One on One with
Old Dominion University
Natalie Diaz is a risk taker. Whether it's bungee jumping or moving across the country to play basketball, this 5'11" guard is willing to try new things. What does the future hold for this graduating Lady Monarch?
Natalie Diaz's collegiate playing career came to its end at the hands of Louisiana Tech, which handed Old Dominion a Sweet Sixteen loss in this year's NCAA Division I tournament. The game, in which Diaz scored 15 points and pulled down seven boards, brought to a close a year in which Diaz has shone. She averaged 12.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, helping her team to a 29-5 overall record. In recognition of her contribution this year, she was named the Continental Athletic Association (CAA) Defensive Player of the Year, was named to the All-CAA first team, was the CAA Tournament MVP, was named to the All-CAA Defensive first team, and on April 25, was named the Old Dominion Female Athlete of the Year.
Diaz talked with us after returning from the WNBA Draft Camp, but before the WNBA Draft. While she was not taken in the draft, it is expected that she will attend the expansion teams' open tryouts, where she could get her shot to play this summer. Diaz spoke to us about what it was like growing up on a Native American reservation with eight brothers and sisters, why she chose to major in English and Women's Studies, her plans for the future, what it takes to be a captain, why she loves to bungee jump, and her passion for the game of basketball.
Gball: You just returned from the WNBA Draft Camp. What was that like?
Diaz: It was interesting, but it wasn't what I expected. It was difficult in the sense that you're out there playing with a lot of girls that you're not comfortable playing with--you don't really have a chemistry with them. So you don't know their tendencies and they don't know yours. It's not necessarily like going and playing a pick-up game because you're trying to be somewhat organized. The staff running the camp give you a camp offense. I found that a little bit difficult--not being on the same page with different people. You're constantly switching teams.
It was tiring. Not so much cardiovascular-wise, because I think most people came in fit to play and to run, but because it was just the constant playing. Each time, you went out there for maybe five minutes at a time, and you'd try to just go all out. With myself in particular, I remember the last game we played up there, my body was exhausted and my legs were heavy.
You're playing with the top seniors in the country, and even some other higher caliber players--some from the ABL who didn't come over last year, others who had graduated a year or more ago and who had been working on their game. I think it's good in the sense that it lets you know that you're capable of playing at that level with that level of girls.
I had a great time. They took really good care of us. Chicago is a great area. I had never been there before. There's definitely a lot to do. I just met a lot of great people. It was a great experience.
Did you ever feel uncomfortable with being scrutinized so closely? It must have felt like being a piece of meat.
You're moving on to the next level. It's kind of like, your college play mattered in the sense that it got you there, but other than that, you're basically a commodity. They run things the way they want to run them. They're the boss and you're basically at their whim.
It's odd because different people are looking for different things. You feel that you're never going to satisfy everybody. I think the whole point is to go out there and try to play your game and play hard. Some people did a great job at doing that and other people had a harder time of getting into the flow of things. But I heard some people tell point guards that they wanted them to shoot more, and other people told point guards, "Your job is to distribute." It just depended on what they wanted on the floor and what kind of point guard they were looking for. But out there, everybody is fighting to look good, and you're not necessarily concerned with making other people look good.
That was one of the difficulties I had. I think I've become more of a team player after my four years at Old Dominion. But the feeling was, if you are going to get anything done, you're going to get it done on your own out there. I had to do a little bit of adjusting.
How would you assess your chances?
I am pretty hopeful that I will get drafted. Personally, I don't feel like I had a great camp. There was a lot of adjustments for me to make out there. I'm very capable of doing a lot of different things, and I do a lot of little things well: I set good screens, I know how to run plays, I play good on-ball defense, I play good team defense. I'm capable of scoring, but at Old Dominion that wasn't my job.
We run a post-oriented offense. We're constantly giving the ball to the post. It was a little bit difficult for me to get that one-man team mentality that I felt was really needed to shine at camp. A lot of those girls were the primary offense for their teams, but I'm confident that I've played well enough over the years, and in this last year in particular, in big games. I feel like they know that I'm a big game player and what I'm capable of. I think they've seen that. Hopefully that will all work out.
Do you have a favorite moment from your career at Old Dominion?
I do. I have a lot, but the one that I definitely remember was my freshman year when we advanced to the Final Four from the Elite Eight. It was versus Florida. They had a chance to either tie it up or win--they had the last shot and there was just seconds on the clock. I think one of their post players shot the ball in the paint. Everyone was flying up for the rebound. I didn't have the height that those girls did, but I remember seeing the ball--it was cool timing--and I went up and grabbed it. I grabbed the board so they didn't have the opportunity to put it back up. And that sealed our win. That was a great moment.
It was even better because I played a lot during the preseason, and then when our conference rolled around, I didn't get a whole lot of time. We were padding people's stats so I didn't get very many minutes. When postseason came around we started playing tougher opponents and having more intense games. At the CAA tournament, I started getting more time and coming in and giving my team a boost. I was finally given an opportunity to get out and play and I felt like I had finally arrived. I was out there playing my game and doing things, not just coming in and giving someone a breather until they came back out.
Is there a particular part of your game that you like to play?
I love defense. I work really hard on defense and I know defense really well. I know how to anticipate, I like to think that maybe I'm thinking a couple steps ahead of the offense. I'm good man-to-man because I put on really good pressure. I've got really long arms, and that helps out. I'm able to pressure the ball well and get my hands all over the place and try to fluster people. Zone-wise, I'm great at that because I'm anticipating and I can plug up holes and recover to my own man. At Old Dominion I play an integral part of our defense. A lot of times I played in the back with our post players because I had the heads-up to know when to step up and when to step back, when to shade and when not to.
It sounds like that's good advice for someone who's interested in making herself a better defensive player.
Defense is definitely my game. I love that. Offensively, I'm more of a flasher, I'd say. I'm more of a scorer. Toward the stretch, if my team needed a point or things weren't going well, they'd give the ball to me to put some points on the board or just to make some offensive plays. I'm working on my game as far as being a shooter. I'm real confident in my jump shot. That's one part, offensively, that I've worked real hard on. It's hard to block and it's pretty consistent when I get into a spot where I feel comfortable shooting. My three-point range definitely needs to improve.
Is the three-point shot your weakness?
I think it's weaker than any other part of my game. I'm not sure that it's my weakness. I think that in a lot of the bigger games, I've been able to knock em down. I think that has a lot more to do with focus--you know you need a shot. But it's not weak to the point where people would leave me wide open on the three point line. They played me pretty tightly there.
You were captain this year. What do you think the hallmarks of a good leader are?
I think you have to be an example. For me, I think my example was made on the floor. My teammates could count on me everyday to show up, practice-wise. I think that's important for a captain. You've got to have the work ethic because you're obviously one of the leaders on the team, and you're setting the pace and setting the tone. I thought my work ethic was even more important given that I was on a team that was fairly young. It was something that I had seen from my captains when I had come in as a freshman: they worked hard and I naturally fell into step with them. I brought that with me from high school, but they definitely set a good example with their work ethic.
I think you have to be a communicator. I know different people communicate different ways, but with my team and with my teammates, we're very close in the sense that they know they can talk to me, and they know that I've got their back. I think a captain's major concern should be the team and how the team is, because that's who's out on the floor, and the people who are out on the floor need to get along. And, they need to be able to communicate with one another. I think that's one thing that we did a great job of this year. We didn't have a lot of numbers, but we were able to communicate with each other. When things weren't going right, we didn't feel shy. We were able to let each other know how we were feeling and what was going on. That helps considerably.
Do you think that has a lot to do with the way that you were coached?
I think it has a lot to do with the way I was raised more than anything. I think I've always had the same characteristics. A lot of it has to do with being from a big family. If you want something, you better speak up and ask for it or else someone else is going to wind up getting it before you even have a chance. We were always having to work for anything we wanted. We didn't have a lot of things handed to us in our family. It was just something that my parents instilled in us: hard work, being an individual, and being strong in your convictions.
The WNBA only plays three months in the summer. If you make it, do you know what you will be doing in the off-season?
No, I have no idea. My main concern is just making sure that I'm playing out there. That's the main focus now. And if I were not to make the WNBA, going overseas would be an option. I also want to go to grad school and get my master's. English is my major, and I want to go back into that. So maybe I'll try for an MFA or maybe go back for my teaching degree. I'm not sure. I also want to go to law school, but not right now.
You have some political causes that are really important to you. Can you talk about them a little bit?
In the last couple years I've gotten further out of it, but just since the season ended, I've gotten back into the loop. I started fighting against nuclear waste facilities, specifically those located in lowly populated, low-income areas that happen to be in California, like Ward Valley, which happens to be near my reservation. It's right off of I-40 and it's close to the Colorado River, which is a major concern because it's close to my people. That's how I got into it--learning about that site and seeing how the companies came into a small town where the people were uneducated about what was going on. They just offered the money and tried to pull the wool over people's eyes.
I started speaking locally and then people started asking me to speak. Greenpeace would ask me to speak in different grassroots places. I started doing some traveling and doing my own little campaign. That's how I got into that. It spread from my local issue to other issues primarily concerning Native Americans. But, it's not limited only to that, but a lot of the information that I was receiving was from other reservations that were having similar problems.
Did you grow up on a reservation?
I was born and raised on the Fort Mojave Reservation. I'm Mojave and Pima. The Pima are more from the Phoenix Area near the Pima River. I was raised on the reservation so I've seen both sides: I've seen the problems with being on a reservation, and at the same time, I see how rewarding living on a reservation can be. I see the things like alcoholism, the teen pregnancies, the drugs and stuff. On the other hand, I see the people for what they really are. They're so incredibly talented and good-natured and giving and caring. It's definitely something that has influenced me. I've spent a lot of time with my great-great grandmother, Lona, and she taught me a lot of the language and the dances, and I got a little bit more into the culture. It's always been something that meant a lot to me.
A lot of the kids that I grew up with were definitely as talented, if not more talented, than me when it came to basketball. But they just didn't have a lot of the same opportunities that I had. That's why getting a degree is so important to me. A lot of them went to school but they went to more small colleges because they didn't have the grades. They ended up coming back from those small colleges within a month or two months.
I go back now and a lot of them have kids--two kids, three kids, these are 20 and 21 year-old girls, the same age as myself.
Were you raised in a home where education was important?
Yeah, definitely. My parents are still together, and that stability of our home was something they gave to us. I always knew that my mom and dad were going to be home when I got home. I always knew they were coming home from work. I was fortunate enough to have parents that cared enough. My parents took a major active role with discipline and everything. I was lucky enough that my mom didn't have to work when I was growing up. She works now and a couple of my little brothers and sisters are latch-key kids. I was lucky enough to have my mom there reminding me to do my homework if I didn't, or to do this or that.
Why did you choose English as a major?
I love to write, I'm really big into poetry lately. I've talked to a couple of my teachers about publishing. I also do some fiction. The subjects I write about are not limited, but a lot of what I write has to do with growing up on the reservation. I've written stories about things that I've experienced--the culture and the atmosphere--mixed with things that other people have experienced. Writing is one of my biggest loves.
Why did you choose Women's Studies as a minor?
It started out, actually, that someone recommended I take it as an elective. It correlated with practice times, so I took one, and it was okay. And then I took another one, and pretty soon I had enough of these electives that I was told that I should just go toward a minor. Then I really started to get into it. I started to take the courses that I thought would be interesting. I tested and dabbled in a variety of areas--women's studies-sociology, women's studies-criminology, things like that. I've had a really good experience with that.
We have a great Women's Studies program here. It's all-encompassing. It's not what I thought a "women's studies" program would be. I thought it would be only about radical feminism, but it's not like that at all. It isn't so much about problems; it's more about solutions and how to change things. I really enjoy that the focus is on making things happen, not so much dwelling on the fact that we have problems.
Do you think girls need to think about what they may owe to women who have blazed trails for them?
I think so. I think we lose sight of that, the struggles that people ahead of us have had. You don't realize that unless you encounter something like that yourself. I didn't even think about it until I'd taken some of the courses. I think it all goes back to education. I had the luxury of going to the Women's Hall of Fame and seeing some of the things there. That was an amazing experience for me. You just don't realize how fortunate you are. How dependent we were on the people ahead of us to keep working through things and not let people stop them. Even more recently, the women who helped start the WNBA. That's a huge accomplishment. It just makes things a lot easier for us and it makes us able to do what we want freely.
What kind of advice would you give to girls who are hoping that they'll be able to play basketball in college?
I think it takes a lot of discipline, especially now. The competition is greatly increasing. It's kind of a cliché, but there's an old saying, "Somewhere someone is practicing. When you meet her in head-to-head competition, she'll beat you." That's basically what it all boils down to. You have to decide how badly you want it. It has to definitely be a priority for you, but not to the point where you don't have fun doing it. You should always enjoy doing it, but I think you have to put your whole heart and soul into it. It opens a lot of doors for you. You meet great people. You go great places. If it wasn't for basketball, I wouldn't have experienced half of the things that I have up until this point. My education is one example.
What do you like to do when you're not playing?
I like to write, that's definitely something that I've been doing a lot more of. I like to do crosswords a lot. There's one sitting right here. I was fiddling with it before you called. This one's from the Virginia Pilot but I have the New York Times and the Washington Post. I have a lot more trouble with those ones.
We've heard that you like to bungee jump. Is that true?
Yeah, I haven't done it as of late, but I love bungee jumping. It's just a rush. It's kind of being as out of control as you possibly can while being in control. You look fear in the eye, is how I like to think about it. I get really scared every time before I do it, but that's part of it. That's what keeps me going back to do it. It's just an amazing sense of freedom that I don't even know how to put into words--it's that rush that everybody wants. I find as I get older that it scares me a heck of a lot more than it used to.
I wanted to sky-dive, and I have made arrangements to sky-dive, but I'm hopeful that it doesn't happen, because if it doesn't happen it means that I'll be playing somewhere. I wouldn't mind too much if I couldn't go because it would entail good things.
Are you a reader?
I love to read. I'm kind of compromised during the school year because of reading so many books for classes, but I definitely enjoy reading. I read anything I can get my hands on. My favorite book from the last couple years is Angela's Ashes--that was a great one. I also read an excellent book through one of my classes. It's called In Gratitude by Ying Chen. It was an amazing book. It's kind of crazy. This girl's writing after she has committed suicide. It's not the ideal situation. She's a younger woman. The language is amazing, it's a lot more vivid with its imagery than most books. The words are purposeful and she doesn't use a lot of wasted words.
I like to paint as well. I love to oil paint. I just bought a canvas recently. I took piano lessons when I was younger and I hated it. I really hated it. I did everything I possibly could to get out of it, but I found out that my piano teacher also painted. As a means of helping me out, she suggested that we do 30 minutes of art lessons after the piano lessons. So she felt that maybe I'd be able to be more focused if I knew that I had a reward at the end. I started doing that and pretty soon I quit doing the piano lesson and started doing the art lessons with her. She showed me how to do a variety of techniques: we went from charcoals to water paints, oils, everything. That's something I love doing. My dad paints and it's just something I enjoy doing. For our team, I'm always drawing something for us or doing things like that. It's a pretty common birthday present for me to give someone a drawing. I was thinking my junior year of high school that I wanted to go into graphic design but the more I learned about it, the more I realized it wasn't what I wanted. It's a little too formal for me.
Interview conducted in April by Gball Assistant Editor Lorraine Berry.
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