Throughout Chicago’s NBA championship reign in the 1990s, anybody with a slight grasp of basketball understood it was Michael Jordan driving the Bulls’ bus, with Scottie Pippen navigating to his right.
And while it’s pretty much accepted star power is a necessary ingredient to a championship recipe, a mixture of role players like Ron Harper, Steve Kerr and John Paxson to the process is just as critical.
In sports, it’s known as roster depth.
We are by no means comparing Memorial University basketball players to NBA champions, but the Harper, Kerr and Paxson examples offer a glimpse into the importance of piecing together rosters not chiefly filled with players chucking up three-point shots all night long.
“Haille’s having an awesome year,” said Sea-Hawks women’s basketball coach Mark English of his star guard, Haille Nickerson.
Entering a two-game series with the Cape Breton Capers beginning tonight on Memorial’s home court at the Field House, Nickerson was second in the Atlantic University Sport conference in scoring, with 25.4 points per game.
Nickerson and fellow Ontario-born guard Alana Short, who is coming into her own in her second year in St. John’s, are carrying the freight offensively for the surprising Lady Birds, holding down first place in the conference by two points entering Friday’s slate of games.
But English is also quick to share praise with players like Jane Baird, a fifth-year guard from St. John’s, via Gonzaga high school.
“Haille’s doing the scoring, but Jane is our captain, our engine. Jane is making sure everybody is in the right spot on the floor,” English said.
Baird is one of these players whose numbers do not jump off the page (she’s averaging 4.8 points per game this season), despite registering a triple-double (10 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in a win against Dalhousie at home earlier this month.
“You look at Jane’s numbers, for her minutes played, they’re solid for a point guard but people would say, ‘Yeah, okay’,” English said. “But until you’re in it, and you know it, you probably don’t see that her place in the game is invaluable.
“You look at Jane’s numbers, for her minutes played, they’re solid for a point guard, but people would say, ‘Yeah, okay.’ But until you’re in it, and you know it, you probably don’t see that her place in the game is invaluable.”
Memorial head coach Mark English
“Jane performs at a high level, but in a different way than putting up 20 points.
“That’s what makes her so special,” said the MUN coach. “She knows that, and she buys into it. She knows that Haille and Alana and these other girls are scoring, but they are the ones who need to be scoring. She also knows, ‘I need to defend the best player, and I need to put people into place on offence, and I need to make sure everyone knows the game plan.’
“She does a remarkable job at that. The leadership she brings to the court every night is amazing.”
Baird was a provincial teams ball player growing up, but her introduction to the college game wasn’t without its moments.
She was wooed to UPEI by English, who was hired to run the program in Charlottetown beginning in 2014-15.
English had 13 players on the Panthers’ roster, and was looking for more. He reached out to old friend and basketball coach Yasir Khan back in St. John’s, who suggested he reach out to Baird.
English was up front with Baird. He needed to fill out the roster, and there was a chance Baird would be little more than a practice player.
“She was like, ‘No problem. I want to get better. I want to play university basketball.’”
Baird didn’t see the floor that year.
The following season, English was offered the MUN women’s coaching job back in his native Newfoundland.
He jumped at the opportunity, and Baird liked the idea of following her coach back home.
But the Sea-Hawks had 17 players on the roster, and there was little turnover from the previous season.
Undaunted, Baird elected to come to Memorial, and toughed it sitting on the Sea-Hawks’ bench virtually all season. She did manage to appear in a couple of games.
“She came to a crossroads, wondering if it was worth it,” English said. “We had a meeting and she decided she’d stick it out.
“That off-season, she got herself in incredible shape and that season (2016-17) started as the third string point guard.”
One of the other Memorial guards, Carolyn Adams, suffered a concussion opening a window of opportunity for Baird.
“She ended up playing well and she ended up starting,” said English, “and the rest is history.”
The Sea-Hawks made an improbable run to the AUS final last season, before losing out to Acadia in Halifax.
Few, if any, university basketball pundits gave Memorial much of a chance this season, especially with the graduation of all-stars Sydney Stewart and Sydney Ezekiel, and starting post Brooklyn Wright.
But here we are, eight games left in the regular season (including this weekend’s set against Cape Breton), and Memorial’s sitting in first place.
And a lot of people can take their share of credit.
“Her grit and determination is something else,” English said of Baird. “We’ve been in games this year, even in games in which she hasn’t scored, and she’s said in the timeout, ‘We are not losing this game. We need this to happen, we have to do this and do that.’
“She’s a very good leader. Her work ethic is incredible, her basketball IQ is off the charts. So she leads by example.”
And people are noticing.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor
You can reach him by email at [email protected]
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