SOUTH BEND, Ind.
Niele Ivey looks back on those photos often — a younger version of herself, the newly crowned 2001 national champion, basking in confetti and the glow of a perfect moment. She had helped orchestrate Notre Dame’s comeback in front of a sold-out Savvis Center, 10 minutes away from where she first fell in love with a game. On a twisted ankle, no less. And when Purdue’s last-second shot rimmed out, she sprinted over halfcourt and leapt into the arms of assistant coach Kevin McGuff. He was the first person she saw then.
She looks back at the photos and sees the joy radiating from her body. In her mind, there was no way to make it any better. It was one of the best moments of her life.
But not for any of the reasons she thought. Now, in photos from that night, it’s Philippe she sees most clearly. It’s Philippe she sees first. She can spot him immediately, there in the second row sporting an Irish shirt, his dreadlocks tucked into a crocheted tam he made himself, flanked by Ivey’s three other brothers and her parents.
Seven months after these photos were snapped, Niele and her mom, Theresa, would arrive at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis and be led down a series of hallways by a hospital escort and police officer. A doctor would take them into a cold room, where Niele would feel a weight in the back of her throat but know that she needed to stay strong as her mom clutched her hand. They were there to identify Philippe’s body.
Not his radiant smile or his joy. Not the sum of 26 years of a beautiful life. Not the mind of a brother who, a day earlier, had rubbed Niele’s six-month pregnant belly and reassured her, “Everything will be fine.” But the body. When the doctor pulled back the curtain, it was Philippe. Her mom’s voice still echoes in Niele’s head, pleading for him to get up, just get up. Of all the memories of Philippe that have faded over the years, this one — the worst one — refuses to leave.
So, instead Niele holds on to that other moment in St. Louis. When the whole family had been together. When everything still made sense. When Philippe’s joy cut through the confetti and his smile was even brighter than his baby sister’s, who had just won a national title.
He’s the one — not the net or the title or the trophy — who brings her back into this moment again and again.
Niele Ivey is an organized person. A scheduled person. She studied history because it was a knowable subject — events could be dated, cause and effect could be found. But her first year out of college had come with a lot of unanswered questions.
She was frustrated with the on-again-off-again relationship with her boyfriend. She was entering the third trimester of her pregnancy not knowing what to expect of labor or motherhood. Her second WNBA season loomed, and with it the fears of whether or not her body and mind would be ready.
It was a last-minute decision to drive to St. Louis that November weekend. Home wouldn’t answer any of those questions, but being with her family might make it all feel a little less daunting. And on that five-and-a-half-hour drive, Niele knew she was most excited to see Philippe. He would help her make the most sense of this chaos.
Philippe was her brother closest in age. With five Ivey kids (and just eight years in between Nick, the eldest, and Niele, the baby) their small three-bedroom house had always been brimming with activity and friends.