In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily’s sports section is launching its fourth annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports writers on staff. Daily Sports Writer Lily Israel continues the series with this story.
Naz Hillmon sat in the back of her mom’s car on the way home from her first AAU basketball tournament as a middle schooler. She asked a simple question.
“Mom, are you an All-American?”
Her Mom replied yes. A few minutes went by. Then, another question.
“Mom, what’s an All-American?”
Most children with a parent of NaSheema Anderson’s pedigree wouldn’t have to ask a question like this. But that’s just how Anderson wanted to raise her daughter.
Anderson played college basketball at Vanderbilt from 1994-98, where she earned All-American honors and became a staple in the college basketball world and continued playing professionally in the American Basketball League for one season.
Fast forward to present day, the junior star forward not only knows what an All-American is, but is one herself, becoming the first Michigan women’s basketball player to ever receive the honor.
The basketball roots in Hillmon’s family extend far beyond her mom. Including herself, her extended family has won seven Ohio basketball high school state championships and racked up many other awards. There are countless uncles, aunts and grandparents Hillmon could have leaned on to learn the game from. But it is Hillmon’s relationship with her mom that stands out.
From an early age, Anderson wanted Hillmon to find her own path and be her own person. Though Anderson jokes that Hillmon and her two brothers have been dribbling basketballs since before they were born, no one pressured Hillmon into playing basketball. Her mom wanted her to grow into the sport herself, no matter how much restraint Anderson had to show.
“A lot of it was my husband and I had to have him to back me up. He said, ‘You’re overbearing, you’re aggressive. She’s not you,’ ” Anderson said. “He’s like, ‘she doesn’t understand the X’s and O’s that you’re saying. But I’m telling him I believe she does. Her IQ is very high. Like, you know, I can see things in her. But at the same time, she just more or less wanted to be with her friends.”
Hillmon played basketball from an early age. One year in middle school, her team didn’t have a coach. Her mom desperately wanted her to be able to play, so she decided to coach the team herself. Anderson’s coaching career came to an end after one season when she realized it wasn’t such a smart idea to coach her daughter along with a handful of other kids just learning to play the game.
Hillmon has been consistent in her pursuit of basketball, except for one small moment when she was in middle school. In seventh grade, Hillmon’s desire to play basketball hit what Anderson calls “a brick wall.” Instead, Hillmon wanted to run track and play volleyball.
“That’s probably one of the only times where I had a complete meltdown,” Anderson said. “I could not get myself together. For the first time I saw this person that could articulate why they didn’t want to do something.”
Hillmon could articulate those feelings because of the lessons her mom had instilled within her from a young age. This is when Anderson learned how to better balance her role as mom and coach. Anderson’s husband and Hillmon’s dad Victor kept her in check from being too overbearing or too aggressive. Anderson lived and breathed basketball, but, at that point, her daughter didn’t. Hillmon’s physical attributes were always there, but it took some time for her mom’s fiery passion to catch up to her.
“The mom-coach role was difficult, to say the least, because I lived, slept and ate basketball and of course she didn’t,” Anderson said.
Basketball has, without a doubt, bonded the two women together. Hillmon and Anderson share many similarities — namely their love for basketball — but these similarities manifest themselves in very different ways.
“She’s like a mini me, but with a nicer version,” Anderson said. “Naz is one of the sweetest, kindest people that you’ll ever meet, and it’s genuine. Other people say, ‘Naz gets to be nice and not aggressive because her mom is not nice and aggressive.’ For me to have a child that’s totally opposite of me is hilarious. Even though people say we look alike and we sound alike, we definitely don’t act alike.”
Anderson believes her daughter became the humble player she is because of the way she grew up. Hillmon has always been the person who brings other people together. She prefers to settle arguments within her family by leaning on faith instead of fighting and fussing. She always brings people together with love.
From an early age, Anderson learned that her daughter was very communicative, responding better to nonverbal cues than vocal aggression. Out of this was born the pair’s 24-hour rule. For a full 24 hours after every game, the mother-daughter duo don’t talk basketball with each other. Win or lose, Anderson texts her daughter asking more personal things like how she feels, what she ate before the game and how she slept. This one day of space gives both the time they need to process the game.
For Hillmon, it gives her time to decompress from the game. For Anderson, it gives her time to cool off and not become a coaching figure when she strives to be a mom.
“It works for us because I always want her to know I’m her mom first, and basketball (is) secondary,” Anderson said. “If she never picked up a ball again the love that we have for each other would be the same.”
As much as the two have a mother-daughter relationship, they see each other as equals and are best friends. Hillmon acts as a conscience for her mom. Anderson can always hear her daughter’s voice in the back of her head imploring her to be nice and say something nice. Hillmon also gives her mom a taste of her own medicine, telling her things about taking the higher road just as Anderson taught Hillmon when she was younger.
“Sometimes I have to remember that she’s 20 because my instinct, both of our instincts, are always to call one another when something good or bad happens,” Anderson said. “She’s the first person that I think about to call or the last person that I think to text when I go to bed.”
The relationship built on love and mutual trust inherently has a competitive element to it. The two spent the first part of their quarantine together rewatching countless amounts of old film, including some from Anderson’s career.
When Anderson watches Hillmon play, she is always the loudest one at the game, taking it upon herself to argue with the refs from the stands so her daughter doesn’t have to. This season was especially tough for the duo because Anderson wasn’t able to attend all of her daughter’s games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A big reason Hillmon chose Michigan was the close proximity to her family in Cleveland.
“It’s definitely different not having her at every single game,” Hillmon said. “We talk every day, literally every day … (My parents) have just been my calm spot, like a refresh button.”
In the postseason, with fans allowed to attend, Anderson made her presence felt. Countless times throughout Michigan’s tournament run, the cameras cut to a cheering and screaming Anderson. In the Wolverines’ overtime loss to Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen, Hillmon scored the game-tying basket in regulation. Immediately, the cameras showed Anderson, engaged in a fist-pump.
Now, with Hillmon’s career blossoming, the pair has a running joke about their similar playing styles.
“She’s definitely stronger than me, but I don’t think she would have beat me,” Anderson said. “I would have blocked her shot.”
That’s the motherly instinct and competitive nature kicking in.
Above all else, Anderson understands how her experiences as a former player can positively impact her daughter’s basketball career. She understands how her daughter has to balance a rigorous school schedule with an equally strenuous basketball schedule because she’s been in that same place. Not many female basketball players can say their mother was in the same position as them. Both Anderson and Hillmon know the challenges female athletes face on a day-to-day basis, and Anderson has been in Hillmon’s corner through all the difficulties.
“She didn’t have to go through the COVID period, but she’s been through college and tournaments and things of that nature,” Hillmon said. “She’s always a great person to lean on for questions or advice throughout my entire career, but especially this year.”
Anderson is both Hillmon’s loudest fan and her biggest critic. But, at the end of the day, she preaches one mantra to her daughter to support her through everything.
“I always tell Naz, ‘I won’t tell her anything wrong. I always tell her something strong.’ ”