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UCLA’s Cori Close helping her players, and herself, grow in trying times

UCLA women's basketball coach Cori Close motions toward the court during a game.
UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close uses the lessons she learned from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden in helping her coach her players on — and off — the court.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

The conversations were painful. That’s why Cori Close needed to have them.

While wrestling with her role as a white authority figure in a predominantly Black sport, the UCLA women’s basketball coach spoke with her players amid a summer of social unrest to examine the privilege she’d been blind to and her responsibility in the future. Seeing the pain in her players’ eyes changed her, Close said.

Online classes soon started for the players. The conversations became less frequent. Close messaged her players. She wanted to hear more.

“She really has a fire to want to learn,” senior forward Lauryn Miller said. “She wants us to grow in our ability to be leaders, but she also wants herself to grow.”

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This season, played amid a pandemic, has required that constant growth mind-set. For Close, evolving COVID-19 protocols and the country’s racial reckoning have made this her “hardest” year of leadership. It’s also one of the most significant as she passed the 200-win mark on Dec. 6 with a victory against Arizona State.

Michaela Onyenwere and Natalie Chou each scored 18 points to lead No. 11 UCLA to a 71-37 win over California, while USC lost 80-60 to No. 1 Stanford.

Close is the third coach in program history to reach the milestone, and with a 203-105 (65.9%) record, she has the best winning percentage of the three , besting Billie Moore (296-181, 62.12%) and Close’s former boss, Kathy Olivier (232-208, 52.7%).

UCLA, ranked 11th in the nation with a 5-1 record, plays No. 1 Stanford (6-0) at noon Monday at Pauley Pavilion.

The congratulatory messages that flooded Close’s phone and inbox after the win against Arizona State were overwhelming, not because they commemorated numerous wins, but they reminded Close of the people she had met through the game. Those are what matter.

“It isn’t about the 200 wins,” Close said. “It’s really about 200 hearts.”

During 15 years of speaking to legendary UCLA coach John Wooden and visiting his home on Tuesdays, Close aligned her priorities as a coach. She asked him questions that seemed complicated, wondering what he would do in a particular situation. He returned simple answers.

“You’ll do the right thing as long as you’re coaching people’s hearts first,” Close said of Wooden’s message.

“When you have to wrestle and you gotta even learn to ask for forgiveness and you gotta work through conflict, you actually end up coming out in deeper and more trusting places on the other side.”  

Cori Close

When she took over at UCLA in 2011, Close, an 18-year assistant who often dreamed of taking a top position somewhere, kept Wooden’s mantra in mind. The mission, now in its 10th year and repeated countless times by Close and her assistants, is to be “an elite program that equips, mentors and teaches young women for life beyond UCLA.”

Miller, the Gatorade Missouri player of the year as a senior at Kirkwood High, was drawn to Close’s focus on building better people before building better basketball players. During the recruiting process, all coaches assure parents their daughters will be taken care of on campus, but Close’s message felt unique, Miller said. Four years later, she is getting ready to graduate in June with a master’s degree in transformative coaching and leadership.

Continuity on the coaching staff has helped the program remain committed to the mission. Assistant coaches Tony Newnan and Shannon Perry-LeBeauf have been with Close since she took over. Assistant coach Tasha Brown followed three years ago after former assistant Jenny Huth took the head coaching position at Northern Colorado. They also work with director of operations Pam Walker, whose career with the Bruins spans three decades. Close credits her staff for covering up the mistakes — there are many, Close assures — she made as a first-time head coach.

Close is a humble leader, said Perry-LeBeauf, the associate head coach. She is never too proud to ask for help or accept advice. She recognizes her weaknesses and hires to them. She is a good delegator, although this year has tested her resolve in that aspect.

UCLA women's basketball coach Cori Close and players Japreece Dean and Michaela Onyenwere take part in Pac-12 media day
UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close, left, and players Japreece Dean, center, and Michaela Onyenwere take part in Pac-12 media day in October 2019.
(D. Ross Cameron / Associated Press)

“There are just so many decisions that had to be made that she couldn’t [delegate],” Perry-LeBeauf said. “To watch her take it on and to have such care and to be sensitive to the needs of our players, but also holding a standard to what we want to do and what we want to accomplish, that’s a really delicate blend. … Just her attention to detail has been amazing in this and I sometimes look at her, like I don’t know how you do it.”

Between practices, virtual recruiting and games, Close is also on the NCAA Division I women’s basketball oversight committee and part of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Assn. To balance it all, Close encourages everyone on the staff to take one day off a week to recharge. No work at all. For the head coach, it often means house projects, hiking and reading.

It’s a respite during a year when everything has been intense, Close said. No one was sure whether they could even play this season. Then there were conversations about budget cuts amid the pandemic. Two UCLA players are still stuck in Australia because of COVID-19 travel policies.

The conversations of racial justice especially left Close’s emotions raw and fried. She felt exhausted, then guilty for feeling that way when Black people had struggled for centuries. She also feels grateful.

“It’s deepened all of our relationships,” Close said. “When you have to wrestle and you gotta even learn to ask for forgiveness and you gotta work through conflict, you actually end up coming out in deeper and more trusting places on the other side.”

With support from the coaching staff, the players formed a committee to advance the program’s social justice initiatives. “More than a D.R.E.A.M,” which stands for diversify, reveal, educate, advocate and motivate, spearheaded the team’s powerful “Black women matter” video posted on social media in response to the grand jury decision to not indict the officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death. All players, coaches and support staff appeared in the video, standing together on UCLA’s campus.

The UCLA women’s basketball team’s message for social justice.

Miller’s friends and family were amazed at the content the players are allowed to share. It’s because the coaches trust them, she said.

“I honestly think when it comes to a white coach and this time, Coach Cori is absolutely the standard,” Miller said. “If it comes down to coaches not being sure what to do, how to navigate, what using your platform looks like, honestly Coach Cori is who you need to be looking at.”

Inspired by former Dallas Wings head coach Brian Agler’s effort to highlight Black-owned restaurants during the WNBA season, Close celebrates Black-owned small businesses every game day, posting new companies on her social media channels. She has highlighted UCLA alumni like Baron Davis and his company Black Santa; Nina Westbrook and her children’s clothing line; and Isaac Hamilton and Kelli Hayes, who founded a cookie company.

With help from the players, the Bruins are trying to shift their outreach efforts toward the Black community, donating shoes and clothes and speaking to kids in underserved areas.

Connecting with the community has always been a pillar of the program under Close. It is another lesson she learned from Wooden, who said a program must not only be good for the players, but for “the bankers and the bakers” who surround them. Even when gatherings aren’t allowed and the team must stay isolated to keep its season going amid the pandemic, the Bruins stay engaged by participating in Zoom meetings with donors.

UCLA women’s basketball players and fans attending Sunday’s game at Pauley Pavilion were stunned to learn of Kobe Bryant’s death.

None of it seems to connect with basketball, but it still adds up to wins. Close is over 200 and counting.

“A lot of coaches think it’s one or the other: I have to really cater to the person, or I need to be producing winners and champions,” Miller said. “It’s been an incredible experience to play for Coach Cori and know that she believes and is showing that you can do both.”


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