hardwood

A Conversation with NCAA Woman of the Year Nominee, Jessica January

Jessica January drives to the basket against the Georgetown Hoyas. (Photo Credit: DePaul Athletics)

August 2nd, I received an email from the DePaul Athletics department stating that Jessica January has been named a finalist for the NCAA’s Woman of the Year Award.The NCAA Woman of the Year program honors the academic achievements, athletics excellence, community service and leadership of graduating female college athletes from all three divisions.

As a fan of January’s game, I was thrilled. January was the leader of the battle-tested DePaul Blue Demons her senior year. As the main play-by-play voice of DePaul Women’s basketball for Radio DePaul Sports, I was very familiar with her game and quite frankly, she was by far my favorite player to watch and/or cover for the Blue Demons. She had it all; strength, quickness, post moves, a pull-up J, that you’re-gonna-need-to-tape-those-ankles crossover, and what we hear at Hardwood Features define as the clutch chromosome.

But it was not until January went out with an injury in the Big East Conference opener of her senior season, that I realized just how special she is. With a broken finger taking her from Naismith watch list to the sidelines, January transitioned from a leader on the floor to a leader from the sidelines, guiding younger players and talking in huddles. Despite not being able to play for three months, she never lost her indomitable spirit, passion for her team, or competitive fire. When she was finally cleared to return, the Blue Demons needed to win out to hold on to their fourth consecutive conference title with games against Villanova and Georgetown left .

“Number 14! Jessicaaaa Januaryyy!”

It was the sound the fans had been waiting to hear for months, Jessica January, finally announced back into the starting lineup. What the fans didn’t know was January still lacked full-range of motion in her shooting hand.  January would score 11 points on seven shots in the first half and spend most of the rest of night on the bench after energizing her team to a blowout win. Two days later, the Blue Demons hosted the defensive-minded Georgetown Hoyas, where January accounted for the third triple-double in Blue Demons women’s basketball history, and the second on her career. Jessica January was back.

But in this ball-is-life world, what makes a great baller special is not just the ability to notch a triple-double to clinch a fourth straight regular season conference title on senior-day. What makes a truly great basketball player is the person behind the skills; the dedication, sweat, perseverance, the team-first attitude, mental and physical toughness, and above all else, heart. Jessica January’s heart is her defining trait, a skill that transcends the hardwood and ingrains itself in one’s life. That is why she is a nominee for this award.

I spoke with Jessica in an interview, catching up with her on the pursuit of her WNBA career, her outlook on service, and how her basketball life has affected her life off the floor.

Adam: First of all, congratulations on the nomination. Tell me about how you found out and what that was like for you?

Jessica: Its an awesome honor, to start off but, I’m actually in Chicago working Bruno Camp and one of the mornings I was demonstrating and Bruno was like, ‘did you hear what happened this morning?’ I’m like, ‘no’ and he said, ‘you got nominated for the NCAA Woman of the Year award’ so he was the one that actually told me so that was pretty cool.

Adam: A big part of who you are on the floor is you being a facilitator and a big part of being nominated for this award is being a facilitator; so how do you see yourself as being a facilitator off the court?

Jessica: I’d say going to DePaul University and being a part of the DePaul Athletics Department… they really are true to their word as far as serving the community and in my four years, all the community service that we did, it really meant a lot. We weren’t just going through the motions. Having to show up at 6 AM… or going to play with the little kids throughout the community, not just because we had to be there, we really enjoyed doing all that stuff and I know personally, it really impacted my perspective in life and as a student athlete and I think being at DePaul really helped me in seeing who I was as a person and I really wanted to help people throughout the community and especially younger kids and younger basketball players who are aspiring to be athletes and stuff like that so I would say for sure community service and helping my teammates on and off the court,  in the classroom whenever I can and I think DePaul Athletics really preaches that mentality as well.

Adam: How would you say that the service impacted your life and perspective on life?

Jessica: It gave me perspective on how much I value the position I was in to be a student-athlete and to play at DePaul University and to be able to help others. I think that not everyone has the opportunity to help others because they have to take care of themselves. They don’t have the same resources that I have been able to have and it just felt really good to be around such genuine people at a genuine university who is true to their words and the Vincentian mission and especially Doug Bruno. He’s awesome and we don’t just do community service just because we have to do it, we never feel like it’s an obligation. We all decided to do it and it’s really rewarding to be around different types of people and to be able to help them and I just really think that I’m going to be able to carry that same feeling and that same motivation. I’ve already graduated but the next few years of my life and even after that… I’m thankful that I went to DePaul and that I was around people who were genuine in that sense and aren’t just doing it because they had to do it.

Notre Dame DePaul Women's Basketball
Jessica January hits the deck, tying up a loose ball against the Fighting Irish. Photo courtesy of brosher.com

 

 

Adam: Absolutely. So, how would you say that Vincentian mission and the question of ‘what must be done?’ will continue to play a role in your life post-DePaul?

Jessica: I think it’s gonna play a huge role because there are so many things that need to be done in the world. Like I said, I think I was really lucky to have the opportunities that I’ve had, to be raised in a great family, to attend a great university and to be around people who just want to be there to help you so I think that it is my responsibility and other people’s responsibility who have graduated from DePaul to carry out that mission and I know specifically for me, as an African-American woman,  all of the police shootings and the brutality and the misconduct that’s happening now, I think that is specifically the pathway that I am going to take on eventually as I get older and have more time to be a part of that sector… that is definitely something I am going to look forward to being a part of.

Adam: That’s awesome. I’m going to ask you one of my favorite questions… what lessons do you think basketball has taught you and how has that translated into some of the topics of discussions we have hit on in the last few minutes here?

Jessica: That is a great question. (laughing) There are so many lessons that basketball teaches people who play the game.

Adam: Feel free to rant on this one (laughing) For me, I know everyone says “ball is life” or whatever, but I am such a huge believer in the lessons of the game.

Jessica: Yeah, I mean, as cliche as that is, it’s actually so true, especially in my case for sure. Let’s see… starting when I was younger, I think one of the first lessons that I learned is that nothing comes easy. I was always the smallest, the shortest person on the team, I was always the skinniest. I played up with older girls and I got kicked around all the time. I was always on the floor… I guess I was always on the floor in college too but… it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy to play against bigger girls. It wasn’t easy to be the shortest one on the team, the skinniest one on the team and that was a lesson that I had to pick up quickly. I couldn’t feel sorry for myself, I just had to embrace that and take what you have to offer and use it to the best of your ability.

I think something else I learned was you have to be competitive.  I was never the most skilled basketball player, it wasn’t like you looked at me and you were like oh yeah, she is a basketball player. I didn’t have all the moves, I didn’t have the best jump-shot, I mean, when I was younger, I couldn’t make a basket. I would get like 40 rebounds, 40 steals, but I would just chuck the ball off of the backboard because I couldn’t shoot. But despite that, I was still super competitive and I worked really hard and especially defensively, I got after it and that really helped me elevate my game and eventually, the shooting and all that came after, but I got myself on the floor because I was competitive and I didn’t let something like not being able to shoot discourage me because I’d shoot it, I’d get my rebound,  and I’d make a layup or something like that. So there are two things right off the bat…

I think another lesson I learned is that you can meet great people in this world. Throughout and kind of middle school when you are in that phase where you have some friends here, you get into arguments with your friends, who are your friends… but in basketball, I think you really make those connections and make those life-long friendships with people who are gonna’ help you in the long-run. Even now I am still friends with people from my high school team and we are best friends and when we get into the work world and when I finally get a real job after playing they’re gonna be my peers. They’re gonna be people I’m working with or people I call when I need something or just people I call when I wanna have a good time, people I can take advice from that are really gonna be there for me and it started with basketball…Playing high school basketball… Its really cool that this orange ball can bring people together so close that they are life-long friends.

Adam: You talked a little bit about playing continuing to play. Where are you playing now? Where do you see this going? You are way too talented not to eventually get to the WNBA…

Jessica: I still haven’t signed for overseas yet. I have some offers but I am still sort of waiting it out to see if I get a better deal. I should be signing within the next few weeks, its getting kind of late. The plan is to play somewhere that is really competitive. Obviously, the top players over there get money but my first year, that’s not gonna be the case. I’m really just looking to get to be playing against other WNBA players that are playing for a cup and that’s gonna be really competitive and help me get better, playing against top players…The goal next year is to get on a team for sure. I think I’ll have a better chance, not playing much this year with my broken finger… I was honestly a little surprised I got drafted and then I got in a tough situation at Connecticut because they already had all their guards and then I still managed to play well once I got there and I was there until the last day and unfortunately got cut which was frustrating because I didn’t’ have the chance to go to another camp then and get looked at and so when other teams are making cuts and stuff they can kinda call back people that were at their camp if they needed another person. So, I just need to have a good season this year overseas and try to get my name out there back on the map and stuff and then hopefully things will go up from there.

January is one of 145 women nominated for NCAA Woman of the Year. 30 outstanding women will be selected as winners and will be celebrated October 22, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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