EXCLUSIVE – Jefferson City native and Olympic gold medalist Napheesa Collier sat down with The Heartlander to discuss her path to the Olympics and what it was like to compete on the world stage.
Collier, the 2019 WNBA rookie of the year, said she wasn’t sure if she would be selected for Team USA because of how many great players there were to choose from.
“I was really, really excited,” she said. “I was really unsure if I was going to make the team because obviously there are a lot of great players. I had no idea until I got the actual phone call that I was going to be on the team.”
Collier has consistently succeeded in every basketball environment she has ever competed in. After playing for Jefferson City High School her freshman year, she transferred to Incarnate Word Academy in St. Louis where she won three state championships and two Gatorade Missouri Player of the Year awards.
The 6-foot-1 Missourian then went on to an extremely successful collegiate career at the University of Connecticut, arguably the most successful women’s basketball program in the country. She won a national title with UConn along with various individual awards before being selected 6th overall in the 2019 WNBA draft. Bringing her dominance to the WNBA, Collier won the 2019 Rookie of the Year award along with making the all-star team in her debut season.
According to Collier, her secret to success is setting goals for herself, hard work and a love for the game of basketball.
“If I’m going to play basketball, I want to use the talent I’ve been given to the best of my ability,” she said. “For one, I don’t want to let my teammates down but I also don’t want to let myself down by not giving it everything I have. I just have a lot of faith in myself and I knew that if I set these goals for myself, I had a pretty good chance of achieving them. It’s just about putting in the right amount of work to do it.”
This wasn’t the first time Collier has represented the United States on the world stage, though. In 2014, Collier helped Team USA win a pair of gold medals at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship and in the 3×3 tournament at the Youth Olympic Games. She went on to win two more golds with Team USA at the 2015 FIBA U19 World Cup and the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup. Unsurprisingly, Collier owns an impressive 49-1 record in a USA basketball uniform.
One of the biggest concerns for team sports in the Olympics is that the players usually aren’t on the same team professionally, so they only play together once every four years. Therefore, sometimes teams may have the best players but lack the chemistry and teamwork needed to win.
However, the U.S. Women’s Olympic basketball team seems to be an enigma in that respect as they had won six straight Olympic gold medals going into Tokyo. So, according to Collier, having a lack of chemistry wasn’t an option.
“I think we realized we didn’t have a choice other than to get our chemistry together,” she said. “It’s hard especially in mid-season where a lot of these players are the top players on their [WNBA team] and you get to take the most shots and have more individuality. But you have to put that on the back burner when you get to USA basketball because it’s so team oriented. You may want to take this good shot, but you give it up for a great shot.
“Trying to take in that team mentality made it a lot easier to build our chemistry because you knew that we were all here for the same goal. No one is trying to be the star of the team, we’re just trying to win a gold.”
When the final buzzer rang in the championship game against Japan, the USA Women’s Basketball National Team collected its seventh consecutive gold medal.
“It was a crazy feeling,” Collier recalled. “It really wasn’t until we stepped up onto the podium that I really had that moment of realization like ‘Wow, this is such an amazing feeling’. I felt like I was on such a high.”
Four of the 12 players who made the roster were also former UConn standouts: Tina Charles, Breanna Stewart and future WNBA hall of famers Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.
“It was awesome,” Collier said about playing with the WNBA legends. “The way they see the game is so smart. They’ve had so much experience and have performed at such a high level for so long, it’s unbelievable. So I really just tried to be a sponge as much as I could.”
The experience she gained playing with the veterans should translate well as Collier has already jumped back into her WNBA season as a starting forward for the Minnesota Lynx. As for Collier’s future, she said playing in the 2024 Paris Olympics is “definitely a goal.”