This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Everyday Champions, Georgia Tech athletics’ official quarterly magazine. To view the entire issue, including exclusive video, click HERE.
The positive approach of head coach Nell Fortner and her staff has made all the difference for Georgia Tech women’s basketball
By Jon Cooper | Everyday Champions (Spring 2020)
“Keep on the sunny side always on the sunny side
Keep on the sunny side of life
It will help us every day it will brighten all the way
If we keep on the sunny side of life.”
January 28 was a good day for the Georgia Tech’s women’s basketball team.
No, the Yellow Jackets didn’t have a game that day. All that was on the docket was practice.
So how do we know with such certainty that that Tuesday was a good day for the team?
Because every day from October through however long in March the season goes is a good day for head coach Nell Fortner and her staff — assistant coaches Tasha Butts, Blanche Alverson and Brandy Manning. It’s an opportunity for them to teach, for the team to learn and for everyone to have some fun doing so.
“I would say practice as a whole is enjoyable,” said junior point guard Kierra Fletcher. “(Coach Fortner) is always coming around asking us how our day’s been, joking around with us about school, classes, everything. The assistant coaches, too. It’s just a family feel in practice so it’s always enjoyable. The energy is always high.”
High energy and enjoyable practices have become signatures of the Jackets’ first season under the highly energetic and always positive Fortner.
“I definitely think we have taken on the personality of Coach Nell,” said Fletcher. “At some points, do we lean away from the positivity when times get hard? Yes. But she always reels us back in. She always reminds us that staying together and staying positive is what’s going to help us.”
“She’s always energetic, she’s always positive,” said junior forward Lorela Cubaj. “If you make a mistake she is going to, obviously, point it out, but she will be like, ‘You’ve got it. You can do it.’ It’s really easy to get negative, but she always keeps us on track and tries to always be positive. I think that’s really helpful for everybody.”
It’s helping in games.
“She never yells at us. She’s always positive in everything she says,” said senior guard Francesca Pan. “If during the game we make bad plays or we’re down 10 points, if she calls a timeout she’s never mad. She always says, ‘We’ve got this. We got ourselves in a slump, we need to get out of it. Just stay together.’ Keeping positive energy is really important for us. That’s what she loves to do.”
Fortner also loves winning. She’s done it her entire career, as illustrated by her overall 305-187 record as a head coach (a .620 winning percentage) entering her first year on The Flats, including a 101-14 mark with USA Basketball, highlighted by an Olympic gold medal, a FIBA World Championship gold and a Pan American Games bronze.
This season had the potential to be Fortner’s most challenging. She hadn’t been on the sideline in seven years. The Jackets had to replace two of their top players from the previous season and didn’t have injured veteran leader Chanin Scott. The program needed a breath of fresh air and something positive to believe in. Fortner and staff proved to be both.
“Coach Nell has been the same person from day one, and I think that’s something that the team has really enjoyed seeing,” said Fletcher. “I feel like we’re way more relaxed, comfortable. We want to fight for her and the coaching staff.”
“It’s always enjoyable being around the coaching staff,” said Pan. “This morning we had a shooting workout. I’m sure a lot of people would not want to wake up early to go shoot. But once we went to the gym, everybody had positive energy, we had a really good practice.”
All this positivity has resulted in the Jackets staying in the top half of the ACC all season long, and helped them weather a five-game losing streak during ACC play.
Even at its most dire, the team never cracked or showed any inkling it would. It’s learned that while winning is fun, learning how to win can be, too.
“She’s always joking around. Sometimes she jokes more than us,” said Fletcher. “It’s extremely funny when we see the videos up on the scoreboard (during timeouts). It’s hilarious because we see that day in and day out, but still we’re surprised by some of the stuff that she does.”
There aren’t a lot of Division I coaches that will put themselves out there like Fortner does on a video that plays during a timeout, where she sings songs that she obviously knows — “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops — and tries to do songs that she really doesn’t know — “Thank You, Next” by Ariana Grande and “In My Feelings” by Drake (the clean version, of course).
Then there’s Fortner during the end-of-practice sudden death free throw shooting drill.
“We were shooting free throws, and each person that came up and shot a free throw on her end, she started singing a freestyle song for that player.” Fletcher recalled, with a laugh. “It was hilarious because she was trying to rhyme. We couldn’t even focus because of how funny the stuff was that she was saying. Some of it didn’t even make sense.”
The method to her madness makes perfect sense and the players immediately embraced it.
“She’s made me love the game of basketball even more, and I just feel more positive,” said Cubaj. “I feel more energetic. I enjoy being around my teammates even more than I used to. That is really contagious. I believe more in my capabilities on the court.”
Cubaj and others have expanded those capabilities. For example, the 6-4 forward, who has shown superb finishing offensively on the block, this season has unveiled her ability to shoot from the perimeter. She’s surpassed her career total of three-point field goals, making as many threes on Dec. 29 against Virginia (two) as she’d totaled her first two years.
“She never told me not to shoot the three, so I will take the three if I’m open,” she said. “I feel like the style of play brings out some qualities that maybe before were not pointed out of certain players. People can express their games. She lets us do it. She encourages us to take risks.”
“If you have the confidence of your coaches when you’re on the court, you’re not scared to shoot, you’re not scared to attack, you’re not scared to do your things,” agreed Pan. “People are playing their best right now because of the confidence that comes from the coaching staff. Everybody has improved their basketball skills this season.”
“I can really see improvement from everybody on our team,” she added. “Like Jasmine (Carson), last year, barely played. This year she’s playing, and she has a role on our team, she’s scoring a lot, she’s picking us up on offense. Kierra is attacking the basket, she developed her jumper a lot. Last year it was more penetration. Everybody has improved their basketball skills this season.”
The improvement hasn’t shown up on the scoreboard every night, but Fortner’s pride in the team’s effort has. Even during a recent losing streak, her message stayed positive.
“She just told us that we have to regroup real quick,” said Cubaj. “That we will work on it in practice, because it’s really important for us to keep bouncing back and to bring energy all the time.”
The correlation between the coach’s consistency of message and the team’s willingness to buy in so quickly and completely.
“She has never changed. She has never once raised her voice. She always says we just have to get in the gym and get better,” Fletcher said. “There’s been times that I’ve felt that we needed to be gotten after, but she’s always just come in and reassured us. I feel that is something that we all take to heart. She always lets us know that at the end of the day, basketball is just a game. She wants to help us grow as people. We’ll just get back to practice and get back to work.”
It’s not that the losses don’t hurt. They do, especially to someone as unabashedly competitive as Fortner. But she refuses to let a loss drag her or her team down. The Jackets believe a season’s worth of this positivity will pay off come postseason.
“It’s extremely important to keep that because I don’t want us to get tight if things start getting rough and I don’t think she wants that either,” said Fletcher. “That’s why she and the coaching staff try to keep everything free so we don’t feel an immense amount of pressure. They always say, ‘We don’t dwell on the past. We look towards the future and the present.’ You can definitely tell that she is used to winning, the way that she coaches. She holds us to a higher standard. Even when we are playing well she always says, ‘There’s always more work to do.’”
“I feel like she has given us more confidence, and we feel it on the court,” said Cubaj. “We have one goal and the one goal is the NCAA Tournament. We want to reach that goal this year.”