Long before former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie asked his devout fan base and the inquisitive media to “trust the process,” Nicole Munger had already been applying that mantra to her basketball career.
Just an hour north of the Wells Fargo Center, Munger was entering her freshman year at Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown, Penn. Despite having a local reputation for being athletic, she was merely 5-feet tall. But what might have been a disadvantage in most people’s eyes was a source of motivation.
“She was about 4-foot nothing,” said her dad, Rick. “Most kids, when they’re playing sports, develop a skill-set once they’re comfortable with their body. Nicole didn’t have that opportunity. She had to develop a skill-set and let her body grow into that skill.”
Added her high school coach, Terry Rakowsky: “You could tell from the very beginning that she was special … and just how hard she worked and how serious she took what she was trying to accomplish. And again, she was just tiny. But her energy and just her commitment — she just played one way, which was 100 percent all the time.”
During her time as a Lady Buck, Munger worked tirelessly to improve her game. She blossomed into one of the state’s best all-around players, quickly enhancing that local reputation into something much more. Her height was finally catching up to her skill and effort, and colleges around the country began taking notice.
As Munger would soon find out, the eventual transition to the college game posed even more challenges. Thanks to her Philadelphia-bred mentality, though, she would be up to the task.
Rick Munger had always been an avid Philadelphia sports fan. But becoming a father for the first time to newly-born Nicole meant that his fandom would have to take a backseat. Or did it?
“When Nicole was born,” Rick said, “I used to watch the Flyers, the NHL hockey team, and my wife made a comment to me like, ‘You know, once this baby comes, you’re not going to be able to watch this all the time.’ And to my wife’s dislike, Nicole would actually lay on my chest and watch the hockey games with me and would just love it.”
It turns out Rick didn’t have to sacrifice any of his fandom for Nicole. She was as big a sports fan as he was.
Nicole’s love for watching sports quickly turned into a love of playing them. Her and her younger brother Ryan would take to the streets of their cul-du-sac to join in on games of pick-up basketball, baseball, football and even hockey with their neighbors.
Though these games were played for fun, they also served as an incubator for Nicole’s competitive nature.
No sport seemed off limits to her growing up. Munger participated recreationally in everything from softball to football, and she was good at them all.
When her football and soccer schedules conflicted one year, in order to keep her on the team, the soccer coach told the Mungers that Nicole could forgo practices and just play in the games.
Despite excelling in multiple sports, she really began focusing on basketball in sixth grade.
“Basketball kinda just weeded itself out,” Munger said. “I mean, it was the sport I was best at. I knew I couldn’t keep playing football with the guys and baseball with the guys. Basketball just won out and that’s how it became my favorite sport.”
From that moment on, Munger devoted all her time outside of school to getting better. It was at this time that she started developing her skill-set.
She joined a top-notch AAU program, the Philadelphia Belles, during middle school, but was told she’d have to play on the “B-team” that season due to her height.
Munger wasn’t satisfied with that. “She said, ‘No, I want to play on this team,’ ” Rick said. “ ‘If you don’t want to play me, that’s okay, but I’m going to practice with these kids who are better, because I want to get better.’ ”
The Wolverines offered Munger during her sophomore year of high school.
Michigan’s reputation preceded itself, but going into her official visit, Munger and her parents were somewhat wary of how far Ann Arbor was from southeast Pennsylvania.
She had never been away from home for an extended period of time, and the 10-hour drive from Doylestown meant her family wasn’t exactly accessible.
If it’s meant to be, though, it’s meant to be.
Munger loved everything about Michigan — the campus, the academics and the athletics as a whole.
“I remember that Friday we were just walking around on campus,” Nicole said. “I hit my brother on one side, my dad on the other side and said ‘This is it.’ Walking on campus there was just a feel. It was a football game weekend … it was just different. You could feel the tradition. Every building was just beautiful, obviously highly-renowned academics were something I was looking for … and that’s not even talking about basketball.”
Of course, basketball had to be a consideration too. Her tour of campus culminated in her visit to Crisler Center, where she sat down with Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. The two hit it off.
“I mean besides how gorgeous this place is, I was sitting in coach’s office, and she was the only coach talking about getting back to Final Fours,” Munger said. “It wasn’t just like, ‘Let’s make the tournament,’ it was like ‘Let’s get to Final Fours.’ ”
The admiration was mutual. In Munger, Barnes Arico — who was just beginning her coaching career at Michigan — saw a hard-working and talented prospect. To Barnes Arico, Munger was a player who could only be an asset to whichever program was lucky enough to get her.
“You need players like Nicole Munger in your program to be successful,” Barnes Arico said. “And I have valued and appreciated that from day one. She’s a special kid.”
The love affair had commenced. After a tremendous senior season, in which Munger earned All-State first team honors and led the Lady Bucks to a 32-2 record and a runner-up finish in the state championship, the four-star recruit packed her bags for Ann Arbor.
Her freshman year, Munger struggled to adjust. Academically, assignments were coming fast and furious. On the basketball court, she was no longer the best player in practice. And on top of it all, her support system was 580 miles away. Doubt over whether she belonged at Michigan swirled around her head.
“Because it’s Michigan,” Munger said. “I never — I just had the thought coming in that, ‘What if I don’t make it?’ I don’t think I had the confidence that I could play here until partway through my freshman year, when I realized, ‘I can do this. These kids are better than me, but I’ll get there.’ ”
Munger, having learned from previous experiences, embraced the process all over again.
Her mindset switched to making the team better in whatever way she could. In practice, she frequently played on the scout team, where her main job was pestering star sophomore point guard Katelynn Flaherty. Just like before, Munger worked her way up the depth chart with grit and commitment. As a top-100 recruit coming out of high school, the talent was clearly there, but without her unwavering devotion to improvement, her freshman season would not have gone as well as it did.
She appeared in 34 games that year, primarily coming in to play pressure defense and hit the occasional outside shot on offense. She may have averaged just 4.7 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, but her contribution went far beyond the numbers.
“She’s a fan favorite,” Barnes Arico said. “From the first time she’s ever stepped onto the court, people have grabbed me immediately after the game, ‘Oh my gosh that No. 10, oh my gosh, she will just do anything to help your team win. She will dive for the ball. She will take the charge. She’ll be bloodied and try and get up to get a stop.’ ”
Fast forward to present day, and the 5-foot-10 Nicole Munger is one of Michigan’s go-to players heading into season.
Having lost Flaherty and Jillian Dunston from last year’s team — which made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament — Munger and senior forward Hallie Thome have assumed leadership roles, both on the court and off it.
“Hallie and I have really been working with the team just on the culture,” Munger said. “And making sure everyone is on board. It’s going to be a really big year. It’s a really important year for the growth of this program and I think we have the pieces in place to do something special, which is really cool.”
If anybody is suited for a leadership role, it’s Munger. Her unbridled effort coupled with the fact that she’s earned Academic All-Big Ten honors her past two seasons has made her a model example for her younger teammates.
On the court this season, her role will be to complement Thome’s interior dominance with a threat from the outside. Munger shot 40.4 percent from three last season and will be looked to even more to provide that threat beyond the arc.
“She can shoot the basketball better than I believe anybody in the country,” according to Barnes Arico. “I have to continually remind her of that, because she doesn’t shoot the ball enough for my liking, but she is an incredible, incredible shooter.”
If she and Thome can successfully mesh this season, while also bringing along some of the younger stars on the team, the Wolverines will be a major factor in a relatively unknown Big Ten Conference.
“Going towards the end of the year, one of our big things is Michigan (women’s) basketball has never won a Big Ten Championship so I think that’s one of our biggest goals,” Munger said. “It would be great to raise a banner.”
Munger’s story is not one of an underdog. She had been blessed by unusual athletic ability at the outset. Instead, her story is one of hard work and trust. Without those qualities, she wouldn’t be in her current position — a valuable player on a Big Ten contender.
There is something about Nicole Munger and Philadelphia that go so well together. As Rick explains, Philadelphia is a unique sports market: one, where the only thing the fans care about is effort.
“Whether you make a mistake or not is fine, as long as you’re giving it your all,” Rick said. “And I think Nic has sort of picked up on that — that’s the way she plays.”