Wesleyan girls head basketball coach Jan Azar has five former players on her staff now, including Mary Stephenson, Carolyn Whitney, Nichole Dixon and Sarah Prehmus. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
No one gives a better look of incredulity than Jan Azar.
It’s there waiting when you trudge back to the bench. Especially if she just had to bark the same order at you five times.
From the outside, that might be all people see of the longtime Wesleyan girls basketball coach.
That, and her propensity for getting technical fouls.
It’s a fraction of the reality, but even her former players understand the misconception.
“If I had not played for her and known her personally, and just saw her in action, I would think she is just ruthless and mean,” Carolyn Whitney said with a tellingly sunny grin. “But she’s not. She has the best heart. She’s the funniest person. And she’s the most caring person, too.”
Whitney, who starred for Azar from 2002-06 and was part of three state title runs, is one of five former players on staff at Wesleyan. Nichole Dixon, Mary Stephenson and Whitney are varsity assistants. Sara Goodkind and Sarah Prehmus help with the fifth- and sixth-grade teams.
“On the surface, it looks like all she does is scream and yell and is really hard on us,” Stephenson said. “And I don’t know how exactly she gets the message across, but I remember knowing at 15, 16 years old that she cared a lot more about who I am as a person than what I am as a basketball player.
“I see it now as an adult that she’s very intentional about telling kids basketball is a part of your life, it’s not your whole life.”
The players, then and now, hang out in her office and at her house.
“Probably in high school, not even half of our conversations would be about basketball,” Stephenson said. “You get to know her on a personal level and she’s invested.”
Stephenson didn’t play basketball in college and still talked to Azar all the time.
“For me, coaching basketball is an avenue to reach girls and help them to be confident young women when they leave,” Azar said. “I’ll get after them on the court. But off the court, they know me well enough to know that doesn’t mean I don’t love them. So when they leave this place and the basketball is all done, they know I’m there for them. I want them to know that.”
Azar came to Wesleyan in 1997 when the private Christian school was just building its Norcross campus. It was her first head coaching job, but Dixon saw the foundation. Before Wesleyan became the juggernaut that has won six straight state championships and 10 in the last 12 years, Azar was an assistant at Mt. DeSales in Macon and coached Dixon.
“She definitely knew her stuff,” Dixon said. “She did a great job being a mentor and a coach. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she did a great job modeling what it means to be a real assistant coach.
“I loved her because she was just easy to talk to. She was very direct in her coaching, even as an assistant. She would stay after and play one-on-one with us or two-on-two. I got to see a different side of her.”
Azar, then still Jan Turner, was in grad school at the time and tutored Dixon in calculus.
“She taught me what it was like to care about a kid off the court,” Dixon said. “She was still young enough to play with us — and beat us. These players don’t believe that. That she was actually good. She knows how to get after it.”
The torch has been passed, but Azar appreciates that Dixon is around to testify to her former skills.
“Besides the fact that she’s a really good coach, she can remind the kids that I actually did play the game and I was good,” Azar said with her customary, and often self-deprecating, dry humor. “Having Carolyn and Mary and Nichole work with them after practice and do some one-on-one stuff is really good.
“It’s really good also for them to have someone else who is closer to their age to identify with. They still come and talk to me — tell me more than I want to know sometimes. But it’s great to have some young coaches they can talk to that came through and played for me.”
Every couple of years, there’s a player Azar knows would make a good coach.
“When they play, I can kind of tell who really, first of all, understands the game when they’re out on the court,” Azar said. “Brittany Stevens would be a great coach. That’s in her mind one day. Logan Morris would be a great coach. I would love for her to come back.”
Those players don’t always believe her. Azar can be patient. And cagey.
“Out of college I wasn’t even thinking about coaching until Coach Azar asked me to come back and do some volunteer work for fifth grade,” Whitney said. “I told her I would do that. I didn’t think it would take up too much time.
“I was so burned out from college basketball, I just wanted to stay away from it. But I decided I would help her out.”
The younger kids practice after the varsity and Whitney would come a little early to watch.
“I just missed it so much,” she said.
Now Whitney is getting her master’s degree in teaching and wants to be a head coach one day.
“I just fell in love with the sport again,” she said. “And I wanted to work for Coach Azar.”
Whitney’s experience isn’t atypical. College athletics became a grind, more like a job than a game. Which makes what Azar has built at Wesleyan all the more appealing.
“They look back and this was really a lot of fun,” Azar said. “We get after it, but we have a good time.
“I have to remind myself and remind the girls — especially with the expectations they have for themselves and other people have for them — basketball is just a game. This is a time for us to spend together growing up and having fun doing something we all love.”
Azar wants her players to come back. She wants them coaching her daughter Nicole.
“Part of the thing too, being at this school, these are really good kids,” she said. “They’re the kids I want hanging out at my house and being role models for my children. The basketball is fine and they’re really good players, but what’s so much more important to me is they’re good students, they’re good people, they do the right thing, they act the right way.
“Why not want them to come back? They’re so passionate. We could not do what we do here without them.”