(*BrandForward is a proud partner of Front Office Sports.)
Jennifer Azzi is one of the world’s most accomplished names in women’s basketball. An NCAA champion from Stanford, Olympic gold medalist, and 13-year professional player, Azzi went on to coach the University of San Francisco women’s basketball team, earning a West Coast Conference championship and an NCAA Tournament berth in 2016 after six seasons at the helm.
Shortly after that, Azzi accepted a role with the NBA as the global director of the NBA Academy. In this role, Azzi oversees a network of elite basketball training centers around the world that is developing the top international male and female basketball prospects. Having the opportunity to serve as a global ambassador for the sport, as well as develop the future stars of basketball, continues to attract Azzi to the job.
“Being part of the NBA family and helping to grow the game globally is really exciting,” Azzi said. “A lot of American colleges and universities are looking for international talent on the men’s and women’s sides. There’s so much potential in places like India and China. We’re working there to help young men and women develop both their athletic and academic abilities so they can get to the next level and eventually play professionally. It’s exhilarating to be at the forefront of the growth of the game.”
Working in conjunction with former University of Missouri standout and USF associate head coach Blair Hardiek, Azzi and the NBA’s efforts to grow the game are already paying dividends, particularly in India.
Sanjana Ramesh, an NBA Academy product, recently signed with Northern Arizona University, becoming the second female student-athlete from India to join a Division I program.
Beyond proud of Sanjana! It was a pleasure to work with her at the NBA Academy in India. She will make a great role model for many players to come out of India. Congratulations to Northern Arizona, she is a winner! https://t.co/lJflsCjTB4
— Jennifer Azzi (@JenniferAzzi) November 14, 2018
“On the women’s side, it’s been really fun to help young women like Sanjana come to the United States and play in the NCAA. That’s a huge thing for India, it’s great for the NBA, and it’s great for women around the world.”
Thanks to the NBA Academy’s focus on academics as well as basketball, Azzi and company are able to prepare them for the expectations that await them in college. This has been immensely satisfying for Azzi.
“I thought it would take us three or four years before we get a Division-I athlete, but it happened in the first year,” she remarked. “We’re able to bridge the gap between these incredibly talented, motivated young women and opportunities. It’s just very rewarding to educate them on what the possibilities are as long as they also focus on getting the grades. That’s why the education component of the academies are important as well.”
A former student-athlete herself at Stanford, Azzi recognizes what an enriching experience playing in the NCAA can be, and takes pride in helping other young women reach that level.
“Growing up in East Tennessee, getting the opportunity to go to Stanford opened up the world for me,” Azzi said. “It led to me playing professionally in other countries and in the WNBA. I have incredible respect and gratitude for Amy Tucker at Stanford for taking a chance on me. Helping someone to fulfill their own dreams and get those kinds of opportunities has been incredibly rewarding work.”
With basketball now being the second-most popular sport in the world, Azzi attributes the game’s growth to a number of the NBA’s efforts over the last few decades.
“The NBA effort has been great on the global front in terms of both marketing and building people. They’ve done a fantastic job over the last 10 to 20 years building initiatives, like Basketball Without Borders, which led to things like opening basketball schools in India, and the Jr. NBA Global Championship.”
Since 2009, Azzi and Hardiek have also been running their own developmental camps for young athletes. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Azzi Academy teaches not only the fundamentals of the game, but also the life skills that “encourage every player to be their very best.”
Azzi, Hardiek and their staff try to instill the values of teamwork, leadership, and kindness in the campers. Azzi also conducts camps on the NCAA recruiting process for student-athletes looking to learn more.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to in this day and age, but we’ve made sure that that kindness is a big piece of what we do. The good thing about being based in the Bay Area is that we have the Golden State Warriors right here, so kids get to see the wonderful examples of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant — guys playing at the highest levels who are also kind and do the right things.”
Paralympian Trooper Johnson also speaks to camp attendees about the importance of staying away from drugs and living a healthy lifestyle.
After 11 years of doing camps and coaching, Azzi is starting to see children that came through her camps finish college and become adults that use the lessons Azzi’s camps taught them. These are some of the most satisfying moments for her.
“To hear a parent or a former camper say things like ‘I’m really glad that you guys do more than just basketball because you’re teaching valuable lessons of life that they might not get going somewhere else.’ As time goes on, those are the real rewarding stories.”
To grow the camp, as well as her personal brand, Azzi works with athlete brand strategy consultancy BrandForward, which Azzi describes as “wonderful to work with.” With booking help from BrandForward, Azzi regularly speaks to audiences all over the world on how to lead and motivate teams. In these talks, Azzi stresses the importance of being supportive and available for every member of a team.
“The greatest lesson in leadership that I can give is to try to make every player feel comfortable and important,” she said. “I think my greatest tough lesson being in a position of power came through coaching and realizing that your power and influence can be used for good or bad purposes. I learned quickly that using my authority in a positive way and building people up was invaluable as a coach.”
Overall, communicating has been a major reason for Azzi’s success as a player, a coach, and now as an advocate for the game she loves all over the planet.
“Communication is everything. Everybody’s different, and what might motivate one kid is not going to motivate another one. You have to figure out what motivates different people. Applying that is why I feel we’ve been successful with Azzi Camp, as well as with the NBA Academy.”
(*BrandForward is a proud partner of Front Office Sports.)