Shaniqua “Shaq” Nilles has a little fan who watches her every move when the former West Valley star takes the home court for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Not yet 2, Nevaeh peers out from the arms of her grandmother, Renee Nilles, whenever her mother, a reserve 6-foot sophomore forward, gets to play in a roster filled with talented players.
“I want (Nevaeh) to see me dive for the loose ball or push around a big girl to get a rebound,” the 20-year-old Nilles said of her daughter. “I hope she’s proud of me when she looks back and sees tape.”
After a recent win against then-No. 24 San Diego, Nilles had Nevaeh in her arms. She put the curly-haired toddler on the court and she immediately clomped over to senior guard Haiden Palmer.
“We all feel like sisters to Shaniqua. We all love having Nevaeh around,” Palmer said as she held the little girl. “She’s very entertaining.”
Asked about the demands of being a mother and a Division I athlete, Palmer said: “I don’t know how she does it. She’s an amazing woman.”
Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves described how Nilles handles the pressures of her world in a word: “incredible.”
“It’s hard enough to be a full-time student,” he said. “Then being an athlete, with all the demands and time away … and being a mother – and she is a really good mother. She’s an inspiration to me and her teammates.”
‘Be a dork’
College athletes face a dizzying list of demands that include a full-time slate of classes, two lifting sessions, daily practices and often several days of travel, all in the same week.
Nilles adds waking up early to change diapers to that already daunting list.
She lives in an apartment and relies on day care and her parents, Jamie Nilles, a former coach and current athletic director at West Valley; and Renee, a former collegiate basketball player at Community Colleges of Spokane and Long Beach State who is the assistant basketball coach for the Mead girls.
“I wanted Shaniqua to see Nevaeh when she plays. Nevaeh knows where her mom is at all times,” Renee Nilles said. “We’ve got it good, both ways. We get a lot of time with Nevaeh and (Shaniqua) gets to play basketball. But, we have tons of help.”
For Shaniqua, motherhood is just the latest challenge of a young life filled with activities.
“It’s kind of a balancing act. When I’m with my team, they get my full, undivided attention,” she said. “It’s the same with Nevaeh when I’m at home.”
She noted after a recent practice that young fans who dream of someday taking the court at the McCarthey Athletic Center must first understand how much work it takes to get there.
“The talent gets weeded out, but you miss sleepovers. It’s an every weekend kind of thing,” she said. “My junior year (at West Valley), we had something going on every weekend but one. If you want to do this, it’s quite the commitment and it takes a lot of dedication.”
Palmer, who grew up in Moreno Valley, Calif., agreed.
“In the summer, I was always traveling when my friends were having pool parties,” she said. “On weekdays, I would drive for two hours into Los Angeles to practice. Then on weekends, we would travel to play at tournaments.”
Graves said it takes more than just an athlete with talent to make it to Division I basketball.
“The parents, God bless them. When Haiden was going into L.A. during the week, she wasn’t driving,” Graves said. “I like to say it’s the best part-time job they will ever have. They get a full-ride education, they get to play in front of amazing fans and they get to play basketball.”
Jamie Nilles said he had several conversations about commitment with Shaniqua, who played soccer, volleyball and participated in gymnastics in addition to basketball.
“I told her, you kind of have to be a dork,” he said. “When some people would be taking off to go hang out with their friends or at the mall, you have to go spend another hour in the gym and shoot. It doesn’t just happen for the Division I players. You have to be abnormal a little bit.”
Shaniqua could have started for several college teams. Graves recruited her to play at Gonzaga and she accepted. That sparked a completely different conversation with her parents.
“I told her you are playing at one of the best programs, not just the area, but in the nation,” Jamie Nilles said. “You are only going to get a few minutes. What kind of teammate are you going to be?”
After two decades as a coach, Jamie Nilles admitted that “I’m a dork, too. I watch how coaches are on the bench and how players are. You can tell she is proud of her teammates, not bitter because they are playing ahead of her. I’m proud of her.”
Shaniqua said she doesn’t resent missing out on so many childhood activities for just a few minutes a game.
“I would think becoming a mother made me grow up faster,” she said.
“But I would also think that becoming a mother made me a better teammate. I don’t just play for myself anymore.”
In the heat of practice, fellow Zags rarely miss an opportunity for a little ribbing on Shaq.
“When I get on someone, my teammate will say, ‘OK, Mom,’ ” Nilles said with a grin. “I just feel the need to take care of everybody. It’s made me a better competitor.”
Despite playing infrequent minutes, Graves called on Nilles with only 3:23 remaining in the Dec. 8 road game against Ohio State.
Jamie and Renee Nilles were watching the game on television in Spokane when Graves decided to put their daughter out on the floor.
“Jamie was saying, ‘Are you kidding me? She’s been sitting for 30 minutes,’ ” Renee Nilles said.
With only 21 seconds to play, Nilles hit a layup to put Gonzaga ahead. But Ohio State retook the lead seconds later. Palmer then found Nilles open. She made a move and sank a 12-foot jumper at the buzzer for the victory.
“Jamie said, “Wait, we have to see if it counts,’ ” Renee said. “I said: ‘We will drive to Ohio and beat those people if they don’t let it count.’ I really enjoyed afterward watching all of her teammates embrace her.
“I never had a last-second shot to win a game. It was perfect. It pays off, all that time she spent.”
Renee Nilles noted that Shaniqua was on a basketball court as soon as she could walk. Just like Nevaeh.
Asked how she expects to handle the same situation in a few years with her daughter, Shaniqua smiled.
“I will tell her to just enjoy it, enjoy the chaos,” she said. “There will be some times, just like Haiden said, when you will not be able to go to the pool parties.
“But if you do go, you just better cannonball it.”