Building positive relationships – and hoops skills – fuel Chandler’s case for National Jr. NBA C.O.Y
MEMPHIS – It would be easy to measure the impact Mariah Chandler is having within the Grizzlies Youth Basketball program by the skill development sessions the former NCAA champion shares through camps, clinics and virtual videos.
But Chandler prefers to assess real success in other meaningful ways.
“Every day when I approach these kids, I want them to not be afraid to learn something new, I want them to have fun and I want them to want to come back,” said Chandler, a Basketball Operations Assistant for the Grizzlies who volunteers as a coach and lead clinician with Grizzlies Youth Basketball. “At the end of the day, that’s what being in this role is all about.”
Combining her basketball knowledge, infectious personality and passion to build positive relationships with youth from all backgrounds, few have thrived in their role as well as Chandler amid challenges presented by a global pandemic.
Chandler’s relentless commitment to teaching life skills through basketball landed her honors as 2021 Memphis Grizzlies Youth Basketball Coach of the Year, and have made her a semi-finalist for the National Jr. NBA’s Coach of the Year award. It marks the third time in the national award’s five-year history a Grizzlies-affiliated coach has reached at least the semifinals.
The award recognizes an individual making a positive impact on youth through integrity, character and leadership, and finalists are determined by a combination of social media fan voting (25 percent), a Zoom interview (25 percent) and a Jr. NBA executive panel (50 percent). Chandler conducted her national Zoom interview earlier this week, but social media fan voting remains underway through Sunday, July 18 and fans can vote an unlimited number of times.
Support Chandler’s ballot on Twitter with the hashtag #JRNBACOYMEM.
Grind City Media went one-on-one with Chandler, who shared her remarkable basketball journey, passion for youth development and her role with Grizzlies Youth Basketball.
Grind City Media: Congratulations on a successful year. How did you first get involved in Grizzlies Youth Basketball and the Jr. NBA?
Chandler: As the NBA’s Her Time To Play initiatives were starting, Antonio (Perez) (Grizzlies director of youth basketball) reached out to me and wanted me to be a part of hosting that and running the one-day camp. And that was pretty awesome, because it gave me the chance to meet some wonderful young ladies in the Memphis community as well as other women across our organization and franchise on the business side and beyond operations. That was a joy to me because I got a chance to be in my comfort zone and really just do something that I love, and making the kids laugh. I felt like the kids came, developed their game and really had fun.
GCM: Amid challenges over the past year presented by the pandemic, what were some creative ways you were able to engage with youth through Jr. NBA and Grizzlies basketball initiatives?
Chandler: We were able to do a program of virtual workout videos, which were really cool. We were at FedExForum, but not actually inside the arena. We were in the parking garage outdoors, and I remember doing one where it was just a minute video teaching something that was beneficial and special to me. I played in the post, so I was able to do some rebounding drills. The Grizzlies Youth Basketball staff recognized my passion for youth and for coaching through those things, and we just expanded on it. Without that, none of this would be possible.
GCM: Considering all you’ve accomplished on and off the court in your basketball career, what does it mean to you to be named a semifinalist for Jr. NBA Coach of the Year?
Chandler: Everyone wants to win, and this has been kind of overwhelming. I’ve been on social media for this more this week than I’ve probably been in my entire life. I just try to be humble and remain extremely grateful for everything. I’m blessed to be in this position to represent this organization. It speaks volumes to what this organization is doing, and the people that this organization is bringing in. It’s a wide variety of representation across the entire organization. I can’t thank everyone enough for the support. I want to win this for the community, for the city and for the organization. But for me, it’s just an honor and one of those things that has my mom super-excited and is bragging once again. And I’m like, ‘Please stop! (laughs).’
GCM: At a time like this, when the pandemic had taken kids out of their routines, how vital are those lessons you’ve taught and relationships you’ve built through Grizzlies Youth Basketball?
Chandler: You’ve had a lot of kids just stuck in the house. Think about it. If they’re an only child, their only encounter is with adults. There’s social anxiety. There are others who are only playing video games or they’re on social media or computers. They’re not having that much one-on-one contact, which is very important at a young and developing age. So for me, doing these videos and having our one-on-ones and being able to eventually get back into the gym with some of these kids as restrictions have lifted a little bit, it’s been important for me to always bring high energy. I have to be uplifting with open arms and a judgement-free mindset. Social anxiety and mental health are important things in general. As a black kid that grew up in a predominantly white area in Orlando, I had to get over some of that anxiety as well.
Thankfully, I had youth coaches as well as family that made it easy for me to get out of my comfort zone. So when I approach any kid, or any gym filled with kids, regardless of their age, I approach them all the same way with love, comfort and the ability to not judge them. Hopefully they receive it and know that’s the kind of person I am. I just want them to grow as a person.
GCM: You’ve talked about seeing a lot of your younger self in some of the kids you’ve worked with recently. Who were some of the bigger influencers who helped you develop and grow your love of basketball and sports as a youngster?
Chandler: My uncle, Kyle Chandler, was the one who actually taught the game of basketball. And my cousin, Cory Sutton, continued it on because I didn’t grow up with a father around in my life. After a few years of taking off for some medical issues, I was able to get back into organized basketball when I moved to Atlanta in church league, AAU basketball and high school. They all prepared me for what I had to face ahead and for what I strive to do, and that’s embracing discomfort. At some point, we’re all going to have to embrace adversity and diversity as a society and as a mission. But especially as a player, and I’m glad I’ve had coaches at a young age help me do that. It all comes down to youth coaches, because in college and beyond, it’s all about business. But at this age, it’s about learning and developing. And one of the No. 1 guys who also helped me during my older years is Dwight Howard Sr., who took me under his wing and helped me through the recruiting process and everything.
GCM: Being part of an NCAA national championship program in college at Baylor, how much did you learn from that experience that you prioritize when sharing with young players now.
Chandler: I played for a very, very, very defensively demanding coach in Kim Mulkey. I literally know a lot of those principles and strategies like the back of my hand. And now, when I’m coaching defense, I can’t do a bad defensive slide anymore. She literally drilled in me to do the slide that she wanted me to always do. I spent five years at Baylor and graduated in 2013, the year after we won the championship. I redshirted that year, but I learned so much just being in that role. I was always the star player on my team or the one called upon when it was time to draw up a play. When I got to college, I was the last person to get into the game, so it was very challenging. But it made me recognize I had a lot more to give to the game beyond only being a player. And early on, I took on that role of just trying to better my teammates and uplift them as they’re going through something and not just focusing on me.
Because of everything I experienced, it made me want to be a coach. And what I want to do with youth basketball is, I want to be that coach that players can come to with whatever they’re dealing with and feel safe to confide in. Because they’re going to deal with stuff at home, they’re going to deal with stuff with their peers and they’re going to deal with stuff even with their other coaches. I want to be that person they can trust in, have fun with and also take seriously. I never really had that in college, but I had that growing up in middle school and high school. Basketball is going to be hard, but it also should be fun as you’re growing.
GCM: Seeing you in action and teaching the game to young people, there’s an obvious joy and smile that lights up the gym. Your purpose in the gym is clear. What’s your favorite part of those moments that keeps bringing you back?
Chandler: It’s just so natural because I’m in my comfort zone. There have been times in the past when I’ve been uncomfortable on the court. I’ve faced so many challenges in between those lines that I can’t help but smile now because I see the light at the end of a very, very dark tunnel. So for me, when I step on the court and see some of those same traits in kids – we talked earlier about social anxiety – I can pick up on little things like that. I can go up to them, slap the ball out of their hands playfully, block their shot, talk trash to them in a respectful way and just get them smiling. It’s just the little things like that that make you want to continue to do the things you’re doing. You may not see the impact immediately, but someone is always watching you and admiring you from a distance. And you’re always leaving an impact on someone’s life. And my goal is to always make a positive impact on someone’s life.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.