Basketball star-turned-coach; Vanessa McClendon is paving the way for girls basketball in the Pacific Northwest

Story by BRYNNA MAXWELL

Fighter. Go getter. Resilient. Difference maker. These are the words that come to mind when describing Vanessa McClendon. 

Former college athlete-turned-coach McClendon’s life is all about basketball. She was highly recruited in high school and earned a full ride basketball scholarship to the University of Oregon. Her talent would have taken her far professionally, but a career-ending knee injury forced her to retire early. 

Now, McClendon uses her basketball knowledge and love for the game by coaching her travel team organization, Northwest Magic. With teams scattered across Western Washington, McClendon and her husband have built a program that has become a household name in the Pacific Northwest basketball community. 

Vanessa McClendon has had a successful career from playing basketball in college, to now coaching the Northwest Magic. Photo courtesy of Vanessa McClendon.

In the youth basketball world, travel organizations like the Northwest Magic play a critical role. The travel teams not only help young players develop their basketball skills, but they also provide a platform for exposure of these players to college coaches as they chase their dreams of a basketball scholarship. These teams travel the United States to compete in tournaments in the AAU circuit, which is a travel team circuit that takes players and their teams all around the country to play basketball. 

Back in 2008, McClendon had just one scrappy team of teenage girls and an outsized vision for the future. She now has 22 teams — 14 for girls and eight for boys — that compete on a weekly basis around the nation.

University of Utah women’s basketball alumna Megan Huff was on that first AAU team McClendon assembled in 2008. 

“Since I started playing for Magic, Coach Vanessa was always someone I looked up to,” Huff said in an email interview. “When I walked into Magic tryouts, I was shy, uncomfortable in my own body, and insecure about my height and skills. I had no knowledge about basketball or about myself. But, through the whole thing I always knew that Coach Vanessa believed in me and was someone I could always count on.”

That first team McClendon coached produced four big name, Division I college athletes. This included Huff who, after graduating from the University of Utah, got drafted by the New York Liberty in the third round of the 2019 WNBA draft

“Magic was like family to me,” Huff said. “The lessons I learned helped me in college when I was deciding to transfer (from the University of Hawaii to the University of Utah). I knew how to handle the situation with open communication and honesty.”

When asked how McClendon separated her program from other teams in the state of Washington Huff said, “I knew the way things should be when a coach really cared about the individual and not just the organization.”

McClendon’s coaching has greatly impacted many young basketball players, and the teaching does not stop when she leaves the court. Her intentionality to connect with individuals has helped players learn life lessons away from basketball.

Huff said, “My journey was not an easy one but through the whole thing I always knew that Coach Vanessa believed in me and was someone I could always count on. For advice, knowledge, a ride, or a workout I knew I could always count on her and still can even to this day.”

Megan Huff shoots a jumper over a Washington State player in a collegiate basketball game. Photo courtesy of Megan Huff.

McClendon agrees that Northwest Magic is a special and empowering team to be a part of in order to help players get ready for the next level. 

“Our players go to college, and they are impact players right away,” McClendon said. “They can play in a system they’re used to. Some of the stuff that we’ve done, like the way we run practices, they’re used to it already, so I think that differentiates us.”

Current players in the Magic program have been working hard to improve and agree that McClendon has already helped them. 

Sixteen-year-old Tala Mitchell has been a part of the program since she was in the fifth grade. 

“Coach Vanessa brought me out of my comfort zone,” Mitchell said. “In the beginning I wasn’t really a talkative person and was a little shy. She taught me how to speak up and communicate with my team on the court.”

During her interview, she was surrounded and supported by her Northwest Magic teammates, showing how close the bond is that has been formed from her unique basketball experience.

“There are other teams in Washington, but I feel like the people who have been here are very welcoming,” Mitchell said. “When new people come (to join our team), they enjoy us, so they come back and that helps us create bonds that last.”

Mitchell has built lasting memories from her time in the program and has made lifelong friends because of her experience with the Magic. The point guard has already had a strong couple years in high school and only hopes to keep improving. 

Sitting at a table next to a noisy gym for the interview, McClendon looked around at the organized chaos that surrounded her coming from several of her practicing Northwest Magic teams. 

She smiled.

“It is so great to see the full circle of Magic players come through. We have the girls just starting out, to the alumni coming back to show support and it is just so cool,” McClendon said. “I want Magic to continue to develop college-ready players, and then I’d love to see my players that have moved on, just come back and pay it forward.”

Vanessa McClendon established Northwest Magic from the ground up and continues to grow the program. However, there are challenges in this business.

Because McClendon believes every kid should have an opportunity to play, she routinely covers travel expenses for players who cannot afford it. These include hotel costs, plane tickets, food, and tournament fees.

“The biggest challenge right now is money,” McClendon said. “You know, a lot of families can’t afford to do what we do when we have to travel, and so the biggest challenge is trying to fundraise, or get sponsorships for the kids that need to get out there, because we know we have the kids but not everybody can afford to get to these exposure events.”

Setting up fundraisers and collecting donations are the most common ways to raise money, but McClendon is not fazed by the obstacles. 

“Basketball is my passion,” she said. “There is no place I would rather be than in a gym coaching these kids.”