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Off the Cuff with Claiborne: Napheesa Collier

When it comes to athletic excellence, it’s difficult to find a more impressive resume than that of Napheesa Collier. She played basketball at Incarnate Word Academy—where she left such an impression that the school retired her jersey number. In college, she distinguished herself further playing for the University of Connecticut and earned a spot in the WNBA with the Minnesota Lynx. In her first season, she took home Rookie of the Year, and most recently, she won gold with Team U.S.A. at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

You and Jackie-Joyner Kersee are the crown jewels when it comes to female athletes from St. Louis.
It’s amazing to have my name in conversation with someone as successful as she is. It’s also really cool to bring that pride to St. Louis because I’m proud to be a St. Louisan. 

Your travels have taken you all over the world. What’s your favorite place other than St. Louis?
Probably Italy, Spain, Tokyo, New York and Minnesota because that’s where I play. 

Why did you make St. Louis your home?
This is where my husband’s and my families are. I grew up in Jeff City, which is only two hours away, and attended high school here, so it just feels like home.

Do you follow other sports besides basketball?
I follow women’s soccer a little. I used to love playing volleyball. I don’t actively follow it as much, but when I see highlights, it’s interesting to me, so I always get caught up in it.

In high school, you played for the legendary coach Dan Rolfes.
It was a lot of fun. It was interesting because he approaches basketball like a college coach does with the level of excellence he expects from his players. I think that’s why I was able to do so well at UConn, since the standards there are very high as well. I really credit coach Rolfes for preparing me for that. I love the way that he expected the same from everyone and really pushed as hard as he could.

Your high school record was 91 and 3. Did you ever have a rival?
Blackman is where Crystal Dangerfield played. They were one of our losses. We beat them in Florida, and then we played them again maybe a week later, and they won. Rock Bridge in Columbia was always a really good game for us. We played against them in the Webster Groves tournament.

What was it like adjusting to playing in college under coach Geno Auriemma?
It was really hard. I knew it would be difficult physically because the other players would be bigger, faster and stronger, but I don’t think I was prepared for how hard it would be mentally. Coach Auriemma is very demanding, but that’s why you grow so much being there. I know it’s what made me into the player I am today. He really expects us not to just be the most talented team, but also the smartest. It wasn’t an easy journey to break old habits and start thinking in a totally different way.

Do you think you hit the jackpot with coaches?
Absolutely. I’ve been really lucky with my coaches, even when I first started in Jeff City. All the way up to now, I’ve had a line of great coaches. At each stage, each one has helped me grow with the game and mentally.

Was the biggest adjustment you faced going into the WNBA?
I think I adjusted pretty well. I think my freshman year of college was the hardest obstacle I’ve had to face basketball-wise. Everything in comparison has been a little bit easier. I did struggle a little in our pre-season games. I think I scored maybe six points combined in both. I found myself reverting back to how I felt my freshman year, but that was something I never wanted to experience again. I kinda just flipped a switch and told myself I was there to play. The first game, I scored 27 points, and I never looked back from there.

What is the most you’ve ever scored in a game?
I scored 39 in college. I can’t remember if I ever broke the 40 marker in high school.

With high school and college careers, did you feel prepared for the WNBA?
Definitely. Not only did I have two demanding coaches who expected a lot from me, I expected a lot from myself. Once I graduated to each new level, there wasn’t any added pressure because I’d already felt that for so many years. 

From your travels, what’s the best food you’ve come across?
Italy was the best food I’ve ever had, hands down. Pasta, cheese, bread—everything is just so good. France was another place where the food was really good. Right now, I’m just trying not to eat anything that gives me indigestion since I’m pregnant.

Give me your go-to recipes in St. Louis.
I really like Cafe Napoli. I also think Tucanos is fun.

How do you balance your career with family?
It’s obviously a lot harder for women, but the WNBA’s new parental benefits make it easier. If I don’t play a single game this season, I’ll still earn my full salary, and there are other allowances. That’s not always the case for women in the working world. I know it’s going to be difficult, but thankfully, I have a great support system. I imagine it will be challenging but really rewarding.

Do you have any hobbies?
I love reading. My favorites are mysteries and thrillers.

Where do you keep your awards?
It’s in my basement. It’s unfinished, so both my husband’s and my stuff is mostly in bins right now. Eventually, we want to hang everything up, but for right now, it’s just packed away.

Are you into fashion?
I wouldn’t say I’m a fashionista or cutting edge, but I do love clothes and the way they can make you feel. You may not find me at Fashion Week every year, but I like to look nice.

You wouldn’t be caught dead in what?
I like to experiment with different clothes, so I don’t know if there’s anything I wouldn’t be caught dead in. Maybe a cowboy hat.

Who is one person you were excited to meet?
Probably Kobe. 

What’s something about your life that you’ve started to really appreciate?
The freedom I have. I realize how lucky I am that I don’t have to have a nine-to-five desk job. I’m also thankful that I have the ability to travel, see my family and do what I want in the off season.

Have you started to think about life after basketball?
I think about it all the time—just trying to figure out what I want to do because I know basketball isn’t forever. Hopefully, I have a long time left, but I also want to figure out what my other interests are. It’s nice to have a plan set in place.

True or false: I can beat my husband one-on-one, and he’ll be happy about it.
True. Even though it would probably sting a little, he’s happy when I’m successful.

What is the best player you’ve played against?
Breanna Stewart. She’s going to one of the greats. She’s an amazing player. I’ve played against a lot of legends, but they weren’t in their prime.

Who was a beast to play against?
DeWanna Bonner got me last year. She’s really shifty and quick, so when I have to guard her, it’s always a tough game.

Do the girls chirp as much as the guys on the basketball court?
Some of them do. I’m not really a chirper—I have to save my breath. 

What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I think I’m an open book, but a lot of people think I’m reserved. I’m actually pretty weird and silly. In interviews and on the court, I’m not a big chirper, but I really come out of my shell when I’m around my teammates and my family. 

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