By Niki D’Andrea
For Briann January, a concussion is what great memories are made of.
When January played basketball at Arizona State University from 2005-2009, she was a two-time Pac 10 (now the Pac 12) Defensive Player of the Year, she set ASU women’s basketball records for most assists and highest free-throw percentage, and she established the school’s single-season record for three-point field goals (65) during her senior year. January is the only player in ASU history to lead the team in steals and assists for four straight years.
But her favorite ASU memory is of a game she didn’t even play in. During her sophomore year, the Sun Devils were competing in the Elite 8 against the Louisville Cardinals, and at the end of the game, January sustained a concussion from contact with Louisville forward Angel McCoughtry. When the Sun Devils met the Bowling Green Falcons in the next game, January says, the Falcons coach at the time, Curt Miller, was optimistic about her being on the sidelines.
“He was like, ‘Oh, January’s out – we have a chance! We have a shot!’” she recalls. “And my team just came out and killed them, just smashed them. They played such great basketball, and I was there on the sideline with my head ringing, but it was the most amazing basketball game I’ve ever seen and I didn’t even play. That was a great experience. I had some great teammates while I was at ASU.”
It’s that team spirit that drew January to basketball during her childhood. She started playing in the third grade in her hometown of Spokane, Washington, after taking up soccer and karate (her father is a karate instructor, and January holds a black belt in the discipline). “The one thing I do love about basketball is watching a team full of individuals come together and achieve goals. I think that’s one of the most spectacular things in life… That’s what I love,” January says. “And I’ve been blessed enough to play for coaches who believe in that, who believe there’s value in teamwork and togetherness and unity. That’s what I believe in, and I think it’s awesome – just going out there and playing for the person next to you, having their back. Going to war together. There’s not a better feeling than that.”
January will bring her team spirit – and her considerable basketball skills in the point guard position – to three-time WNBA champions the Phoenix Mercury this season. Jim Pitman, the team’s general manager, stated, “Briann is a difference-maker in our league. We’ve seen her success guarding the best-scoring guards and wings on the biggest stage, and we’ve seen her run a team as an All Star-caliber point guard. We are excited to add perhaps the best women’s player in the history of Arizona State University to our roster.”
It’s a double-platinum homecoming for January, who had played her entire WNBA career so far for the Indiana Fever, who drafted her in 2009 in the first round (6th pick overall). In addition to joining a strong Mercury roster that includes WNBA all-time leading scorer Diana Taurasi and 6-foot-9 center Brittney Griner, January accepted a position as assistant coach for the ASU women’s basketball team in the off-season. Rather than playing overseas in Turkey as usual, January spent this past fall and winter working alongside her mentor, ASU women’s basketball head coach Charli Turner Thorne. January, who turned 31 this year, says the coaching gig gave her body a needed break from playing basketball year-round.
“It was time for my body to have a rest,” she says. “Unfortunately, Father Time is undefeated and you have to be very strategic as you kind of accumulate more miles on your body, so it just worked out.”
When asked about her coaching style, January laughs and thinks for a moment. “Oh, man… I think I bring a different dynamic from a lot of the coaches in that I’m able to relate. I played through Charli’s system for four years, and I was able to be successful in that program, so for me to come back and give my insights, share my stories and help them through their process, I think it’s huge for them,” January says. “One of the reasons I want to coach is because it’s such a pivotal time in a young woman’s life, and Charli is one of the reasons I’m here today.”
Turner Thorne has coached the women’s basketball team at ASU for 21 years and is the school’s winningest coach since the program was established in 1975, with a career record of 343-208. In February, she told ASU’s The State Press, “Ever since I knew (January) was thinking about transitioning to coaching, it was a matter of if she was ready or not and if she wanted to… It was a win-win for everybody,” and added, “Ever since she’s gotten here, she’s just an incredible mentor. She’s incredible as a person.”
The respect is mutual. “The time I was at Arizona State, Charli really impacted my life,” January says. “She pushed me to levels I didn’t know I could get to, and I think that’s what I do (as a coach). I’m here to challenge the girls. I’m here to broaden their thoughts and the way they process things – for me to be able to say, ‘Hey, I play at the highest level, and this is what it’s going to take. I’ve been successful on and off the court. So I’m here as a resource, a sounding board, and I’m here to push you every day.’”
As a player, January also continues to push herself, and says she’s excited to see what’s in store for the Phoenix Mercury, who will play the Dallas Wings in their season opener at Talking Stick Resort on Friday, May 18. “I think we have depth, I know we have experience, and we have firepower at every position, which is exciting,” she says. “We just have to get out there and work hard. If we get out there and we give it our all every game, we’re going to be dangerous.”