AllSportsTucson.com is running a series of articles on local sports figures who are making an impact on the community. You can refer to this link to catch up on some of our previous profiles of those who mean a lot to Tucsonans.
Adia Barnes is the coach but the mother of the Arizona women’s basketball program is Joan Bonvicini, who has brought to Tucson players such as Barnes who are gifts to this community with their impact.
It is similar to a mom bringing into the world productive children improving the way of life of those they touch with their personalities and contributions to society. On top of that, Bonvicini continues to be an active member of the Tucson community with public engagements and serving on the board of directors for the Girl Scouts and the Boys and Girls Club, roles she has served since when she was coaching at Arizona for 17 years until 2008.
“Coach B, as we called her, and her assistant at the time Coach DDI, coach Denise Dove — their recruiting methods were mostly about family,” said Dee-Dee Wheeler, a three-time All-Pac-10 selection who is in Arizona’s Ring of Honor along with Barnes.
“When Coach B recruited me (out of Chicago), I felt like I was not giving up what I had at home with my grandmother, which was the nurturing, which was someone that pushed me, someone that valued the things I wanted to do in life.”
When I spoke directly with Barnes about two months ago, she mentioned of Bonvicini, “She believed in me when not many other coaches did” when she was being recruited of high school in San Diego.
“I was an undersized post player, but she did not see me that way,” said Barnes, who is 5-foot-11. “She saw how I could benefit her program by showing a belief in me that I can play close to the basket. That’s what I wanted to do in addition to helping in other areas. Other coaches would not give me that chance.”
Imagine the program now if Bonvicini never provided Barnes that opportunity, thereby depriving Tucson one of the most popular public figures in the community today.
Felecity Willis, a guard who was a two-time All-Pac-10 selection, has the distinction of playing in four straight NCAA tournaments at Arizona from 1996-97 to 1999-2000 with Bonvicini as coach along with being part of two Women’s College World Series with the softball program under Mike Candrea.
Willis coming to Arizona from Apple Valley, Calif., had some to do with being able to also play softball and Bonvicini and Candrea were accommodating.
“Joan was always supportive of me playing both sports as long as it did not affect my education,” Willis once told me. “I appreciate it that both she and Coach Candrea were behind me like that.”
The common thread among Wheeler, Barnes and Willis: they were drawn to Tucson by Bonvicini and they continue to have a great influence on this community. Even more impressive, over time, their magnitude has never waned despite their playing days were 15 to 25 years ago in Tucson. Their importance has grown and continues to flourish.
Barnes is like a rock star in Tucson, turning everything she touches into gold at McKale Center. The Wildcats set a season record in attendance this year while breaking records and achieving a lot of firsts for the program along the way.
Willis, who became a Pac-12 referee for the first time this season, was also featured in our Tucson’s Treasures series recently because of her charitable donations to disadvantaged youths in Tucson. She is also prominent in Tucson working at functions designed for the advancement of local children such as Corey Williams‘ Tucson Summer Pro League for Kids and Joseph Blair’s annual basketball camp that is free for children.
Wheeler is about to become the Tucson Unified School District Director of Athletics, replacing Herman House, who is retiring. Barnes has mentioned that Wheeler’s hire can greatly impact the development of girls basketball and youth sports overall in Tucson.
Many of her other players have gone on to successful lives, including Brenda Pantoja, who is an NCAA referee who has worked championship games.
“It goes full circle,” Bonvicini said. “I’m really proud of all of them. I have a had a lot of players who have done really well.
“They were all good players but what they have appreciated the most is being active giving back. Honestly, that’s a part of my DNA and that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve done that anywhere I’ve worked and coached. When you do that, it’s amazing, it makes you feel good because you’re trying make the community better.”
Bonvicini is 66 and not showing any signs of slowing down.
She is still involved with women’s basketball as a commentator on the Pac-12 Network (one of the most insightful analysts of that network). She is in touch with individual members of the community as a licensed agent of New York Life insurance.
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She hikes regularly in the surrounding Tucson areas at places like Sabino Canyon and Madera Canyon.
She continues to visit local schools for motivational speeches and remains active with the Boys and Girls Club of Tucson participating in their charity events.
“What’s interesting is that when people are successful, it’s not just because they are talented,” said Bonvicini, who has been inducted into the Arizona Hall of Fame and Pima County Sports Hall of Fame. “It’s really their work ethic and their attitude. That’s what sets people apart and I think it’s no coincidence that when you see people like Adia, Dee-Dee, Felecity and Brenda, they are successful because when they decide to something they do it to the best of their ability.
“You want people of good character and that comes with the culture of the program. Wherever I’ve coached — at Long Beach State, Arizona and Seattle — I’ve been very active in the community. It’s great to see my players doing that in Tucson. This is a special community filled with a lot of people who give back.”
Another form of Bonvicini’s support: being a strong advocate for equality, specifically when it comes to women’s athletics. She has traveled the country to speak at seminars and clinics that promote the advancement of females in sports and in the business world in general.
In early March, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Bonvicini was the keynote speaker for the annual Women of Influence Awards hosted by Inside Tucson Business.
She mentioned to the crowd of 600 that packed a ballroom at the Desert Diamond Casino at Sahuarita that she grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when female sports were not widely accepted by society. Similar to how she has nurtured her players to become success stories outside of basketball, coaches and players she came across in her youth were instrumental in her development.
“The four most important words you can ever say to someone is ‘I believe in you,’” Bonvicini told the crowd and also mentioned in my interview with her. “Whether you say those words as a coach to a player, a parent to a child, to your spouse or partner, or to your co-worker or employee, those four words can make a huge difference.”
Those words ring true in how, for example, she believed in Wheeler, Barnes and Willis at a young point in their lives when they really needed that support.
“When Coach B recruited me, she valued me as a point guard even though I was a shooting guard coming in,” Wheeler said. “I wanted to be a point guard and she trusted me as the point guard. She passed the torch. She was an outstanding guard herself (at Central Connecticut State). She saw me as an extension of her out on the court and I respected that.
“She has also been very supportive and encouraging to me with this transition (from the Chicago public-school system to TUSD) and she’s been that way since the time she recruited me. Chicago is a tough city. Coach B has done great things for myself and my daughter to better our lives. We’ve never lost contact. Sometimes you have coaches who once you’re done playing with them, you’re done. She is more like family.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.