The Hometown Hero
Vicky Jacobsen | Friday, April 5, 2013
It’s how senior guard Skylar Diggins greets her 331,035 Twitter followers before each contest. She has, at most, only two more opportunities to send out that tweet as a Notre Dame player. Two more times to put on an Irish uniform. Just one more college road-trip. And one more chance to win a national title.
“I want to bring home the national championship so badly,” Diggins said. “Not just for myself, but for Notre Dame and the city of South Bend. People know how high I hold this team and this university, I hold it on a pedestal. And the city of South Bend, how proud would they be? I know they would be proud of us regardless, but you know I want to go out winning our last game.”
Just don’t think the pressure will keep Diggins from enjoying her last weekend as a college athlete.
“I’m super excited,” Diggins said. “I kind of don’t want it start because that means it’s going to end even quicker. I’m just trying to take it all in and really enjoy the moment.”
The recruitment of Skylar Diggins, the proud South Bend native, has become a familiar story for Irish fans. But assistant coach Niele Ivey, who was charged with bringing Diggins to Notre Dame, said she wasn’t sure she had made the sell until the then-high school senior made the announcement in the Washington High library.
“I was sweating it out to the end,” Ivey said. “I always felt like we had a chance, you could say. I always felt like this is home for her, it would be hard for her to leave. I guess I was always nervous.”
Ivey and Irish head coach Muffet McGraw were successful in recruiting Diggins to Notre Dame, but it was Diggins herself who brought a new crew of fans to Purcell Pavilion.
“I feel like I met everybody in the crowd,” Diggins said. “There are so many fans that have been familiar faces that I’ve been with since Washington, since my middle school days. And it’s just a great feeling, to be from here and to see the support knowing people have are in your corner and want you to win.”
McGraw said the increased support from local fans has been palpable.
“I think people like the home talent. They appreciate that kids stay close to home,” McGraw said. “When we went to Indianapolis for the Final Four [in 2011] we got a huge crowd. The entire state was cheering for us. So I think it’s a bonus to have a player like that stay close to home and help us grow our fan base and create more interest in the women’s game.”
It was during that NCAA tournament in 2011 that Diggins, then a sophomore, began to attract attention outside of Michiana.
“Probably my biggest moment [from Diggins's career] was when we beat Tennessee in the Elite Eight and made our first Final Four since 2001,” Ivey said. “It was a monumental stage for us. It was the first time beating Tennessee, first time beating [then-Tennessee coach] Pat Summitt at the head of the program. That was the year Skylar became a household name.”
Of course, Diggins isn’t the first player in program history to accrue widespread attention. Ivey herself was a member of the Notre Dame team that won a national championship in 2001 along with Ruth Riley, who won that year’s Naismith Award and was named the Associated Press Player of the Year.
But while Riley, like Diggins, also played with a signature headband during her college days, a virtual “headband nation” has obsessed the legions of little girls who try to emulate Diggins, a unique result of athletic success in the age of social media.
“I think it’s a tremendous burden to be placed on a player at that age, and somehow she has embraced it,” McGraw said. “I think she talked to Ruth Riley years ago, like after her freshman year, maybe, just about what it’s like to be the one that everybody’s talking about.
“I’ve been so impressed with the way she handled it. But I haven’t really been surprised because when she was going into ninth grade, I sat her in my office and offered her a scholarship and she was so poised and mature at that point, I thought ‘This girl is just going to be special.’”
While Diggins is careful not to put her own accomplishments in front of those of her team, she also hasn’t shied away from the media. Last summer, Diggins worked for ESPN instead of staying in South Bend for summer classes and she continues to write her own blog for ESPNW, a website dedicated to covering women’s sports.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of sports and things like that, and I just fit right in the atmosphere,” Diggins said of ESPN. “I think that company embodies some of the same values that I have, the teamwork and integrity and what have you. I thought it was a great experience for me to see the job opportunities that I have in the future.”
McGraw says Diggins stands out just as much away from awards shows and ESPN shoots as she does when the lights are focused on her.
“I just enjoy her so much, the way she pops in the office every day and staff meetings, sits down and asks what we’re working on,” McGraw said. “I think she’s just been so involved in what we’re doing at every level, that it’s been really fun.
“She’s a very different type of player in that I could see her being a coach. I would really look at hiring her one day because she has that kind of basketball IQ, and I think we relate in a little different way than with most players.”
Even if Diggins doesn’t decide to use her basketball IQ as a member of McGraw’s staff at some point down the road, she’s certainly making life easier for her coach right now.
“I think the Princeton offense gives my players a chance to use their own creativity,” McGraw said. “I don’t like when the point guard looks over and says ‘What are you going to run?’ And fortunately I don’t have to worry about that because Sky pretty much can make up her own mind. So we’ve been blessed there. “
On the statue of former Irish football coach Dan Devine, the inscription reads: “Leave the field a better player. Leave Notre Dame a better person.”
According to coaches and teammates, Diggins is taking that motto a step further, leaving the program itself stronger at her departure.
“I try not to think of it,” Ivey said when asked what the team would be like if Diggins had not come to Notre Dame. “I knew that that piece of the puzzle for us was basically program-changing. She draws so much attention, even from other recruits.
“Recruits want to come here because they could be a part of this with her. Like anyone who looks up to LeBron, they want to go play for the Heat. That’s what she brings for us.”
Diggins has also been instrumental in the development of the players who will try to fill her place after she graduates.
“She’s always a competitor, and it helps a lot,” freshman guard Jewell Loyd said after being named national freshman of the year Thursday. “She makes everyone around her better, and that’s something I always want to have in my handbook to do as well.”
Diggins is as effusive in praise of her teammates as they are of her.
“I’m so proud of Jewell,” Diggins said. “She’s somebody that I really tried to take under my wing and just her growth this year has been so amazing, and she’s done so much for our team and for our program. I know next year that I can kind of pass the baton to her and (juniors) Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa and this team is going to be okay for years to come because of her.”
Loyd says teammates will remember Diggins as a teammate, not as a celebrity or iconic player.
“At my second workout or something me and her were in the gym and she was like, ‘Want to work on your ball handling?’ I was like sure, I’ve got nothing better to do,” Loyd said. “We worked out and joked around and listened to music, and that’s how we really started our bond. And that’s something that I’ll cherish forever, because not a lot of upperclassmen will embrace the freshmen, but she definitely does.”
Of course, with two more wins, both Loyd and Diggins might be left with an even sweeter memory to cherish, and a legacy to go with it.
Contact Vicky Jacobsen at firstname.lastname@example.org