By: Paul Coro
and her family have a vivid holiday memory of her cousin and best friend, Tia Gay, saying, "I love my family," when her relatives had gathered under one roof.
That was eight years ago on Thanksgiving, the day before she died of heart failure.
For every holiday since then, Blue and her family show why she felt that way.
Blue is helping Tia's mother, Bertha, raise Tia's three children while raising her own 6-year-old daughter, Cali, and handling the demands of being a Grand Canyon women's basketball assistant coach. Blue multitasks to attend to every team and family need, handling school, extracurricular and Christmas traditions with the nurturing care she also shows in the GCU Basketball Practice Facility.
Tia is constantly on Blue's mind. By extension, so are Tia's children – 16-year-old Jai and his sisters, 13-year-old Kai and 12-year-old Khalani.
"With her not being here, I thought it would get better over time but it hasn't," Blue said. "It really hurts sometimes that she's not here. The only thing that keeps me from getting emotionally wrapped up with her not being here is that she would be doing the same thing for me. I know she's in a place with no worries or no pains. She's in complete bliss. If she's looking down on us, she'd be happy with us. I know that she would be proud of what we're doing with the kids."
Growing up in the hardscrabble 4th
and P area of Bakersfield, Calif., Tia was an older cousin to Blue but became more like a sister and best friend. Two years apart in age, they
grew up in their grandparents' house while Bertha worked as a police dispatcher and Blue's mother, Sabrina, was a school bus driver.
They were inseparable to the point that colleges recruiting Blue were asking Tia to be a manager because they knew it would help land the area's greatest female basketball prep player ever. Blue played at UCLA, where she was inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame this year, and in the WNBA, where she teamed with GCU head coach Nicole Powell
for a season in New York.
Early in Blue's WNBA career, Tia was afflicted with Crohn's disease, an inflammation of the digestive tract. She was in a coma for two months after her intestines ruptured. She was put on dialysis and then went in and out of the hospital from 2008 to 2010, when Blue spent offseasons in a rotation with relatives to watch Tia's children.
About a month before her final Thanksgiving, doctors installed a Pacemaker in Tia to assist her weakening heart. Usually bubbly, she was unusually sleepy on Thanksgiving of 2010 at Blue's house. The next day, Tia did not respond to Blue's texts when it was time for them to go Black Friday shopping in the early morning.
"Something's wrong with Tia," Blue's mother said in a phone call. "You need to get to the hospital now."
Blue was the first relative at the hospital besides Bertha, who was in a hotel room with Tia when she went into cardiac arrest during her sleep in spite of the new Pacemaker. She passed at age 28. It devastated Blue and the relatives who normally would be her rocks.
"You could see physically it was taking a toll on her but emotionally you could never tell," Blue said. "Tia was always such an energy giver. She would never complain. She never said she was sick, ill, tired, anything. She never wanted to put anything out on anybody else. We've taken it upon ourselves to make her legacy last by teaching her kids the same things she stood for, which was love for the family and to be an energy giver. This is what I'm helping her kids with daily."
Moving to Arizona
Blue left a six-year assistant coaching tenure at UNLV in 2014 to be assistant coach at Cal State Bakersfield and be near her family. But when Powell became GCU's head coach in 2017 and offered Blue a position, she saw a better opportunity for her and the kids in Phoenix.
Tia used to ask her mother, Bertha, and Blue to take care of the kids if anything happened to her. They took it to heart. Bertha became their guardian but Blue told them that they would go where she goes.
She found a house in Litchfield Park, west of GCU, for six people and Bertha is the "perfect leader" there, as Blue says. With a demanding job, Blue would not be able to manage four children and a roster of young women without having her aunt to organize the household side.
The kids were excited to move to Phoenix and have loved it. Jai is a charismatic actor – the next Will Smith, Blue says – at Agua Fria High School while Kai and Khalani play basketball and Cali plays soccer.
They have Bible study at home together. They congregate in each other's rooms for video games. They go to the community basketball and tennis courts together. They attend each other's events, including GCU games. They are told to expect greatness and that they will be in Hall of Fames like Blue.
On Mother's Day, they give gifts to Blue and Bertha. In stores, people assume all four children belong to Blue. There is no reason to correct them when it feels that way.
"Nikki is just a salt-of-the-earth person," Powell said. "For Nikki to be the one to step in with her aunt and lay the foundation for Jai, Kai and Lani is just cool. They're a wonderful family and they're part of our family as the basketball team. They're in the fabric of who we are as a program.
"She made a huge sacrifice but it's just who she is to do whatever is necessary to make it work. For Nikki to balance all the things she does is really incredible. She brings that same passion and joy and love to our team that she does in everything in life. We're really lucky to have her as part of our program."
Jai, as the oldest, has the strongest memory of their mother with an occasional mention of something Tia once cooked or did. Tia's children amaze Blue with how positive and strong they remained through dramatic changes in their early lives.
They are spending this Christmas in Bakersfield with Blue's grandfather in the house where she and Tia were raised. That is where Blue learned the undying love and support that she passes on to Jai, Kai, Khalani and Cali.
"Inside the house, there is constant love," Blue said. "There's enough love to go around for everyone. I hope we are creating that culture and environment for them to see that as normal and that's how a family can be.
"Being at GCU around a Christian environment and these ladies on our team who are great role models for my kids, everything fell into place here."
Follow Paul Coro on Twitter: @paulcoro.