The Trailblazer

Jennifer Azzi has always been a pioneer. And she’s always been a winner.

She joined a nascent Stanford women’s basketball program and led it to a national championship in four years.

She was a key member of the 1996 National Team that returned the U.S. to Olympic glory.

After playing five seasons in Europe, she came home to help launch a new professional women’s league in America.

She took over a University of San Francisco team that was in shambles, built a successful

program, and won a conference championship.

Now she’s busy promoting her sport internationally, handling special projects for USF, and raising a baby boy.

Always something to build, something to develop, something to grow.

Azzi grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a short drive from Knoxville, where the legendary Pat Summitt was coaching a national powerhouse. But Jennifer wanted a different challenge, a chance to build something. And when she was accepted to Stanford, her father told her, “You have to go. It’s a great school and you can help make something happen there.”

Initially frustrated by the lack of student support and homesick for Tennessee, she questioned her decision and even entertained thoughts about transferring during her freshman year.

Then, after a disappointing loss in a home game—where the crowd was so small there was no P.A. announcer and the bleachers weren’t even pulled out—coach Tara Vanderveer pulled her aside.

“She told me, ‘Jennifer I know this is hard for you,’” Azzi says. ‘But I want you to see my vision. I want you to picture Maples Pavilion, sold out, full of fans. And I want you to see us winning a national championship. Can you do that?”

Azzi bought in. Stanford was 14-14 her first year, then went 27-5 and advanced to the Sweet 16 her sophomore year, then won the Pac-10 championship with a 28-3 record and made it to the Elite Eight as a junior. By then, Maples Pavilion was sold out, full of fans.

The next season, with the arrival of post player Val Whiting, Stanford gained the missing piece it needed to win an NCAA title. Whiting joined Azzi, Sonja Henning, Katy Steding and Trisha Stevens in a formidable lineup that advanced to the Final Four, where the Cardinal beat Virginia and Auburn to win it all.

Azzi and Henning gave Coach Vanderveer a rare combination of two point guards who could shoot. Azzi led the fast break, Henning directed the half-court sets. They still rank No. 1 and 2 all-time in career assists at Stanford (Henning with 757 and Azzi with 751) and No. 2 and 3 all-time in steals behind Candice Wiggins.

Azzi was the Final Four MVP. She was also named National Player of the Year, winning the Naismith Trophy, the Wade Trophy and the Honda Award for basketball.

But the U.S. didn’t have a pro league, so she spent the next five years playing in Italy, France and Sweden, averaging 32 points per game one season.

She was named to the ’96 U.S. Olympic Team that was organized with one goal in mind—to regain the gold medal after America's embarrassing third place finish in ’92. Vanderveer took a year off from Stanford to coach the Olympians, and the team played 60 games against the best U.S. college teams.

The barnstorming Olympians, an increase in youth participation, and the first widespread TV coverage and sponsorship of women’s basketball sparked a number of startup pro leagues. Azzi cast her lot with the American Basketball League, which was birthed in Palo Alto.

I was one of the three founders of the ABL—along with Anne Cribbs and Steve Hams. Against all odds, our "little league that could” got off the ground. The active involvement of Azzi and eight other '96 Olympians was instrumental in making it happen.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the resources or leverage to compete with the NBA monolith, so the league folded after three years. Jennifer went on to star in the WNBA for five years, leading the league in free throw and three-point percentage.

Always a team captain, always “another coach on the floor,” it seemed like coaching was a natural progression for her. She turned down several jobs in the WNBA and at colleges throughout the country, but saw something she liked in the challenge at USF.

After going 4-25 in her first year, the team improved steadily, culminating in '16 with a 21-12 record, the championship of the WCC Tournament, and the school’s first NCAA berth in 20 years.

But Jennifer realized the coaching lifestyle—long days and nights, film study, recruiting, and constant travel—was not something she wanted to commit to long term. So she retired after the championship season and now works as a Global Director for the NBA—promoting the sport internationally—and director of Special Initiatives for USF. She and her wife, Blair Hardiek, are proud parents of a one-year old boy, Macklin.

“I love seeing something, seeing potential in it, and being a part of something that’s growing,” she says. “I’m all about building something, having a vision and following through.”

Spoken like a true pioneer.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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