Nike’s Forward Pivot
Mental Game: McClure Takes Big Time Talent and Personality to University of New Mexico
By Jordan Nailon
After four years in Pullman as a member of the Washington State University basketball team, Nike McClure has taken her talents to New Mexico.
McClure, a W.F. West graduate who grew up in Tenino, still has one year of collegiate athletic eligibility left after a pair of knee injuries during her freshman year forced her to sit out that campaign as a redshirt. After recovering from those sizeable setbacks, McClure was able to hammer out a successful career as a Cougar over the next three seasons and earned a reputation as a defensive dynamo at the Division 1 level.
Last year, McClure started seven games for WSU and played in 28 games total. She averaged 5.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game while recording 63 blocks. Those totals included a 16 point, 16 rebound and six blocked shots outburst against the University of Washington.
Blocked shots, often the emphatic variety, have become McClure’s calling card over the years and she finished her time at WSU just two swats shy of the schools’ all-time leader with 156 blocks total. Her tally of 68 blocks in the 2016-17 season stands as the single-season record at WSU and she set the WSU record for blocks in a game that same year with 12 stuffs against Colorado. Those dozen blocked shots also tied a 29-year old Pac-12 record.
Despite those personal successes, the status of the women’s basketball program in Pullman became so unsettled that after last season ended, McClure asked for permission to transfer to the University of New Mexico in order to play for the Lobos in the Mountain West Conference.
Last season, WSU finished the season with a 10-20 record and head coach June Daugherty retired after taking an indefinite medical leave in January. McClure said it was disheartening to see her teammates of four years leaving the program amid so much uncertainty and disappointment.
“We didn’t get the things done that we needed to get done and so that’s when I decided that I needed to jump ship and go someplace else where I can chase this dream of getting a ring,” reasoned McClure. “I decided to transfer and start somewhere new and fresh.”
On April 11, the University of New Mexico announced that McClure would be joining their program for the 2018-19 season. Last season, the Lobos made huge strides as a program, posting a 25-11 record and advancing to the third round of the WNIT. They also set school-records for scoring average, total points, field goals, and three-point shots made.
McClure says she is not daunted by transferring to a new school with limited time to prove herself. Rather, she’s looking forward to the challenge and hoping to help the Lobos get over the hump.
“I’d rather come to New Mexico and play seven minutes and win than play 30 minutes and lose,” said McClure, who expects to earn her playing time as a stretch post player.
A quote on the University of New Mexico Athletics page from head coach Mike Bradbury seems to indicate that McClure has indeed found a good home for her final collegiate hardwood campaign.
“Nike brings us an experienced and versatile post player,” said Bradbury. “She is a strong rim protector and rebounder. We connected right away in the recruiting process and her personality will be exciting to coach.”
As a fifth-year senior, McClure is pursuing graduate studies to remain active in the classroom while making the most out of her final year patrolling the paint on college basketball courts. She graduated from WSU last year with a major in Communications and a minor in Sports Management. Now, while she works out with her new team this summer, she is working on her graduate certificate, and once school starts up in the fall, she plans to begin work toward her certification to teach English as a second language.
“I’m hoping to be a coach after I’m finished playing,” said McClure.
Her transfer to UNM is not the first against the grain opportunity that McClure has seized upon during her long and winding basketball journey. As a freshman and sophomore in high school, McClure excelled on the varsity basketball team for Tenino in the 1A ranks. Then, in an effort to face heartier competition, McClure transferred to W.F. West to play in the 2A Evergreen Conference.
That transfer cost McClure a year of varsity eligibility but did nothing but bolster the lore that became attached to her name around the proverbial water cooler. As a six-foot plus junior on the JV team, McClure put up gaudy numbers in limited playing time while her team cruised to an undefeated season. First hand accounts of her play slowly morphed into lasting local legend that she managed to dunk a time or two during that remedial junior varsity campaign. However, McClure recently put the kibosh on that tall tale, noting that she attempted three dunks but missed them all.
After that year spent refining her game and leadership skills on the JV roster, McClure came out resolved to make waves with a varsity Bearcat squad coming off of a runner-up finish to Mark Morris at state. During McClure’s senior year at W.F. West, the Bearcats again faced Mark Morris in the state title game but emerged victorious that year thanks in part to the tenacious post play of McClure.
“I was totally hungry. Because after watching varsity for a year and not being able to play and help them, I was ready to get in there,” said McClure, who still counts her teammates from that championship squad among her closest friends.
Although she left Tenino in order to test herself and grow her game, McClure says she is grateful that she has been able to maintain friendships in her hometown of Tenino over the years.
“One of the reasons why I’ve been able to keep up those relationships is that I still live there so I still see them,” said McClure. “I lived there for four years and I’ve built up some good relationships with a lot of those people.”
One way that McClure helped to keep those connections to Tenino strong while she was at WSU was by hosting the Tenino girls basketball team for a visit to Pullman. Tenino head coach Brandi Thomas was a standout player for WSU just before McClure’s time at Pullman, so the visit was full of mentorship opportunities all the way around.
“It was honestly great. I just told them, I was in your same exact shoes,” said McClure, who noted that she actually received her offer to WSU while still attending Tenino High School. “I just wanted to let them know it doesn’t matter how small of a town you come from. If you work hard, those doors will open for you.”
McClure also attempted to provide some perspective about the vast chasm that separates the atmosphere of high school athletics and top tier collegiate programs.
“The biggest difference between high school sports and college sports is self motivation. In high school, you have a coach on you constantly to do stuff. When you get to college, it’s all on you. Things are not handed to you in college,” explained McClure.
On that note, McClure speaks from experience
“I was one of the best players on my high school team as far as stats but that didn’t matter when I got to college,” said McClure. “You can’t just wish for it. You have to work for it.”
After anchoring her high school squad at W.F. West, McClure did not find immediate success at WSU. Her first season was marred by a pair of serious injuries when she tore cartilage in her right knee in the fall, and then after six months of recovery, tore the ACL in her left knee immediately upon her return.
Even when she returned healthy as a sophomore, McClure found herself planted on the bench far more often than she had anticipated as a returning player. She credited her coach at WSU, June Daugherty, for helping her navigate that difficult path to full recovery and success on the court.
“I was honestly beating myself up about it and whenever she heard that she would just remind me how good I was and how much better I can be. She always had faith and trust in me as a person,” noted McClure. “One of the things that we really loved about June was she was very passionate about her players’ success.”
During her junior year, as a redshirt sophomore, McClure was finally able to make a name for herself on the court and regularly wound up in highlight reels by sending opponent’s shot attempts sailing deep into the stands.
“I had an absolute blast that year,” said McClure, who noted that the Cougars went to the WNIT that season.
McClure says the biggest take away from her time playing in the Pac-12 for WSU was all of the top flight talent that she was able to face off with night after night. She listed Monique Billings, formerly of UCLA and currently a member of the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA, and Marie Gulich formerly of Oregon State University and currently in the WNBA with the Phoenix Mercury, as two of her favorite foes to face off with.
“That was fun every night just to go head-to-head with them,” said McClure. “It gets me hyped for my future.”
McClure, who is listed at 6’3”, says she stands at least eye to eye with nearly all of her opponents across the Division 1 basketball landscape. However, she credits her dedication to strength training as the primary reason she is able to competently trade paint in the post with the most talented bigs in the nation.
“As long as you can hold your own in the paint as far as being physical and strong. You’ll be fine. It doesn’t even matter how tall you are,” said McClure, who boasted that she gained 40 pounds during her four years at WSU. “I think that’s the reason I love it so much is because in the post position, you get to be extra physical and the refs let you get away with it.”
One opponent who was gave McClure fits during her time at WSU was Kristen Simon, who played for USC and Team USA.
“She has the best trash talking game ever. She’ll really get me so frustrated and throw me off my game. She’s like, ‘You can’t guard me. You can’t block this.’ And I’d get all in my feelings about it,” said McClure. “She’s just so good at mentally tearing me down.”
During her time at USC, Simon was featured in a Pac-12 Sports Report for her open struggles working to manage her anxiety and depression. That is a subject that McClure has also weighed in on in public forums.
Most notably, McClure posted a thoughtful thread on Twitter on March 16 that lamented the mental toll that college athletes are forced to pay in order to play.
Those messages read, “College athletics has been an incredible blessing for me. However, it comes with a lot. It’s not as glamorous as it appears. I’ve suffered with depression for years now and I think it’s time to address what athletes go through.”
McClure continued, “Sure, we get school paid for, but there’s a lot more to it. We have to constantly deal with our lives being made public. Constantly told to suck things up because we’re supposed to be these hardened athletes who are mentally tough beyond belief.”
She added, “This (stuff) is hard man. Constantly trying to make everyone happy. From alumni to fans to my own parents. All while not even being happy myself. It’s hard putting on a mask everyday and acting like I’m happy to entertain people. Basketball isn’t even fun for me anymore.”
McClure concluded, “People might even read this and think ‘Oh a spoiled athlete is on a rant.’ Like no, I’m a person too. I go through all the same (stuff) a regular student goes through while being on a national stage. It’s not even about getting paid. The mental health of student athletes is not ok.”
A regular poster on Twitter’s open platform, McClure has nearly 4,500 followers. She is aware that she is a role model for young girls and says she makes a concerted effort to post messages that will be interpreted correctly by everyone, including her youngest fans. She also knew that her thoughts would be controversial to some, but she says she feels passionately enough about the subject that she was moved to speak up.
McClure noted that she was friends with WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who took his own life on Jan. 16, and that trauma brought back a flood of memories from her freshman year when she also struggled with suicidal thoughts.
“It just brought back a lot of emotions that I’d had and I knew that if it was bringing back those feelings for me that other people were having the same feelings,” reasoned McClure.
She says received enormous amounts of feedback from her posts on mental health with the vast majority of it positive and supportive. As evidence of the tweet’s poignance, the original post garnered more than 3,700 likes, and was retweeted more than 700 times, with a lengthy public dialogue ensuing.
“I didn’t’ get any pushback except from people who’ve never played sports, so I just try to ignore them,” said McClure. “I just thought that putting my feelings out there, with having that large of a Twitter following, I thought I should be somebody who said ‘It’s okay to talk about it.’ I wanted to start a conversation.”