Commentary

Natalie Novosel fights to the top

Originally Published: April 13, 2012
By Andrew Lovell | Special to espnW

Natalie Novosel collected the loose ball at the top of the key, drove past the taller defender in front of her and set her sights on the basket.

It wouldn't be that easy. Another taller player stepped up, met Novosel in the air and challenged the layup. "Foul," Novosel said. "All ball," the defender shot back. In a move born of frustration, Novosel picked up the ball and fired it at the player's head.

You see, Novosel doesn't hate losing. She despises it. It's a trait her family realized early in her basketball career.

[+] EnlargeShannon, Natalie and Nate Novosel
Jaine NovoselThe Novosel kids were born into a sports family. Their father, Nick, played football at Youngstown State and basketball at Kent State.

The perimeter defender? That was older sister Shannon, who stands 6-foot-1. The interior defender? That was 6-foot-5 twin brother Nate. And the above scenario -- with and without the hurling of the basketball -- played out thousands of times in the Novosels' backyard in Lexington, Ky. The challenge, and repeated failure, of driving against two taller and stronger players helped lay the foundation for whom Natalie would become as a basketball player: a relentless, attacking playmaker with inside-outside versatility.

As that player, Natalie helped Notre Dame reach consecutive NCAA championship games, helped Team USA win the gold medal at the World University Games and became a potential top-10 pick in the 2012 WNBA draft on Monday (ESPN2/ESPN3, 2 p.m. ET). She's won at the high school, AAU and college levels. But it's the losing that's built her game.

"I would lose consistently, game after game," Natalie said. "I would get so mad at them. I'd throw little tantrums, throw the ball at them, curse at them, and that'd be it. They'd go inside. ... They really put up with a lot. I was the biggest sore loser."

Basketball family

Like Natalie, Shannon and Nate followed after their father, Nick, and played college basketball. Shannon graduated in 2009 after a four-year career at the University of Evansville. As a senior, she helped the Lady Aces to an improbable Missouri Valley Conference tournament title and NCAA berth. Nate will graduate this May -- as will Natalie -- from the University of Rochester, a Division III school in New York where he was a four-year starter, an all-conference pick and a key cog in a run to the Sweet 16 in 2010-11.

Unlike Natalie, Shannon and Nate let their basketball careers come to an end after college. Shannon declined overseas basketball offers and works at The Cable Center, a nonprofit organization in Denver that recruits college graduates for jobs in the cable industry. Nate, who interned with Congressman Ben Chandler last summer and has political aspirations, will begin a two-year stint with Teach for America in Washington, D.C., in early August.

Natalie, who set a Notre Dame single-season record for free throws made as a junior, is all-in with basketball. She is a projected first-round pick in this year's draft, which, outside of Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike as the No. 1 pick, is wide open. If a career in the WNBA doesn't work out, Natalie's family said she would play overseas.

"Natalie is the most passionate person I've ever met about basketball," Shannon said. "I've never known anyone who's in the gym so much. ... If a day goes by without a basketball in her hands, she gets a little antsy."

Sibling rivalry

Natalie was rarely far from a basketball or her family's court, which she describes as a "20-by-20-foot slab of concrete," located beyond mother Jaine's gardens and up a small hill in the backyard.

On that concrete slab the Novosel siblings played all the usual backyard basketball games, including H-O-R-S-E and knockout. But the main game was 32 Tip, a modified version of 21 -- first to 32 points wins, no free throws, any tip-ins wipe your score to zero. Shannon and Nate dominated.

[+] EnlargeJaine, Shannon, Natalie and Nate Novosel
Jaine NovoselTheir mother, Jaine, said that although all three siblings were competitors, the other two weren't as consumed by sports as Natalie, second from right.

"Shannon and I were always much taller than Natalie, and when you're in the backyard growing up, that always usually seems to win out," said Nate, who was born two minutes before Natalie.

The rivalry, particularly between Natalie and Shannon, extended beyond the basketball court. Their bedroom doors faced each other and the two shared a bathroom.

"My sister and I fought tooth and nail about everything. You name it," Natalie said. "Even when we were on the same team in high school, you'd think we'd support each other. She probably did, but of course I was so immature and trying to prove myself. ... I always had a chip on my shoulder, mad at the world for some reason, and I just always took it out on her."

The fighting has subsided over the years, aided by welcomed distance and inevitable maturing. Shannon made sure to send Natalie a message before each NCAA tournament game, including a Facebook message telling her to play like an "animal" before the Final Four semifinal game against UConn. Natalie's nickname is "Nasty," bestowed by her teammates at Lexington Catholic High. But Shannon and Natalie share a love of the song "Animal" by Neon Trees.

Learned toughness

The Novosels' parents, Nick and Jaine, have varied sports backgrounds. Nick, one of five children, grew up in Hubbard, Ohio, a town of just over 8,000. He played football at Youngstown State before transferring to play basketball at Kent State. Nick also worked part-time jobs, like the rest of his siblings, to help the family. He even helped build exit and entrance ramps on Interstate 80 near Youngstown.

"I'm still picking a lot of splinters out of my butt," said Nick, who now works as a regional sales manager. "I had a lot of pine time [at Kent State]. I wasn't anything close to what my three kids became."

[+] EnlargeNate, Shannon and Natalie Novosel
Jaine Novosel Nate and Shannon also played collegiately, but unlike Natalie, that's where their basketball careers stopped.

Jaine, a native of Alabama, attended Auburn University. She studied architecture and designed the Novosels' house. Natalie said her mom had a passion for tetherball. After growing up in the football-dominated South, Jaine took some time to embrace basketball fandom.

"As much as they were very solid competitors and really focused on their sports as well, [Shannon and Nate] weren't consumed quite like Natalie was all about her sports," Jaine said. "Of our three, she was the most natural of the athletes. ... This is such a dream come true that she is on the verge of having a chance to play in the WNBA."

It wasn't until Natalie began playing AAU basketball for the Tennessee Flight and coach Matt Insell, who just finished his fourth season as an assistant coach with the Kentucky women's team, in 2007 that her stock began to soar. Natalie was one of the top performers on a team that included LaSondra Barrett (LSU), Victoria Dunlap (Kentucky) and Cetera DeGraffenreid (North Carolina).

"I always thought Natalie was one of the best players in America," Insell said. "Nobody agreed with me until the past two years. ... The joy I got in coaching Natalie was whenever we'd go out and play people and there'd be more athletic players playing against her, and she'd just go out there and kick their butt all over the gym."

Natalie received interest from UConn, Duke, Kentucky, Rutgers, Texas, Louisville, Pittsburgh and South Carolina, among others, but Notre Dame, a successful program on the verge of becoming elite, felt right.

Natalie said she plans to enroll in physician assistant's school after her playing career ends. But that's likely still a few years away. Now more than ever, Natalie's looking back.

"No matter how many times I lost [in the backyard], it was those times, few and far between, that I did win that made it so worth it," she said.

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