Nikki Moody knew she needed to change.
As she sat in a meeting with her mother and Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly following a week-long suspension just before the regular season began, she realized that winning an argument didn’t matter. Whether Moody’s actions justified the suspension — her mother didn’t think they did — didn’t either.
The self-admittedly hard-headed point guard said her piece, but she knew she had to acquiesce to the self-admitted stubborn coach sitting across from her.
The senior point guard had already begun her on-court evolution. She spent hours in the gym over the summer, tweaking the imperfections in her jump shot that would lead to career-high 3-point shooting statistics.
Some changes she made, both before and following the suspension, are far more subtle. Sometimes, she simply holds her tongue instead of arguing with her coaches. Other times, she’ll give teammate Brynn Williamson a quick glance during practice as her frustrations begin to boil over. She used to lash out at teammates, wanting her opinion to be heard. Now, she defers.
“You know what I want to say, you know how I feel, you say it for me,” she said those looks tell Williamson.
As she has her entire basketball life, Moody has always played the role of facilitator for the Cyclones. She tied the Cyclones’ career assist record on Tuesday against Texas Tech and broke it with her first assist in Saturday’s senior day game against No. 3 Baylor.
But Moody finally reached her full offensive potential by adjusting.
Whether she could have done so earlier is up for discussion. Who deserves the blame and credit for Moody’s ups and downs is also a point of contention.
But nobody doubts Moody’s drive to succeed.
The sound of the basketball hitting concrete was incessant outside the Moody residence in Euless, Texas, where the family moved from Des Moines when Nikki was seven.
Before they allowed third-grade Nikki to shoot, Chrystal and Lincoln Moody decided their daughter needed to learn to dribble. So Chrystal placed rocks on the sidewalk. Once Nikki successfully weaved through those rocks, she’d could play with a hoop.
“We thought, ‘Hey, if [Nikki and her sister, Taylor,] actually do this, then we have something here,'” Chrystal said. “Nikki mastered it pretty quickly.”
Within a month, Nikki advanced to playing in friends’ driveways and at the local park. Soon, she graduated to the local recreational league, and in the seventh grade, her mother created Liberty 360, an AAU team for Nikki and her friends.
In Trinity High School coach Sue Cannon, with whom Moody is still close, she found a coach who would prepare her for the future more than she knew at the time.
For four years, Moody was Cannon’s starting point guard, an athletic, drive-and-kick player who thrived both scoring and distributing. Those four years didn’t go by without occassional tiffs between player and coach, who values “tough love.”
“Sometimes we had some conversations,” Cannon said with a laugh. “She loved the game of basketball. And when you love the game of basketball, you can work on the other things. She loves to practice, she loved her teammates, and she loved to win, just like I did.”
ISU didn’t pursue Moody, her mother said. The Moodys pursued ISU.
With nearly all of her extended family in either Waterloo, where Chrystal grew up, or Des Moines, Lincoln’s hometown, Nikki and her mother made the trek to Ames for an Elite Camp the summer before her senior season.
It was then that Fennelly first laid eyes on his future point guard and ofttimes foil. He liked her athleticism and quickness. So, he offered her a scholarship in the parking lot.
A few days later, she accepted. ISU let her fulfill her desire to play in the Big 12, graduated its players and Fennelly, she felt, could mold her into the point guard she wanted to be.
Cannon supported the decision.
“One of the reasons I wanted her to go to Iowa State was coach Fennelly and I coach very similar,” she said. “I felt that he was the type of coach that Nikki would be successful under. He would push her, he obviously knows what he’s talking about fundamentally. I knew that he would make her better and that she would flourish under him.”
Moody, inarguably, found plenty of success. Cannon thinks it has plenty to do with Fennelly. Her parents aren’t so sure.
Freshman seasons under Fennelly are difficult. Even Lindsey (Medders) Fennelly, who is currently tied for ISU’s career assist record with Moody and eventually became the coach’s daughter-in-law, said she considered transferring.
Because of Moody’s personality, she thinks, Fennelly’s abrasive style created friction.
“I’m different than most players, I would say,” Moody said. “It’s hard for me to follow under exactly what people want me to do. I just have a strong personality. Coach Fennelly, he has a strong personality. I think that clashed a lot my freshman year, and I just wasn’t expecting someone to come so hard on me.”
Moody said the only time she seriously considered transferring was her sophomore year.
— Chrystal Moody
She could handle tough coaching. The difficulty came when Fennelly asked her to play a different role than she expected. After averaging 10.0 points and 4.3 assists as a freshman, she averaged 8.4 points and a program-record 238 assists, good for 7.7 per game, as a sophomore.
“As a young kid, you walk into a program and you do what is necessary to be one of the leaders on the team, still young, still a lot to learn,” her mother said. “But she was so used to being able to score, being able to create for herself and create for others, and I think she had a different expectation after she had proven that she could do that, that things would be done a little differently, or customized where she’d get a play run for her and that kind of stuff.”
Moody was used to imposing her offensive will on the game, improvising and scoring as she felt. Her role as a scorer decreased her sophomore year.
Fennelly wanted her to play distributor instead of becoming the go-to scorer she said she always thought she could be. Sometimes, Fennelly said, Moody tries too hard “to make plays that aren’t available” instead of making the simple play, a trait he’s tried to alter.
After conversations with her father, Moody stayed. Her scoring rose to 12.5 points per game her junior season, and she averaged 5.3 assists while sharing a backcourt with then-freshman Jadda Buckley. Still, her role wasn’t what she’s always envisioned. After last season, she spoke of playing off the ball more and raising her scoring average.
During the off-season, she worked to expand her offensive game. After never shooting better than 31.3 percent from 3-point range, Moody set up chairs at Sukup Basketball Complex and practiced dribbling around them, pulling up and shooting from distance. She never shot without taking a few dribbles, because she knew she’d rarely catch and shoot in a game. On a tip from assistant coach Jodi Steyer, she worked on squaring her shoulders and leaping straight in the air when she shot instead of twisting to the left and fading away.
But for those new skills to pay off, she’d have make changes to her in-practice personality.
During the preseason, Moody said, something clicked. The back-and-forth with Fennelly and his assistants, she realized, simply wouldn’t accomplish anything.
“I knew at a point, it’s not going to happen my way,” she said.
But just before the first exhibition game, for reasons that neither Fennelly or Moody would specify, Fennelly suspended her indefinitely. At the time, Fennelly referenced Moody’s negative energy and attitude in practice, and Chrystal alluded to an argument with an assistant. Moody simply said that she “said too much” one day.
Fennelly drew into question whether Moody would return at all to the program, but the senior never doubted she’d be back. Her relationship with her teammates, which was questioned off the court, was too important. And Fennelly, she knew, doesn’t possess ill intentions.
A week later, Fennelly reinstated her.
“I wasn’t going to let anything keep me from being with my teammates,” she said. “As much as me and coach Fennelly go back and forth, I still love him. At the end of the day, he’s a great man.
“I think coach Fennelly’s a great person and he means well for everyone,” she added. “Sometimes the things that he says, he doesn’t get it across how he wants just like anybody else.”
The reprimands didn’t stop with the suspension.
Citing Moody’s practice habits, he started her on the bench for the team’s game at Kansas State on Jan. 7, although she played 33 minutes.
She became a different player from then on, though Moody insists the timing of the benching was coincidental. In the 12 games since, she’s averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 assists.
With her remade jump shot, she’s shooting 36.8 percent from beyond the arc, while creating most of her shots off the bounce.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be this way,” Moody said. “Me being the person on the floor that’s the go-to, I didn’t expect that to be my role coming into my senior year. But it has been … I’m actually surprised with how much I’ve accomplished this year, and I’m proud of myself for it. It just kind of shows me and my teammates how much I’ve grown since I’ve stepped on campus.”
Her mother watches games like her career-high 30-point output against Oklahoma on Feb. 4, and sees what might have been for the past few seasons.
“I wish it would’ve come sooner,” she said. “Just as a parent, I think Nikki has done a lot for her team and a lot for her teammates as far as making others better and really being a team player, really carrying her team, and I feel like now, when it’s toward the end, I feel like she’s been given the opportunity to do what she could’ve been doing all the time. I would’ve like to have seen this, you know, her sophomore year.”
— Nikki Moody
While nobody seems to doubt Moody’s competitive drive, Fennelly thinks her personality contributed to her previously untapped potential.
“You could tell [early], she had a little bit of a hard-headedness,” Fennelly said. “She had an edge to her. I think that some of that has made her really, really good, and then some of that has held her back. I think that’s something over time, she’s been better, but I think it’s obvious that there’s been moments where she hasn’t been the kind of point guard, teammate, player that we needed every single day.”
Whether it’s in spite of her personality or because of it, whether Fennelly deserves credit or not, Moody is finally playing the role she’s desired for years. And she’s receiving plenty of attention from WNBA teams.
Fennelly said he’s heard from every franchise asking for tape of Moody. Her athleticism, her ability to drive the lane, and her point guard skills, he thinks, make her a possible first or second-round pick.
“I’d be shocked [if she wasn’t drafted],” Fennelly said. “With the exception of Alison Lacey, probably, she might be of all the players we’ve ever had that have gotten drafted, she fits that league.”
Despite their differences, Fennelly doesn’t think his relationship with Moody will be over when she graduates. In five years, he suggests, he and Moody may sit down and have a beer.
Maybe they’ll talk about her professional career and his years as ISU’s head coach. Maybe, he adds, they’ll sit back and laugh about the way they used to get under each others’ skin.
“I think there are players that, when you’re done coaching them, you appreciate their differences, and as a player, they appreciate what you were trying to do a little bit more than in the moment,” Fennelly said. “That happens. I imagine that’ll be the case with Nikki.”
Some of their issues, Fennelly said, stem from the fact that their stubborn personalities are too similar.
As their player-coach relationship draws to a close, Moody doesn’t doubt Fennelly’s intentions.
“Me having a strong backbone has helped our relationship in a sense that, I understand that he’s trying to help me and at the end of the day, making me see things that I didn’t see before,” Moody said. “He’s taught me the type of person that I don’t want to be and the type that I do, how he does things and trying to adjust.”
Despite her clashes with Fennelly, Moody will walk away from Ames as the program’s all-time assist leader. She’ll likely top 1,300 career points, and Fennelly thinks she’ll be set to pursue a long and fruitful career as a pro.
Fennelly said he didn’t know if Moody would reach this point. Over the last few years, he said, he wouldn’t have bet on her sticking around through her senior season.
But by changing, adjusting, and aligning with a coach with whom she didn’t always see eye to eye, she’s written her name into the Cyclones’ record books.
“There’s still things that frustrate her, frustrate me,” he said. “There’s things that I wish she would do different and there’s things I’m sure she wishes I would do different. I think having said all that, she’s going to leave here, her name is going to be all over the record books and she’s going to be on four teams that won their fair share of games, she’ll have some personal accolades, she’ll get drafted. There’s a lot of really, really good things.”
This article was written by Anthony Zilis from Ames Tribune, Iowa and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.