FROM OLYMPIC GOLD
TO SOLID GROUND
The Hardiek Azzi Family
By Alexandra Fee and Dennis Strazulo
Photos by Cameron Cressman
As we gear up to watch the Tokyo Olympic Games, and in honor of the Olympic spirit, Mill Valley Living is excited to be featuring the Hardiek Azzi family: Jennifer Lynn Azzi – a 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist in Women’s Basketball and current Associate Vice President, Development at University of San Francisco – and her wife, Blair Hardiek, also a former collegiate basketball player and current Global Technical Director for the NBA. The couple and their budding family – including son Macklin (4), daughter Camden (14 months), loyal English Bulldog, Ella and their adorable, fluffy cat, Mr. Whitey – have settled in Mill Valley and couldn’t be more content. And busy!
Due to a last-minute schedule change it was late afternoon on Memorial Day when we arrived simultaneously with the Hardiek Azzi’s at their home, for what rivals as our most entertaining interview to date. Despite having just spent a long day at Six Flags Amusement Park in Vallejo, with two toddlers, we were greeted with genuine smiles and the kind of warmth you’d expect from friends you hadn’t seen in years. Soon after the interview started, Blair quietly slipped away and returned with a plate of hors d’oeuvres and took a seat next to Jennifer, who was nonchalantly sipping her water from a glass baby bottle!
Jennifer began by taking us back to her childhood. She grew up in a small town in Tennessee with a “ton of love” in her family. Her mother coached her T-ball team and she affectionately referred to her dad as an early “girl dad”. But her basketball prowess sprouted early and organically. At age four, her nursery school principal summoned her parents to show them Jennifer making shots on a 10-foot basketball hoop! Without much thought, playing basketball almost immediately became all she wanted to do. Though she was more than capable, she didn’t play in boys’ leagues as a youth, but instead paved her way playing Bitty Ball on 8-foot hoops, gradually honing her skills and developing into a standout high school player at Oak Ridge High (’86).
Meanwhile, about 25 miles away in Knoxville, University of Tennessee (UT) Volunteer famed basketball coach, the late great Pat Summit, was in the process of building a powerhouse women’s basketball program. So how did the Lady Vols let the local girl get away? When asked, Jennifer simply explained that UT did approach her about playing there but presented the opportunity by essentially saying “we have a scholarship for you if you want it.” In UT’s defense, they had recruited several other all-star high school standouts who would likely compete with Jennifer for playing time. In any event, their non-aggressive approach certainly opened the door for Jennifer to explore options beyond the comforts of home. During the process she received an unsolicited letter from Stanford University, and admits she had no idea where the school was located. But her father certainly did. Though her dad was respectful about Jennifer’s decision process and tried to contain his excitement about the prospect of his daughter attending Stanford – including for reasons far greater than basketball – she felt he might be onto something and agreed to tour the campus.
During their visit to Palo Alto, without pushing, her father stressed the significance of the network she would have after graduating from a school of such international acclaim. Good points and Jennifer listened, but there was still the matter of Stanford’s women’s basketball team – which was not very good. Not to mention, moving so far away from home was going to be a stretch considering her close family ties. But her Dad’s enthusiasm coupled with Stanford’s illustrious women’s basketball coach, Tara VanDerveer’s prophetic assurance they would win a national championship by her senior year, sealed the deal and she committed to Stanford over Ohio State and Vanderbilt. Ironically, Jennifer’s decision to attend Stanford motivated VanDerveer to schedule a game at UT, near the hometown of her prize recruit, which spawned the beginning of an ongoing rivalry between what are now recognized as two of women’s basketball’s most prestigious programs.
Post Stanford, Jennifer spent five years competing professionally overseas before playing for the USA in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She and her fellow teammates won the gold medal in dominant form, defeating Brazil by an astounding 30 points in the championship game. Reflecting on the Olympics, Jennifer recounted how proud she is to be part of a group that represented a high for the Title IX movement. “Almost every women’s sport won a gold medal at those games!” vaulting women’s sports toward an increasingly level playing field with men. Her USA Women’s Basketball teammates knew they were transforming the game of basketball for women and girls and were responsible for advancing women’s basketball to the next level. It was also the first time the American viewing audience had witnessed an elite level of women’s basketball. Jennifer shared how all the emotion and pride she felt at that time came rushing back a few months into COVID last year, when due to a lack of live sports on television, NBC aired their ‘96 gold medal game on TV as she and Blair watched it together with their son.
Some of Jennifer’s other amazing achievements include winning two gold medals at the World Championships (1990,1998) and a gold medal at the 1994 Goodwill Games. She spent three years in the ABL (American Basketball League), a league she co-founded, playing for the San Jose Lasers, relishing her time back in the Bay Area. She then played 5 seasons in the WNBA, serving as the catalyst for the NBA’s launch into women’s basketball, playing for the Detroit Shock, and Utah Starzz before retiring as a player in 2003. But her career was just beginning!
After spending several years serving as an ambassador to the game of basketball, including motivational speaking engagements and extensive travel to Europe and other parts of the globe, Jennifer made another fateful decision, by accepting the job as head coach of the University of San Francisco (USF) women’s basketball team. The USF job was a “game changer” for several reasons, but in hindsight, maybe was just part of the master magnetic plan that was initially set in motion by the recruiting gods in 1986. The new position allowed Jennifer to now set roots in the Bay Area, and specifically Mill Valley, which fit her general notion of wanting to be somewhere in the North Bay. It also allowed her to check the coaching box, and add to her resume of accomplishments; but perhaps more importantly taught her things about herself she had never explored, allowing her to create a career and family path that was the right fit, and not incidentally, was the time she became certain she’d found the love of her life.
Jennifer described the coaching job as the “challenge of her life”. She took over a team that had won only three games the previous year but was hopeful she could instantly make a difference. But change takes time, though not so long for Jennifer. In six years, Jennifer transformed the USF Women’s program, leading the Dons to an NCAA Tournament appearance and their first West Coast Conference Championship. But the challenges went beyond altering an abysmal basketball team into champions. Though obviously a fierce competitor and a winner by any standards, Jennifer derives satisfaction from so much more than winning. For example, in 2016 her team finished the season as one of only two programs in California (poetically, USF and Stanford) to earn the prestigious APR award for outstanding academic success. Beyond that, she found satisfaction in developing her players as people off the court and driving them to “be your best” – whether playing, meandering through the challenges of life, winning or losing. Coaches, by the very nature of sports, are judged by wins and losses, and she felt a career of judgment on that basis alone would not be a long-term fit for her. So, despite a successful run where her coaching prowess combined with her ability to secure more resources for the women’s program left itn excellent shape, she decided to step down despiteafter finishing the season with the team’s best record under her leadership and securing that first-ever NCAA bid for for the UniversityUSF’s women’s basketball program, a monumental achievement. Very consistent with her persona, Jennifer does not wear her Kudos on her sleeve, but rather she bleeds empathy, a form of love, which she does wear on her sleeve.
Jennifer’s beloved wife, Blair Hardiek Azzi, grew up in Missouri where she attended University of Missouri and was a four-year letter winner and team captain playing point guard, while alsoand a member of the Big 12 Conference’s Honor Roll. After graduating, she moved to San Francisco where she worked for a startup marketing firm and then joined the Stanford Athletic Department, interning under coach VanDerveer, and then earned her MBA at Golden Gate University. She was the top assistant coach at San Francisco State for a year before joining Jennifer’s staff at USF as Associate Head Coach in which she coached and recruited alongside Jennifer, solidifying their winning combination both on and off the court.
An ambitious couple indeed, which may explain how they ultimately became the Hardiek Azzi’s. — Jennifer and Blair unexpectedly, proudly announced their marriage in 2016 in the presence of allof a group of the “Wwho’s Wwho’s” of Bay Area sports at a dinner hosted by the Anti-Defamation League. Jennifer introduced Golden State Warrior’s President and CEO, Rick Welts with “The best way I can introduce you is to thank you for being who you truly are and for being authentic.” In that moment, Jennifer decided to take the step of being her authentic self as she introduced her wife, Blair. Blair was taking photos as her jaw dropped at Jennifer’s unrehearsed announcement of their marriage. At the conclusion of the ceremony and dinner, just about everybody there congratulated themthem. It and it was then that theythe Hardiek Azzi’s felt truly accepted in announcing their union. As the first openly gay Division IOne basketball coach, Jennifer was overwhelmed with the universal acceptance they received from their recruits to random strangers reaching out to them from all over the world. Knowing they have potentially helped others feel confident in expressing their true selves is yet another hallmark of their success.
After moving 10 times in 13 years to accommodate her basketball career, Jennifer was ready to call one place home. She knew she wanted to return to the Bay Area which she fell in love with during her Stanford days. Growing up, she developed an intense love for being outside in nature and loves that such a large part of Marin County is open space where one can explore. The endless hiking and running trails in and around Mill Valley were beckoning – as was the proximity of two international airports. To this day she relishes discovering new trails near her home, and especially doing so with her kids and giving them that same experience.
Even with all that, it wasn’t until she and Blair became parents that they both fully grasped how important it is to live in a place where they can find people who similarly care about the environment, kids and community. Mill Valley is that place for them, and we are lucky to have this special family as neighbors.
As we enjoyed our time in the welcoming Hardiek Azzi home, Itit seemed fitting and somewhat symbolic that Jennifer’s newly constructed office, where she artfully combined her career and family, sits on solid ground at the bottom of a very steep stairwell. But she and Blair did not get to this place without continuing with their hard work, in the past and now. A good home is never done as the Hardiek Azzi family can attest to, having taken on project after project for the last year and a half. The office, which is rooted in the transformed back yard, leads into a thriving vegetable garden of tomato plants, snap peas, broccolini, purple carrots, lemons, artichokes, sage and strawberries. The abundance from their tomato plants inspired them to host a tomato stand in their front yard last year, which proved a great way for them to meet their neighbors outside while Covid COVID had us otherwise sheltered in place. The addition of a swing and, of course, a basketball shooting game, caps off a picturesque setting complete with a firepit for making and sharing Macklin’s favorite, smores, and adirondackAdirondack chairs as welcoming as the hosts.
A testament to their love of family and community, Macklin and Camden delighted us with their outwardly friendly personalities and spirit; while Jennifer explained how Blair has elevated her value of family to another level through Blair’s her passionate attention to family photos, weddings, and baby showers – an essence that was visible throughout their home. Meanwhile, they feel their world has expanded exponentially as they fully embrace the notion of “it takes a village” in raising children.
Professionally, the couple continue to work together in perfect harmony. As for their “day jobs”, Blair is the Global Technical Director for the NBA Academy women’s program working to develop women’s basketball worldwide by helping international student-athletes with college admissions. She has procured countless college sponsorships – even during the pandemic era – and most recently secured a Division I basketball scholarship for the second-ever player out of India. Blair’s recruiting prowess, dating back from her coaching days at USF, has earned her tremendous respect in the world of college recruiting. Meanwhile, Jennifer serves as the Associate Vice President, Development at USF. She is especially proud of her success leading the USF Silk Speaker Series, a speaking engagement program featuring speakers focused on leading and motivating teams. Past speakers include Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, Magic Johnson and Steph Curry, Steve Kerr, and Megan Rapino. Jennifer’s role through special events and alumni engagements is helping to shine the light back on USF’s Athletic and Academic programs. During CovidCOVID, the University enjoyed a $30 million renovation of the gym at the Sobrato Center along with a new, state-of-the-art practice facility, the Malloy PavillionPavilion, new baseball and soccer fields, and a new 600 bed dorm and dining facility. “It will blow your mind!” she told us. Meanwhile, a new “campus tour” is in the works to encourage alumni to take more pride in USF and for locals to enjoy the beautiful campus.
Perhaps most dear to their hearts, the couple are running their popular Azzi Academy Basketball Camps, including both home and away camps with locations extending from Mill Valley, Marin City and San Francisco to Los Angeles, Maui, China, India, Africa and Australia. Their camps began in 2008 with a mission “to help others build confidence through sport”— a motto echoed by the Tokyo Olympics aiming to deliver an event where every athlete can realize their best performance by achieving their personal best. The Azzi camp Academy philosophy is simple, “Be your best”, emphasizing the importance of not comparing yourself to others but rather finding something that fuels your passion. They have created a fun environment with proven coaching methods. For Jennifer and Blair, one of the most rewarding aspects is when former campers return to become camp coaches. “Our Academy really makes us feel even more a part of the community.” Former Tam High student and Camp Coach, Dillon Blair told us, “These are two wildly successful ex-athletes who have dedicated their lives to helping the next generation of athletes, not only here in the Bay Area, but globally. as well. I’ve always admired their passion for the game and ability to inspire others to be their best.” Jennifer and Blair often hear from mothers how happy they are that their sons are learning from female leaders. Beyond the camp, Jennifer has put this to practice at the highest level of the sport, now appearing as part of the Warriors Pre/Post Game Broadcast shows. Asked if she ever gets any grief about being a woman analyzing NBA players, Jennifer confidently yet modestly replied, “If you know what you’re talking about, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman.”
The Azzi Academy has also collaborated with Paul Austin of Play Marin (featured in Mill Valley Living’s June issue) as Jennifer helped secure funding from the Warriors to renovate the gym floor at the Marin City Recreation Center gym in 2019. Azzi Academy held a camp in Marin City pre-Covid COVID and now looks forward to holding future camps there, and to continuing their offers of Azzi Camp scholarships to Marin City youth.
Was it an innocent miss during a recruiting process or simply the magical, magnetic force of Mill Valley, which has become a common theme in our feature stories, that ultimately led the Hardiek Azzi duo to plant their roots in Mill Valley’s solid ground? Either way, the result has enriched our community and inspired many more to “Be your best”.