WASHINGTON - After leading Notre Dame to the 2000-2001 NCAA women's basketball championship, Niele Ivey had a decent rookie season as backup point guard for the WNBA's Indiana Fever.
Ivey's average of 3.6 points and 2.2 assists, while playing in all 32 games, was a nice start. But Indiana coach Nell Fortner noticed Ivey lacked some of the quickness she had shown in college. It wasn't until an exit interview at the end of the season that the coach discovered why.
Niele (pronounced knee-ELL) Ivey had been shooting for two, playing the entire season while pregnant.
"I didn't know what to expect," she said, "so I waited it out and hoped that I would stay healthy all the way until the end."
She gave birth to a son, Jaden, in February.
"I wanted to play out the season. It was hard. I'm just glad he's healthy," said the 24-year-old.
Ivey is one of 23 WNBA players who are mothers and one of four Indiana players who have children. In all, 13 of the 16 teams in the league have at least one mother on their roster. Orlando has three, but its starting center has been listed on injured reserve and unavailable since discovering she was pregnant last month.
Orlando's Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who lives in Italy, said in an e-mail that not playing was a personal decision that she made with her husband.
A year ago, Ivey made the opposite choice and kept her pregnancy a secret until she told her coach at the end of the season.
"I was very surprised," Fortner said last week before the Fever met the Washington Mystics. "Surprised, but maybe not, because there was a point in July where she missed four practices in the morning. And I was like, `What is this? Do you have morning sickness or what?' I was just joking and I didn't think anything of it. But ... that's what was happening."
Said Ivey: "She [Fortner] said that explains why I looked tired sometimes, especially in the morning. I was very nauseous all the time. The early morning shootarounds took a toll on me."
She said she was determined to finish her season after her doctor assured her she could play into August without harming herself or her unborn child.
Similarly, she wanted to return to the game this season, the only one to do so out of three WNBA players who gave birth this year. Charlotte Sting forward Shalonda Enis and Cleveland Rockers guard Helen Darling decided not to play.
Darling, 23, the starting point guard on a Cleveland team that won the Eastern Conference last season, gave birth to triplets in April. She said she has hired a personal trainer and is steadily working out, with the intention of playing next season.
"I knew it [playing and being a mother] would be hard, but basketball is all I've ever known. I can't just give it up," Darling said.
Since Houston Comets forward Sheryl Swoopes gave birth to her son, Jordan Jackson, in June 1997 - the league's first season - then returned for the end of the regular season and playoffs that year, WNBA players have been doing what millions of other working women do, juggle a career and parenting.
Ivey, for instance, said she leans on an aunt in Indianapolis to help watch Jaden when the Fever are at home, and she has a network of family and friends around the country that helps when she travels.
Ivey's boyfriend and the baby's father, Javin Hunter, is a sixth-round Ravens draft choice out of Notre Dame who hopes to land a wide receiver slot.
Ultimately, Ivey prefers to have the baby with her, as he was in Washington, where a relative met her when the team arrived the day before the game and kept him until after the game the next night, when he flew home with her.
"It makes me feel better when he's here," said Ivey. "I can see him in the stands. I try to find him before game time. I know that he's in the same city with me and he's with my family, so he's safe. That makes me feel a lot safer, and when he's not [with her], I'm always on the phone, after practice - `What is he doing? What did he do new?' - and make sure he's OK."
For Mystics point guard Annie Burgess, an Australian native, the challenge of being a basketball player and the mother of a 6-year-old son, Adrian LaFleur, is further complicated by playing both in the United States and overseas.
Adrian's Australian school year begins in February and ends in December. Burgess said Adrian begins the school year in Australia, then comes to the United States in April with her for training camp and lives with his father, an American citizen, during the 3 1/2 -month WNBA season, going to school here.
Normally, they then would return to Australia, except that this year Burgess is going to play in a French league, and her son will attend school there.
"It's very tough for him [Adrian]. It's lucky that he's smart," said Burgess. "He just fits in.
"I'm doing something that I absolutely love, and he can see that. He gets to come with me and experience it as well," she said. "How many 6-year-old kids get to travel the world with their parents and watch them do what they love?"