Ron Morris

Morris: USC's Nainima develops into star

Junior Valerie Nainima leads USC in several offensive categories, including scoring; she averages 17.7 points per game.
Junior Valerie Nainima leads USC in several offensive categories, including scoring; she averages 17.7 points per game.

Dawn Staley introduced a new offense to her South Carolina women's basketball team during the preseason. Not surprisingly, the player who knew all about the Triangle Offense made popular by coach Phil Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers was guard Valerie Nainima.

The 23-year-old Nainima is late to the game of basketball, having picked it up a decade ago on her native island of Fiji in the South Pacific. Ever since, she has been on a crash course to learn the game, from soaking in reading materials on the game's nuances while in Fiji to late-night videotape sessions while attending Long Island University.

Now Nainima is helping lead the resurgence of the women's program at USC. She leads the team in several categories: scoring (17.7 ppg.), minutes played per game (34.7), 3-pointers (69), assists (68) and free-throw shooting (79.2 percent).

She launches 3-pointers with a picture-perfect jump shot, and she is fearless in her drives to the basket. Her ball-handling skills allow her to slide into the point-guard position when needed, and her defensive prowess is as strong as anyone on the team.

Beyond all that, Nainima (pronounced Nye-KNEE-muh) possesses a work ethic that has transformed her from a "little chubby girl" recruit in Fiji to potentially the best player Staley has coached.

"She really is a coach's dream," Staley says.

Staley met a couple of weeks ago with her coaching staff, and one area of concern was a slight slippage in Nainima's defense. The coaches agreed it was time for a meeting with the player. Before they could contact Nainima, guess who showed up in the office? And guess who was first to mention that her defense needed sharpening?

It is the same approach Nainima took to learning the game while growing up in Fiji. She had played a version of basketball called "netball" when she was young, then took a liking to the game when she watched Michael Jordan play on TV.

When Nainima was 13, her mother, Betty Jitoko, answered an advertisement in a Fiji newspaper for a basketball camp. The camp was designed to introduce young boys and girls to the game, and Nainima was hooked. Before long, she was a member of the Fiji national women's team.

"By the time I started, I knew I was late," Nainima says. "I had a drive to learn more than anybody else."

Nainima began gathering instructional videos and pamphlets, all the while learning the proper techniques for shooting and passing the ball. She became fascinated with the Lakers, specifically with Jackson's Triangle Offense. Her national team played the offense when it won gold medals at the 2005 South Pacific Mini Games and the 2007 South Pacific Games.

One of Nainima's teammates was Mikaelar Whippy, who proved to be the pioneer for taking the women's game from the islands to the United States. Whippy was recruited and signed by Long Island University and its coach, Stephanie Gaitley.

Whippy eventually told Gaitley about Nainima.

"I didn't really care if she was any good or not," says Gaitley, now the coach at Monmouth College. "I figured if I can get another great kid (like Whippy), all my success has been from building programs with great kids. I basically took (Nainima) on a couple of recommendations of coaches, but having no idea what I was getting."

Gaitley quickly tagged Nainima with the nickname "Mrs. Doubtfire," because in telephone conversations the player prefaced every sentence with "Coach Gaitley" and sounded like the lead character from the 1993 movie.

Because she lacked one required math course, Nainima's arrival at Long Island was delayed by a year. Once she arrived, Gaitley immediately realized she had something special. During offseason scrimmages, Long Island's top defensive player, Brittani Kozik, reported to Gaitley that Nainima was unstoppable.

"Coach, I don't know how to defend her," Gaitley recalls Kozik telling her. "If I play her tight, she goes right by me. If I drop off a step, she takes the 3. I don't know how to defend her."

Jim Ferry, the Long Island men's coach, dropped by Gaitley's office one day.

"I think she might be able to start for my team," Gaitley recalls Ferry saying.

Nainima became the first player in Northeastern Conference history to be named rookie of the year and player of the year in the same season. By her 53rd game, she was the fastest in Long Island history to reach 1,000 points.

Meanwhile, Nainima and Gaitley had developed a close relationship. Gaitley tells of the game Long Island played at East Carolina when Nainima was a sophomore. Leading by one point in the waning seconds, Gaitley put the ball in Nainima's hands, but her star guard tripped, lost the ball and watched helplessly as an East Carolina player drove for the go-ahead basket.

Long Island called timeout, and Gaitley knew the best way for Nainima to deal with the gravity of the situation was with humor. Gaitley stared at Nainima in the huddle and began making funny faces.

Nainima could not stop laughing as she returned to the court. She took the inbounds pass, recognized an East Carolina double-team and passed to an open Long Island teammate for the winning basket.

That kind of coach-player connection made it difficult for Nainima when Gaitley resigned to take the job at Monmouth. Nainima wanted to follow her coach, but Northeastern Conference rules prohibit such a move. So Gaitley called Staley. The coaches have remained close friends since they played pickup basketball games at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia when Gaitley coached there and Staley was at Temple.

Gaitley told Staley that Nainima was the best player she had coached. Gaitley also knew that Staley was Nainima's childhood idol.

When Staley called Nainima, the player was speechless. Nainima put the telephone down on the counter of her cousin's Manhattan apartment. She hyperventilated. There was no doubt where she would transfer.

Two days later, she was headed to Columbia for summer school.

"I didn't even know South Carolina was a state," Nainima says. "I was like, 'Where is it? Is it in North Carolina?' "

That was OK with Nainima, because she had to explain to some of her teammates that Fiji is not in Africa, and that she speaks English not the Spanish associated with being from a Caribbean island.

One thing Nainima's USC teammates knew about her from the outset was she can play basketball. Even during the NCAA-mandated season she sat out, Nainima took a leadership role on the team a season ago. Staley was so impressed with Nainima, USC three times appealed to the NCAA to allow her to play.

As it turned out, Staley and USC will prosper more by having Nainima the remainder of this season and next. Nainima's all-around play is a big reason USC has improved from 10-18 overall and 2-12 in the SEC a season ago to 13-10 and 6-5 this season.

Beyond basketball, Staley has talked to Nainima about the player's mother attending a game in Columbia next season.

Nainima's mother and father are both educators in Fiji. When first told of Nainima's opportunity to play basketball in the United States, her mother was only interested in knowing if the scholarship would cover the cost of her education.

So it was no surprise when Nainima told Staley her mother was not that interested in seeing her daughter play basketball.

"She would rather come for my graduation than any of my games," Nainima says.

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