a picture. It’s changing, taking different forms. Since I’ve been here, I’ve not had pieces that can make this kind of canvas. I feel like this…budding artist that has all this incredible color and possibility, and this really clear vision in my head of what it’s going to look like, how it’s going to evolve. I’m in the midst of a creation that’s so fun.

The other part that makes it so fun, from 1 to 16, including our two walk ons, our medically retired Rhema Gardner, they’re completely bought in. One of the interesting things is learning from our football team. They had tons of expectations heading into this season. [Brett] Hundley’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They’re picked in the Final Four. And really, they played incredibly tight their first three games. It was very difficult.

I actually had my team over to my house, and we watched a movie, but we also watched one of the episodes of The Drive, the documentary on the team (airing on Pac-12 Networks). I asked them, What have you noticed in them? How have they processed expectations? Because let’s be honest, we’re going to have some of those same expectations. People are going to be saying all kinds of things, but really, all of that is potential—none of that have been earned yet. How do you control the voices around? None of those are reality. All talk. Nothing has been earned. How do we stay very, very process-oriented? Our football program is very disciplined. I know they were talking about that. And look at what still happened. How do we learn from that?

One of the things I learned from those expectations, Jim Mora says in the documentary, “I’m so happy about how high our expectations are, I want my players to hold themselves to expectations, but expectations can never become a burden.” How do we protect ourselves from that? How do we work incredibly hard, how do we embrace difficult challenges? How do we learn that on the other side of hard is success? How do we continue to thrive and grind and maintain joy, and fun, and really play this game like it’s a game, and try to be our best at it. What a cool thing.

I had one of our players in my office today, and we had done a clinic for women over 60. They never had the opportunities our players have. Madeline Poteet (formerly Madeline Brooks) said, “I think that will be a real key for us, keeping our joy. To realize, there’s so many people that would enjoy being in our shoes. We’ve got to enjoy this.” They would love to play in a UCLA jersey, with a full scholarship, let alone play in Pauley Pavilion. Oh my gosh. The more we can have a sense of gratitude, freedom and joy—and hard work—the more we will play with those things.

SLAM: Kari Korver was elected a team captain last year—after she’d suffered the season-ending ACL tear. I don’t think I’ve seen a player more fully engaged with what her team, and her program, was about. How much does Korver bring to this team?

CC: She’s…the hub of the wheel. She connects so well with all her teammates; there’s not one person on our team that doesn’t respect her. I had Recee’ Caldwell at my house, she was dropping something by on a Saturday morning, and we were sitting on my porch, and I said, Who are you going to model your leadership after? And she said, “Well, I have to model my leadership after Kari Korver.”

She understands everyone’s needs, she’s always looking to serve her teammates, she works hard every single day, she never has a down day with attitude, effort, concentration or leadership. It just never happens. Recee’ recognized that within weeks of being here. That if she was going to be a great leader and a point guard, she needed to model her leadership after Kari Korver. I think Kari…it’s really been fun since she got here. Really, the credit goes to (UCLA assistant) Shannon Perry. She does a leadership class that really helps players explore how to become a better leader. I’ve seen a lot of coaches complain, ‘We don’t have good enough leadership, we don’t have good enough chemistry or toughness.’ And I’m like, Well, how are you teaching it? How are you equipping them?

You don’t have to join Shannon’s class, but there’s five players who are in it right now. And Kari’s been in it, going on her third year. You can choose—I want to be pushed as a leader. I want to be equipped as a leader. Shannon really takes that charge and leads them through it. I remember the first year, Kari was so scared to open her mouth and use her voice.

There were times that Shannon would say, “You have to have a confrontational moment in practice today.” And Kari’s face would get all red. Shannon was teaching her about opportunities, and she’d say to Kari, “You’re only going to confront someone on something they can control”—effort, attitude, body language. None of the team knows this, but there’s been so much work behind the scenes.

To watch Kari go from this shy person who didn’t want to use her voice, who just said, “I’m going to be a leader by example—that’s it”…to not only see her leaping with enthusiasm, jumping off the bench, but when we’re going down the hallway before a game and I hear this scream—”Give me a B!” And I’m like, Is that Kari? She’s spelling out B-R-U-I-N-S, leading this cheer, and I’m like…It can’t be Kari…and sure enough it was, and she continued on through the year.

As a coach, to watch someone’s growth from the inside out…we say at UCLA, ‘Champions are made here,’ and that’s great, but we say, ‘Champions are made here—from the inside out.’ Kari is a great example of that. To watch her leadership grow from this shy person, that was not very confident, and even doubted her ability to play at this level sometimes, and to watch her leadership grow, her confidence grow, her fortitude…it’s really what keeps me going as a coach. I feel like Kari has given way more to me, and to what I’m building, than I could ever give to her.

SLAM: The theme for last season’s team was ‘Beyond’. To go beyond comfort zones, beyond what other people expected. How do you come up with these themes? Have you settled upon a theme for this season?

CC: Last season, it was interesting, the Beyond thing—we have two words now. Beyond, the leadership said, we don’t think that’s going to end. Beyond, and now Uncommon, will become part of our fabric. Our action words, our characteristics, what makes us unique. Our leadership group, our players said, We don’t think that’s done. It has to be deeply engrained, so Beyond will stay with us in a different form. Our leadership group has a big influence on what the theme is for the year. I have some influence, some discussion, but I think the more power it has, and my staff has really pushed me in this, that if we want it to resonate, and to influence behavioral change, we have to let them have ownership.

Beyond was a good step, but this year we really wrestled, and we came up with the theme ‘One.’ It was easy to stay happy last season with five players, when everyone was going to play as much as their bodies can handle. You don’t have to make selfless decisions. So how do we maintain—and it’s sort of the charge Kari Korver’s dad gave me after the banquet—how do you maintain that selflessness, that vibe, that sacrificial nature, that my desire to serve my team and my program is greater than my own desires for my own dreams. Usually your own desires and dreams come anyway, when you put those other things first.

So how do we maintain that? And the theme was One. There’s a thing with everybody’s name worked into it. There’s no individuals. In fact, Shannon Perry made this thing called Bruin Bucks over the summer. I’s Monopoly money surrounded by our six core values, and it just acknowledges they could earn different things with this. It’s lifestyle givers, and gratitude. All our core values they know about. Communication.

Shannon presented it to them. And they said, “Our theme is going to be One, we don’t think we should be earning anything individually. We should earn it as a team”—so that became a goal. They wanted to earn Bruin Bucks as a team. It really solidified it. That if One was going to be our theme, it’s got to be in anything we do. Never affects just the individual, always the group. As coaches we always talk about that, pay lip service to that. But it was really fun to watch our team say, “No, we’re not going down that path, everything has got to be seen through the lens of One. We are one team, one program, one group.”

Even when we have a chance to earn something, for individual actions, the reward needs to be collective. Just like when you make a poor choice, the consequence is collective. That’s something that, when we made the proposal for Bruin Bucks, and the chance to earn these things based on core values, it was fun to say, “One needs to go deeper for us. That doesn’t fit in.” The theme is One. It really derived from our leadership group.

We believe that’s going to be the tipping point for reaching out potential as basketball team this year. The extent that we can live that out, the extent that we’re able to play to our strengths.

SLAM: You’ve referenced John Wooden numerous times in this article alone. You’ve mentioned his importance in your life, since you were a graduate assistant at UCLA in the mid-90s. How do his teachings impact you on a day-to-day level?

CC: There isn’t enough space or time here to hear all the ways he influences me. I say I have this walking tape recorder, but then everyone looks at me weird, so I should say MP3 or iPod, I don’t even know, there’s this ever-rotating of the latest thing. I’ve got this ever-rotating clip of his sayings, his wisdom, sitting in his den and listening to him and planning for these opportunities, asking for his opinion. I would ask for his advice, and he would say, “Oh, no, I don’t share advice, I only share my opinion, you have to find what fits your personality and your strengths.”

One one hand, I want to mimic everything he ever taught me. Why reinvent the wheel? On other hand, one of the things he taught me, in my time with him was, he would always say, “Cori, You can’t coach like me or anybody else. You need to coach within your own personality, and find your own vision.” It’s a walking combination. The freedom he gave me to be my own person is remarkable. It says so much about him.

I’m sitting in my office right now, looking across at this picture on the wall of all the things he’s given to me, or said to me, and there’s pictures on there…it’s hard for me to articulate how much his mentorship has meant to me. Just the time he gave me, and I’m thankful to his family that they shared him the way they did, because they didn’t have to, and that came at a price for them.

Coach Wooden won his first few Championships without a lot of talent. His ability to adjust and get the Lew Alcindors, the Bill Waltons, to continue that sustained excellence. One of his keys was, he never looked at it through the eyes of winning or outscoring the opponent. He never talked that way.

Competitive greatness is at the top of his pyramid of success for a reason. You really never talk about it. It’s a byproduct of building that pyramid with incredible attention to detail, and commitment to the foundation, and all those other things. Then, that’s a natural byproduct, it doesn’t really need to be spoken of. It happens when you build those kinds of habits, and you get to the top of your building process.

I’ve tried to take that approach with this program. Don’t get distracted by outscoring opponents, or recruiting battles, or things that are not true measures of whether I’m being the best coach I can be for this team, whether or not I’m teaching the right lessons that will not only make us a great basketball team, but also prepare them for life outside UCLA. That’s what coach Wooden taught me. How to have sustained excellence on the court, and really be demanding of those standards.

Sometimes in recruiting, some of my colleagues have said, “Well, that must means that winning isn’t that important to her. Listen to the way she talks.” But I just don’t think you talk about it. The same habits that lead to winning basketball games are the same ones that make you a great teammate, that make you a great employee, that make you a great leader.

With the time I spent with him, it really just refocuses me on process. Outscoring an opponent will never be the measuring stick of whether or not I’m building the things inside of them that help them live like champions.