The current Springfield College community knows women’s basketball head coach Naomi Graves as the dedicated, passionate coach who earned her 500th career win on Saturday against Clark University, making her the 36th coach in the history of Division III women’s basketball to do so.
But, back in 1982, following Graves’s standout performance playing for University of Rhode Island where she scored 1,862 career points, the All-American wasn’t even planning on becoming a coach.
“I didn’t really know when my career ended in Rhode Island what was going to be next,” Graves said, in an unpublished interview back in 2017. “And everybody thought, ‘Well, you know, you’ll probably become a coach.’ And I was like, ‘I’m not sure I really want to do that.’”
After a year as an assistant at URI, Graves arrived at Springfield College to get her master’s degree in physical education. It was then that she, “fell in love with the place.”
After experiencing the Birthplace of Basketball through a student lens, she had her heart set on earning one specific title.
“I just always wanted to be called coach on this campus,” recalled Graves. “It’s such a privilege. It meant something so unique and so different than any other campus I’ve ever been on.”
Graves would spend the next six years at WPI, recalling, “pretty much waiting for this job to open, because I wanted to apply for it.”
Though this enthusiasm caught many by surprise, because at the time, the Springfield College women’s basketball program only had a total of nine wins from the previous three seasons combined. Given that the team was Division II, competing against the Northeast Ten, and didn’t have scholarships, this record was not all that appealing.
“Everyone thought I was crazy, because it was really in a bad position at that time,” explained Graves.
Once she became known as Coach here in 1991-1992, the program didn’t automatically soar into what it is today. In Graves’s first three seasons with the Pride, her teams earned a total of seven wins out of 67 games.
While she loved the sport, Graves never intended on coaching at Springfield for 28 seasons.
“I figured this coaching gig would last a short time, and then I could go back and be a teacher,” remembered Graves. “The coaching gig has actually lasted longer than anyone thought.”
Despite initially having her sights locked on other career aspirations, Graves realized that the two are much more similar that she thought: coaching is a form of teaching.
“The more I became involved in coaching and the more I saw the impact I could have with kids and how much I loved it, I realized it was my passion,” explained Graves.
It was in that moment when the role of basketball had shifted to be less for her own personal benefit and more for the benefit of her players, through guidance and growth.
“I like to be part of their lives in a good way, so that really became the passion and then basketball became the form,” said Graves. “That was the arena and the kids were the reasons I wanted to work so hard.”
In her time at the Birthplace, Graves has done just that. She has produced an overall record of 432-317, and a winning percentage 0.577. Coupled with her 68 wins from WPI, Coach hit a milestone that she never saw coming.
“I never thought I’d make it this far, honestly when you start coaching, you don’t think you’re going to win 500. It’s a big number,” Graves said, following the win against Clark on Saturday. “I think the big thing about ‘how did I get 500 wins’ is I stayed in the profession long enough.”
But once again, she was quick to point to others as the real reason behind her success.
“The other thing is we’ve had great success at Springfield because we’ve had great support. Springfield has been good to me, and I think it’s a tribute to our support in the administration and the type of kids we get.”
In the heat of the moment, walking out of Blake Arena after hearing of her success, the veteran coach credited her team even further. She pointed to the players, and simply said, “They really got 500, I didn’t.”
Though, according to her players, Graves’s has had an equally strong impact on them, as they have had on her.
Having been coached by her for four years, seniors Gracie Restituyo and Chelsea McAllister know how Graves has been more than a coach; she’s been a teacher, about much more than just rebounds and 3-pointers.
“She makes us strong women with confidence to stand up for ourselves,” said Restituyo.
McAllister added, “She teaches us the importance of family whether it’s on the court or off the court – Posse.”