Jennifer Azzi: USF’s trailblazing basketball guru

James Salazar 

Staff Writer 

As a famed basketball icon, Jennifer Azzi’s career has taken her all over the world, but when I sat down to talk with her on Zoom, she was situated in her home office which consisted of, among other elements, white wood panel doors, natural light shining through the windows, and a canvas family portrait hung over her right shoulder. 

Before she led the Stanford University Cardinal women’s basketball team to a national championship in 1990 or won a gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics, Azzi, now 52, grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and played basketball for the Oak Ridge High Wildcats. 

Situated about 25 miles west of downtown Knoxville, Oak Ridge was founded in 1942 as a site for the United States’ Manhattan Project, a research and development undertaking that produced the first nuclear weapons. Azzi’s home court was known as the “B Gym” on account of the high school originally consisting of four different buildings with a designated letter for each structure. 

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, the cramped quarters made the gymnasium the “Fenway Park of East Tennessee high school arenas,” a nod to Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox, whose stadium has one of the smallest seating capacities (about 38,000) by major league standards. 

As Azzi’s 1986 high school senior season approached, she was scouted by championship caliber schools, but she ultimately chose the Stanford University Cardinal, whose last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1982. The prospect of playing under Tara VanDerveer, the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history, played a big part in Azzi’s decision process.

In Azzi’s freshman year, the Cardinal finished the season with a  .500 record and did not qualify for the NCAA tournament. Azzi considered transferring to the University of Tennessee following that season to play for the Lady Volunteers and be closer to home, but VanDerveer asked Azzi to imagine the team lifting a trophy by her senior year. The duo’s efforts came full circle three years later just minutes away from where Azzi grew up when the Cardinal hoisted the program’s first national title at Knoxville’s Thompson-Boling Arena. To conclude her senior year, Azzi graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

From there, Azzi lived life in the public eye as a member of the U.S. women’s national basketball team. She also played professionally in the WNBA for the now-defunct Detroit Shock and the now-defunct San Antonio Silver Stars. 

Long after her playing career was over, Azzi maintained the sense of openness with the public she had grown accustomed to. She publicly came out as a lesbian in 2016 while introducing Rick Welts, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Golden State Warriors, at the Anti-Defamation League’s Torch of Liberty Award ceremony at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Welts publicly came out as gay in a 2011 interview with the New York Times, becoming the second person in men’s professional basketball history, and the first executive in major professional sports, to declare that he is gay.

Azzi recalls having lunch with her wife, Blair Hardiek, and seeing her phone light up with Welts on the other end. Welts asked Azzi to introduce him at that evening’s event, but she was perplexed by the offer as members of the Warriors’ organization, like Steph Curry, knew Welts better than she did.

Azzi’s mind swung back and forth as she struggled to find the best way to introduce Welts to the audience. “I was thinking the only way I could probably do him justice was to share something personal about myself — really to just thank him for being such a great role model,” Azzi said. “Without people like him and people that have come before all of us, we wouldn’t be here without that courage.”

Azzi did not intend for the dinner to be a major coming out moment, though. She thought being in San Francisco meant that her statement would fly under the radar. She still felt that “it’s about damn time” and said, “This is my wife,” as she introduced Hardiek to the room, thereby announcing their marriage. Hardiek joined the USF women’s basketball program in the spring of 2010 alongside Azzi and served as an assistant coach. Almost immediately, Azzi’s phone was flooded with calls from former teammates, and from her college basketball coach, Tara VanDerveer who said, “You know we’re all behind you.” 

Since then, Welts and Azzi’s relationship has grown immensely, and she considers him to be “a good friend.” In 2019, Welts asked Azzi to be an analyst for the Golden State Warriors on NBC Sports Bay Area. Azzi appears on television with Warriors legend and five-time NBA All-Star Chris Mullin, and former Warriors forward Dorell Wright. “It works for me, and it’s fun, and the guys are great,” Azzi said about the experience. “You’re talking about basketball, and I’ve never felt like I’m different than they are.” 

When events like the NBA trade deadline approach, Azzi enjoys relating the day’s news to Mullins’ and Wright’s professional careers. In her role, Azzi has not felt like she is intruding on a “boys’ club,” a common reputation of the sports industry. “That’s interesting for me, but it doesn’t mean that I’m less qualified because I don’t have that experience,” Azzi said.

Azzi also has an extensive history of working with the University of San Francisco. She came to USF in 2010 as the head coach of the women’s basketball team, a role which was her first-ever coaching gig. Prior to Azzi’s arrival, the Dons routinely had single-digit win seasons. Their last double-digit win season came in the 2008-09 season when the team had a 10-21 overall win-loss record. Fast forward five years, and the 2012-2013 season saw Azzi lead the team to a 12-19 overall win-loss record.

The USF women’s basketball team then earned a Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) berth in 2015, but they lost in the first round. The following year, the Dons upset the Brigham Young University Cougars to win an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. In the first round, Azzi and the Dons faced VanDerveer and the Cardinal. Stanford won by double-digits. In September 2016, Azzi resigned as head coach to pursue new career opportunities.

In her six months away from the Hilltop, Azzi learned that Bill Cartwright — who played basketball for USF from 1975 to 1979, and professionally for the Knicks, Bulls and Supersonics — had started working with the University as part of its alumni relations and community outreach team. 

Azzi reached out to USF President Paul Fitzgerald about working for the University in a part-time capacity, and she became the director of special initiatives. One of Azzi’s more prominent projects came when she worked with several organizations to construct a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) room at Rosa Parks Elementary School in the Western Addition.

Over time, Azzi’s role evolved, and she soon became the University’s associate vice president of development. Azzi’s most notable appearances in this role have been the times when she has served as a host of the Silk Speaker Series. Azzi has talked with tennis icon Serena Williams about parenting during the pandemic, asked Steve Kerr about the intersection between sports and social justice, and discussed the gender pay gap with soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe. Regardless of the speaker, Azzi’s conversations carry an air of mutual respect, and the guests talk to Azzi like a peer. Fitzgerald noted that Azzi “has a way of making a real comfortable space for someone to talk much more deeply about things that they care for beyond just the pretty narrow lens of their professional athletics.” 

Azzi said she misses the pre-pandemic days where the Silk Speaker Series was held in-person and she could use the audience’s body language to determine their interest in a point of conversation. In person, the series promoted more community involvement, as discussions typically ended with USF students’ questions for a speaker being projected throughout the gymnasium. 

No matter the role, Azzi has made setting up others for success a top priority. Zhane Dikes, a member of the USF women’s basketball team from 2012 to 2016, recalled the ways in which Azzi helped prepare her athletes for a life outside of sports.

After playing professional basketball in China, Poland, and Germany, Dikes was ready to retire and enter a career in real estate, a goal she had made known to Azzi. “When I retired from playing basketball professionally and I told her what I wanted to get into. She was the first person to get on the phone to call the professionals within that field to make sure we sat down for a lunch or coffee or whatever it was,” Dikes said.

Today, Dikes is based in San Francisco and works for The Agency, a worldwide luxury real estate brokerage and lifestyle company. Dikes still feels the impact of basketball on her life, as “all of the relationships and networks that I think I gained through my teammates and Jennifer have helped me get to where I am in the business world today.”

Dikes also considers Azzi to be a role model because she constantly reminded her players to stay true to themselves, an essential for Azzi as a gay woman in the public eye.

Molly Goodenbour, current head coach of the USF women’s basketball team, said Azzi’s prowess at handling various responsibilities is a product of her work ethic. “I think [Jennifer’s role as associate vice president of development] is a great opportunity for her to be able to do all those things and not just be locked into being a coach or being one thing because she’s capable of so many more things,” Goodenbour said.

Goodenbour, who was one of Azzi’s Stanford teammates when they won the championship in 1990, believes Azzi’s greatest strength is “making everyone feel like they’re a part of the puzzle that needs to succeed in order for something to work.”

“With every individual she comes into contact with, she just has an ability to bring you into her circle… like she’s sharing something with you,” Goodenbour said. “Most people don’t have that ability, and because of that, I think she’s able to bridge the gap in a lot of ways.”

In her personal life, Azzi has taken immense pride in the family that she has built with Hardiek. The two are mothers of a four-year-old boy named Macklin and a one-year-old girl named Camden.

Macklin has already mastered the art of shooting jumpers with ease and hitting line drives at tee-ball practice without assistance. “It’s just fun to just be there and not be concerned. We’re not the majority type of family, but we’re a really good family,” Azzi said. “It’s just fun to raise kids with the person you love.”

Becoming a parent in her late 40’s has given Azzi a second wind. “For whatever reason, when you have children, your capacity for life grows exponentially. So, I actually have more motivation, more energy,” Azzi said. “In the evenings, I love to go to the park with Mac — that I love. Whereas before, if I worked all day, I plop on the couch, and maybe hang out, go to dinner.” Prior to campus shutting down, Azzi took Macklin to basketball games, and she plans on taking him to baseball games when it is permissible.

Being at USF for the past 11 years has enriched Azzi’s life in ways she never thought possible. Azzi said that when she and her coworkers open meetings with a mission moment, an example of how an organization is making an impact, or by going around the room and saying what they are grateful for, it gives her a sense of connectivity. “I just keep coming back to the community of people really rooted in the values of the University,” Azzi said.  “There’s nothing like it, and it’s something that you want to be a part of.”

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