WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - As a well-conditioned athlete, she is used to being in front of large crowds and hearing the announcer call her name. It had just happened again. But on this night, she did not have to shoot, dribble or pass the basketball. She wasn't wearing a uniform with her last name stitched over the number on her back. The crowd had not gathered in the stands of a coliseum or gymnasium to watch her play. This Sunday night, inside the city's convention center, they wanted to hear what Carithia "Nanna" Rivers had to say as one of the four new inductees into the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame.
Nanna Rivers' basketball career began at an early age. She says her earliest memories involve playing at the Martin Luther King Center, on teams coached by Ron Davis. Her father would take her to the gym when he played basketball with his friends, and Nanna became a regular in those games. She was often the only girl playing against boys. It wasn't until she got into middle school years that Nanna played on an all-girls team.
"It was really weird," she remembers about that first girls' team experience. "It was culture shock, it really was. Since I was five I played with boys. Even in AAU, I started off playing with boys as well. I just loved the fact that I was the only girl, but I was never treated like the only girl. I was just another person on the court competing to play the game that you love."
Another thing Nanna developed at an early age, along with a love for anything to do with playing sports, was her nickname. Nanna says it came from her grandmother, who noticed the young child had a couple streaks of gray hair.
"I had some gray hair and my grandma at the time did not have gray hair," Nanna says. "She said 'somebody's got to be a nanna, and it's not me!', and it stuck. College, high school, pros. Even if you Google me to this day, 'Nanna' always pops up."
By the time Nanna reached Hoggard High School, she was playing several sports, including basketball and volleyball. She started with the Vikings as a freshman, and never left the lineup. In her four years at the school, the teams won 100 games. As point guard for the team, Nanna would become a two-time Player of the Year in the Mideastern Conference, and was named the team's most valuable player three times in those four years, playing for several coaches during that four-year span.
This was also a time when Nanna developed a relationship with Sheila Boles, who she is still very close to decades later. Boles, who coached the girls' and boys' teams at Hoggard HS during her career at the school, became much more than a coach or teacher. Nanna talks about that bond starting around 8:00 of the podcast.
"Everyday I'd go by her office and speak, have conversations with her," she remembers about Coach Boles, who is also a member of the GWSHOF. "Coach Boles will always have a special place in my heart. She's been there through it all. When my Mom had breast cancer, she would go with my Mom to some of her treatments. Whatever Mom needed, she'd say 'just give me a call'. She's a super-woman!"
Nanna became one of the most sought-after athletes in the state during her career at Hoggard. College coaches recruited her to join their programs, with UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State leading the way. The legendary leaders of those two storied programs, Sylvia Hatchell and Kay Yow, visited Nanna trying to sway her decision. She talks about that experience, and ultimately why decided to play for Coach Yow and the Wolfpack, starting at 16:45 of the podcast.
"She spoke most about your character and building the person versus 'oh, you're going to start', this is what I want for you. this is where I see you on the court'." Nanna remembers. "It wasn't about that. Coach Yow has always been what's outside the lines. Did she want to win? Yes. But for her winning off the court was bigger than on the court. She wants you to win at life."
Nanna began the transition to high-level collegiate basketball player. Her freshman team at NCSU reached the Sweet-16 of the NCAA Tournament. Accolades followed. Nanna was the team captain her junior and senior seasons, also named "Defensive Player of the Year" in her final campaign. Nanna got the opportunity to play professionally in Europe, where she won two national championships in her five years leading teams in Holland, Germany, Finland and Poland. She had to adjust a much more physical style of play, but the experience was invaluable from both personal and professional perspectives.
"One of the big things I was able to take away from being in Europe for five years, for one, that was the healthiest I've ever been in my life," she says. "I had cars everywhere I went, but I rode bikes. I rode bikes to practice, to the store, that kind of thing. The countries I was in fully valued lunch breaks. At that time, it would be like two-hour lunch breaks in the middle of the day, but that was also the biggest meal of the day, so they took more time with it. The quality of life for me was better."
At the end of her fifth season in Europe, Nanna noticed a change. The drive and desire to play had waned. The necessary off-season work did not seem as important to her. It was time for a change that she addresses at 30:30 of our conversation.
Enter Coach Boles. Nanna says she made a call to her mentor.
"I knew coaching in some facet was what I was supposed to do," Nanna says. "I called her, and she gave me a bit of a chewing. She said 'Nanna, reach out to the people that love you. Reach out to people that want to help you. You're a great person. You helped so many, you know. Reach out!' That took some beating into me, and she did."
E-mail blasts, phone calls, connections led to Nanna's first coaching job. She joined the staff at Seton Hall University under Head Coach Anne Donovan, a legendary figure in women's basketball. (You can click here to listen to my podcast with Anne Donovan done just months before her sudden death). She talks about the impact the Olympic champion had on her life starting at 31:45.
"I said I never wanted to coach, because I didn't think I'd be able to coach players that didn't have the same drive and heart as I did," Nanna says. "I got that my first year in coaching, those players that didn't have the same heart and same drive. But thankfully I was under someone as amazing as Coach Donovan, to who that part didn't matter as much because it was about helping girls become young women. We did more team meetings. We did more character building. We did those things mostly because the heart wasn't there. We invested in the players."
After stints at Seton Hall and Monmouth University, Nanna wanted to transition into a different career. She started Nanna Rivers Coaching, specializing on personal growth and mental toughness for athletes.
Nanna has also embarked on another path, developing her skills as a basketball referee. She trained with some of the most talented officials in the country, and has worked women's college basketball games the past few seasons. Her goals are to work on the Women's National Basketball Association level, and to also one day wear the striped shirt and officiate a men's NCAA Basketball Championship game. With all that Nanna Rivers has already accomplished in her lifetime, I wouldn't be surprised if she attains those goals as well. I hope you enjoy the interview.
You can hear the entire conversation with Carithia "Nanna" Rivers by clicking on one of the links listed below.\
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