'Nell on Wheels' returns to Texas
Feb. 28, 2013
John Byczek, Texas Media Relations
Nell Fortner has been around the world and back with her favorite sport -- basketball. She's a player. She's a coach. She's an analyst. She's done it all.
Last week, she stopped by The University of Texas and stepped back onto the court at the Frank Erwin Center for the first time in years.
"I'm excited to be back," Fortner said. "I can't even remember how long it's been since I've been back in here. It looks really good. It's beautiful. It's impressive."
She was in town as ESPN's Women's Basketball analyst, and being back in the Erwin Center brought back memories of how it all began; right down to the first time she touched a basketball.
"I remember in the second grade my dad put a basketball in my hands," she smiled. "He didn't know anything about basketball, but he put a goal up just to get the kids out of the house and I just took to it. I loved putting that ball in the hole."
Title IX had not yet been legislated, but that didn't curb Fortner's love for the sport. She took her game to the blacktop.
"There were no girls' sports so I played in my driveway against all the boys. I used to kick their butts," she said with a laugh. "It was great. That's all I knew. I always loved it."
The Mississippi-born Fortner moved to New Braunfels, Texas, in the 10th grade, two years after Title IX passed. At New Braunfels High School, Fortner prospered in more than one sport. She dabbled in volleyball after her arrival in the Lone Star State, and her natural ability led the New Braunfels Unicorns to the state tournament her senior year. Fortner saw success in volleyball, but stood out in basketball.
During her senior year of high school, Fortner averaged 40 points per contest. In one game alone she scored 72 points. Fortner also made Parade Magazine's first All-America girls team.
After high school, Fortner went on to the University of Texas and continued to dominate in both volleyball and basketball. At middle hitter, she led the Longhorns to the 1981 AIAW National Championship in volleyball. But under Coach Jody Conradt, Fortner became even more of an offensive powerhouse in her main sport: basketball.
During here four-year endeavor with UT basketball, Texas went 127-26. She accumulated 1,466 total points.
When she graduated from the University of Texas, Fortner went straight into coaching. She started her collegiate career as an assistant for Stephen F. Austin in 1986. She also coached for Louisiana Tech, Purdue and Auburn. She became the first head coach and general manager of the WNBA's Indiana Fever. But most notably, she coached the USA Women's team to a 1998 world championship and a gold medal in the 2000 Olympic Games. Fortner led Team USA to a 101-14 record, the most wins in U.S. Women's Basketball history.
With 28 years of coaching under her belt, Fortner retired after the 2011-2012 season, but did not leave the game.
"No, it wasn't hard (to leave coaching). I needed a break more than anything," she said. "I might coach again. I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to be an analyst and stay with the game. I just take it one day at a time."
Currently, Fortner works with ESPN as a women's basketball analyst. This is her second stint with the network. She primarily calls SEC Network and ESPNU games. Going from player to coach to analyst was not a difficult transition for Fortner, though. She simply loves being around the game.
"I don't know if I ever felt like it was a transition," she said. "I've always just done what I like. I usually have fun doing whatever I'm doing. I love playing, I love coaching, I love being an analyst. Everything felt natural."
While working as an analyst, she also began working on a project of her own: Nell on Wheels.
"Nell On Wheels is something I thought of about 10 or 12 years ago. It's a vision of Gameday for Women's Basketball," Fortner described. "Driving around in an RV, getting to the game and talking women's basketball. Maybe it's out in the parking lot, and everyone brings their lawn chairs and we throw on some chicken wings and talk basketball and maybe a few other things. That's the vision. It's been really fun."
When Nell on Wheels got to Texas, Fortner had a chance to catch up with the women's head coach Karen Aston.
"I think coach Aston has done a really nice job of reconnecting the program with the state and Texas' high school coaches," Fortner said. "She's a solid coach who knows what she wants, and she doesn't compromise her standards to get that. She's coming here, setting a tone and laying the groundwork for the future. She has a vision, she sees it very clearly and she's executing it."
Earlier this month, Fortner was inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame for all of her accomplishments in basketball, but it's not her accomplishments she's most proud of.
"It's hard to talk about Hall of Fames. I never think of myself like that," she said. "It gives you an opportunity to reflect back on all the people that were so special in your career. That's the best thing. I look at it and think that the best thing I have ever done is wake up everyday and absolutely love what I do. That is my Hall of Fame."