Rock Chalk Weekly: X's and O's
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Download the app:Written by James Saat, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
To many, basketball is merely a game. Most see the game as purely the manipulation of a leather sphere across a hardwood floor and into iron circles. Kansas sophomore guard Lauren Aldridge grew up seeing basketball in a different light.
“(Basketball) was just one of those things you do growing up. I just fell in love with it. I loved the competition, the physicality of basketball, just all the skill work that you can do,” Aldridge said. “In fact, growing up, basketball was really one of the only sports I played. I did a little bit of softball and volleyball, but other than that it was just basketball. “
Neighbors of the Aldridges became accustomed to waking up to the bouncing of a basketball and the (occasional) clanking of the rim during the summer months, when a 6 year-old Aldridge would wake up before everyone else to run through her drills.
The daughter of collegiate athletes, her father, Steve, a baseball player and her mother, Jennifer, a cross country runner, both at Missouri State, Aldridge was exposed to athletics at a young age, playing on Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) teams by the age of five. Her father was instrumental in Aldridge’s early basketball career, coaching her YMCA and Amateur Athletic Union basketball teams through her high school graduation. Though he played basketball in high school, the elder Aldridge had much to learn about coaching the sport if he wanted to maximize his daughter’s potential.
“I think he realized I had a gift to play basketball and that it was something that I could do in college and get a free education out of it. So with that, there is just a whole different side of skill development that you have to really work on to get to this level,” Aldridge said. “He made sure that I had all the tools necessary to be able to do that.”
Becoming a basketball coach was not an easy task for Steve. He spent countless hours watching YouTube, reading books, researching and attending coaching clinics to expand his understanding of the game and learning various coaching techniques.
Oftentimes, coach and player would go through the learning process together, with basketball leaving the court and bleeding into the Aldridge household. This strengthened their relationship off the court and improved their results on the court. Steve’s efforts to learn more about basketball helped him not only become a better coach, but developed his starting point guard into a second coach on the floor.
“I think her and I sharing a lot of time together at home talking about basketball made her (basketball) IQ a lot better, understanding the game and how it worked,” Steve said. “We never sat down and watched a basketball game just to watch a basketball game. We would talk about how the players were moving and what the coaches were doing with adjustments. I think that (developed) her mind to where she’s at now.”
Aldridge’s physical talents and mental acumen developed in her formative years by her father were crucial to her leading Marshfield (Mo.) High School to four-straight Central Ozark Conference Championships as well as being named a three-time Central Ozark Conference Player of the Year.
Her refusal to be complacent with her skill level and understanding of basketball made Aldridge an exemplary student of the game but also placed immense pressure on herself. It was not until her junior year of high school, when Shelly Jones became Marshfield’s head coach, that her relationship with basketball evolved to something greater than just a sport that she loved.
“I’ve been raised in church my whole life and my faith is a huge part of my life,” Aldridge said. “I don’t want to say (Coach Jones) was the first person to tell me that basketball can be a platform for showing people Jesus, but it was the first time that I had played basketball and realized that I play for Him and only Him, and that made basketball fun for me when before it was kind of a stressor. Being able to see how she could transform how I think about basketball was really impactful for me.”
This realization added a new layer to Aldridge’s affection for basketball. Each dribble was a note in part of a larger symphony, each point a part of a bigger equation. The basketball court became a canvas on which Aldridge could paint her life story, demonstrate her faith and express her gratitude for her natural talents and the support system that allowed her talents to develop.
“I think when you look at it as a fun game and talents that you have received, I think that it changes your view of the game and there’s a lot less stress to perform,” Jones said. “We took that pressure off, whether it was off of her or the entire team. We go out and give everything we’ve got because we’ve been given the opportunity to do so.”
Jones’ impact on Aldridge’s view on basketball persuaded Aldridge to consider pursuing coaching once she finished playing. Coaching could be a platform to tell her story and share her faith, with both female and male players.
“I think I just kind of realized that I can use the game of basketball, as a coach, as a platform to share with people my life story,” Aldridge said. “It wasn’t until probably my senior year in high school to the very beginning of my freshman year at KU when I was like, ‘Hey, the men’s side would be a challenge.'”
At the time of Aldridge’s decision, none of the major professional leagues had a female coach. Since then, both the National Football League and National Basketball Association have hired female assistant coaches. Most notable among them is Becky Hammon, who in 2014 became the first female NBA assistant coach after joining the San Antonio Spurs and a year later was named the first female head coach in the NBA Summer League, winning the Las Vegas Summer League title. Hammon’s success was followed by the Sacramento Kings hiring of Nancy Lieberman as an assistant coach in July of 2015.
Female coaches have also been breaking ground in the NFL. In January of 2016, the Buffalo Bills hired Kathryn Smith, the NFL’s first female full-time assistant coach. This followed the Arizona Cardinals hiring of Jen Welter as inside linebackers coach during their summer training camp in 2015.
Those close to Aldridge are not surprised by her ambitions to challenge the status quo. Instead, they see this as an extension of her desire to constantly improve and test her limits.
“When she told me that she wanted to coach college, that was par for the course. When she told me she wanted to coach men, I kind of took a step back, but she’s not scared of anything,” Steve said. “She’s willing to take on challenges, she’s willing to step out of what she considers ‘the norm’ and take on those challenges. She’s been that way her entire life. If she decides she wants to coach on the men’s side, there’s no doubt in my mind that she’ll be able to do it.”
Aldridge has demonstrated several qualities on the court that should help her succeed in coaching. Her drive, communication skills and leadership abilities that make her an ideal point guard also led her to accomplishing several feats off the court. In high school she started a tradition of forming a prayer circle after every game, a tradition that continues to this day and has grown to include other surrounding schools as well.
“I think that she’s a natural-born leader. She was president of the student council here, she was our team captain and she just led the school and the program. She’s one of those people that strives to give everything that she’s got no matter what it is,” Jones said. “For any team that she coaches she would have that understanding of their talents but also drive them to be the best that they possibly could be and she would expect that of herself.”
Though only a sophomore, Aldridge has picked up her fair share of coaching lessons during her time at KU. One of the few returning players this season with any significant playing time, she has quickly developed into one of the leaders of the program. She has had to learn how to adapt under first-year head coach Brandon Schneider’s system while becoming a go-to scorer for the team, a far cry from her role as distributor last season.
“I think (the coaching change has) been really good for me, just to be exposed to two totally different coaches, two totally different styles. I think that sharpens your (basketball) IQ a little bit and makes you learn different things, definitely,” Aldridge said. “Being able to have two sides of it and being able to compare and contrast and take things you like and don’t like for the future is really important. For me, it’s been really good.”
If Aldridge wants it badly enough, becoming a men’s basketball coach should be a sure thing. Her excellent communication skills, high basketball IQ and unadulterated drive are qualities of any successful coach. Most of all, her unrelenting passion for basketball, forged by a father’s devotion and Aldridge’s own faith, will lead her to new heights. Eventually, when everyone looks at Lauren Aldridge, they won’t just see a coach directing a game.
They’ll see a game-changer.
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