Assistant coach Val Nainima has taken a long-winded journey to Michigan, emphasizing the fundamentals of basketball at each step along the way. Tess Crowley/Daily. Buy this photo.

Val Nainima is a stickler for basketball basics. Passing, dribbling, shooting. As most do, she understands them to be the foundations of basketball, and having a solid foundation is key to being successful on and off the court. Throughout Nainima’s entire basketball career, she’s continued to build on her foundation in each position.

Nainima hails from Rakiraki, Fiji, a small island in the South Pacific. She started playing basketball at age 13 when her mom “wanted her out of the house”. Her mother’s friend was hosting a basketball basics clinic. From then on Nainima was hooked. 

During her high school years, she started building her reputation as a stellar point guard. She competed both on the Fiji National Team and the U-20 team. In both 2005 and 2007, Nainima led her teams to gold medals in the South Pacific Games.

After her outstanding performance in high school, Nainima was recruited to play collegiately in America. She began her career at LIU Brooklyn under coach Stephanie Gaitley, now Fordham’s head coach. During her freshman season, she became the first player in the Northeast Conference to win both Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in the same season. Her sophomore season provided similar success. Nainima became the fastest player in LIU history to reach 1,000 career points.

“She’s one of the best, if not the best player, I think I’ve coached,” Gaitley said. “What I love about Val was when she stepped across the line, she was all business, but off the court, she was as nice as could be and had the respect of coaches and teammates. I mean, as a freshman, she was not only Rookie of the Year, she was Player of the Year. Her humble personality and her willingness to just care about others just kind of just set her apart from a lot of people. So not only was she an unbelievable player, but she’s an unbelievable person.”

Gaitley left LIU after Nainima’s sophomore season after which Nainima decided to transfer. Her success at LIU caught the eye of Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s coach and the U.S. Olympic coach. After transferring and sitting out a season due to NCAA regulations, Nainima was eager to get back on the court. 

The decision to transfer proved advantageous for Nainima. She received All-SEC Second-Team Honors and ended her collegiate career as one of the Gamecocks’ top 3-point shooters and point-guards. Perhaps more importantly, Nainima learned valuable lessons from Staley, furthering her foundational understanding of the game.

“I’m not gonna lie, as a point guard she holds us to the highest standard,” Nainima said. “Everything is your fault. You’re accountable for every single thing. Even if you didn’t pass the turnover, you’d have to think like three, four levels ahead. And I gained so much within that amount of time that I was with her. And a level of toughness, a standard of eliteness. Of how to hold yourself at a different level compared to everybody else on a daily basis. And it’s stuck with me.”

After college, Nainima decided to try her hand at professional basketball. She played overseas in Germany for New Basket Oberhausen. Spending three seasons with the team, Nainima also coached a U17 team in the organization during her time overseas.

Shortly after Nainima’s stint overseas, Gaitley approached her about joining Fordham’s coaching staff. Nainima accepted and began her seven-year journey with the Rams, starting first as their video coordinator and later moving to assistant coach.

“And so I said, ‘Hey, listen, why don’t you come in as a video coordinator? And then we’ll continue to move you up’, ” Gaitley said. “And that’s what we did. And she just continued to blossom every year. And she was a terrific assistant coach with a great future.”

At Fordham, Nainima was the guard-specific coach and helped the team to three NCAA Tournament appearances. Under Gaitley’s tutelage, she gained an appreciation for the details.

“She’s a defensive-minded coach,” Nainima said. “Obviously, I didn’t play a lot of defense, but it was great to see it from the other side and the amount of detail that’s put in the defensive side and being able to wrap it up with who I was naturally, as an offensive player, I learned so much.”

During Nainima’s time away from Fiji, she continued to compete for the Fijian National Team. To this day, Nainima remains an important member of the team. She’s been captain for the past 11 years.

“It’s one of the proudest moments of my life,” Nainima said. “I would say there’s nothing compared to wearing your national team jersey and name on your chest.”

Juggling playing and coaching can be a challenge. But Nainima has found a balance, and takes joy and pride in it. Playing for her national team is a great pride for Nainima, alongside coaching young women in the game she loves. Her continued experience playing for the team has helped her not only become a better athlete — but a better coach.

“Everything slows down,” Nianima said. “The more I coach, and the more I see things and the more I learn from other coaches around me, everything slows down. And then you can sort of cheat the system a bit. I know defensive formations, I know offensive formations. I know how not to work hard all the time, but smart.”

She’s also applied that mindset to a different role in the realm of basketball. She worked for Basketball Fiji, a grassroots organization intent on increasing the presence of basketball in Fiji. Nainima served as the development officer and high-performance manager. 

She launched the first Hoops for Health program in Fiji, which introduces basketball basics to young kids and highlights the importance of a healthy lifestyle. She also set up many tournaments for high schoolers and young players in Fiji that weren’t available to her when she played in high school.

Throughout it all, Nainima has understood the importance of grassroots basketball, especially considering her ties to it. Giving back to the community that has shaped her life’s trajectory is a great source of pride for Nainima. She hopes to continue to inspire kids like her from the South Pacific that basketball is possible for them.

“I love working with young people, Nainima said. “I love teaching basics. I mean, if I ever retired from coaching, that’s what I’d love to step into — more grassroots level basketball. It makes me so happy to give back to other Fijians as much as I can.”

Now at Michigan, Nainima has an opportunity to yet again build on her foundation. Wolverine players and coaches alike have expressed their love for her contagious energy, and her passion for basketball. 

“She’s just been phenomenal for us on her first couple of months on the job,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “She’s working with our point guards and just doing an outstanding job.”

Basketball has been Nainima’s entire life. From the start, she understood the special place basketball would hold not only in her career, but in her heart. 

“To me, I believe (basketball’s) a tool that’s used to impact a young person’s life or someone’s life,” Nainima said. “I think impacting a person’s life is huge. And basketball has been that tool for me. And I’ve been impacted by other people as well as, it’s not just not a one-way thing. And it’s made me a better person.

“It’s made me a better coach, a better player and I hope to give back to others the same way that basketball has for me.”

At this point in her career, Nainima’s foundation is sturdy. But if her winding basketball journey shows anything, the fire to build upon it remains burning inside her.