Neighbors ties past, present together in creating the future for Arkansas

Mike Neighbors calls out instructions to players, as assistant Chantel Osahor watches from the bench. Arkansas Athletics photo.

If the Arkansas basketball staff looks familiar, there’s a reason for that.

The last time Razorback coach Mike Neighbors, assistant coach Chantel Osahor and new graduate assistant Kelsey Plum were together, it was as coach and players at the University of Washington in 2017. Now, though in different roles, the trio is hard at work doing the same thing: taking a program to new heights.

“We’re getting the band back together, in some form or fashion,” Neighbors said last fall, shortly after Plum agreed to come aboard.

Neighbors left the Huskies four years ago, as Plum and Osahor graduated, to return to his home state and fulfill a lifelong goal of coaching in the SEC. He inherited a program that had lived in the basement of the conference for a few years. But as he did at Washington, Neighbors has grown a garden.

Arkansas returned to the AP top 25 poll last season, for the first time since 2014, in Osahor’s first year on staff. They have remained ranked this year, now with Plum on board, and pulled off a signature upset of No. 4 Baylor in early December. Though the team has had its struggles in its brutal conference, their lightening style of play is a force to be reckoned with, and is an indicator of what is to come.

“Everybody in our program and our fans expect us to win every game out. And that’s, it’s a cool place to be, it’s a hard place to be, but it does show how it’s changed in the last four years,” Neighbors said. 

He did the same thing with the Huskies in his first head coaching gig, with Plum and Osahor by his side. Together they took the team from the bottom of the Pac-12 to the 2016 Final Four.

Neighbors had an especially tight bond with Plum, who he calls his first true recruit, as he convinced her to stay after she had committed to the previous coach. The two collaborated fiercely, to the point where he gave her his whiteboard at a timeout during one game and let her draw up the play.

Chantel Osahor talks with Destiny Slocum at a timeout. Arkansas Athletics photo.

If this was a normal season that hadn’t been curtailed in so many ways by the COVID 19 pandemic, Osahor and Plum would be sitting on opposite sides of the bench during games, while Neighbors patrolled the sidelines. But for this year, at least, Plum is performing her GA duties remotely, from Las Vegas, where she is rehabbing the Achilles tendon that she ruptured last June.

Plum, who plays for the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, is taking sports management classes and mentoring Razorback players remotely.

“[Mentorship], it’s like little nuanced things. It’s taking care of your body, knowing what you’re putting in your body and how that affects you,” she said. “Not just short-term, but long-term, the kind of physical shape you’re in and how that really can help you or hurt you. Then I just think basketball, specifically, little nuanced things in college you can get away with, but in the pros, it’s not the same.”

Neighbors said Plum’s role is to help the players prepare for postgraduate life, whether that includes basketball or not. As someone who plays the sport professionally, she is a role model.

“She’s not only gone through what [the players] went through, she’s still currently doing it as a player in the WNBA,” he said. “She just has so many more experiences that I don’t have as a professional player that they can use her to talk to. I certainly could give them my input, but she is way more believable than I am because she’s physically doing it.”

Osahor’s claim to fame at Washington was crafting around her physical limitations. Though bad knees limited her jumping ability and speed, she was one of the best rebounders and scorers in the conference because she moved with deliberate efficiency. So it was no surprise that the book-reading thinker had long fancied becoming a coach.

Neighbors hired her after she’d served as GA at Drake, and said she had the right mindset.

“She saw the game from a unique lens for people her age,” he said. “She was ahead of her game, ahead of her time, when it came to that. She would see the big picture where other student-athletes her age were just looking at what was happening in the little picture. She definitely has the skills to continue to grow and elevate in this game.”

Kelsey Plum has been rehabilitating a torn Achilles in Las Vegas, where she plays for the Aces. Associated Press photo.

Plum, on the other hand, had to be convinced to come aboard. Neighbors had been asking her to join his staff since he got to Fayetteville. Last year, finally, the timing was right. His flexibility in allowing her to perform her duties is something she appreciates.

“Because of our relationship, I trusted that he would have my back in this and he completely has,” Plum said.

Their respect is mutual. Neighbors has said that without Plum, he wouldn’t be the coach that he is. One of her favorite things about him is his willingness to listen to the ideas of others, and not be locked into one way of doing things.

The relationships between Neighbors, Osahor and Plum are reflected on court with Arkansas, which features the star trio of Chelsea Dungee, Amber Ramirez and Destiny Slocum. They have lead their team in facing one ranked opponent after another in the talent-laden SEC, and also outside of it this week as they take on No. 3 UConn.

The Razorbacks are missing their fan base, which has been re-ignited under Neighbors. They also miss each other at times, as mandatory pandemic distancing has prevented them from spending as much time around each other.

“The mental part of [COVID-19] was real, the isolation and not being able to see each other when we were on campus and not being able to have get-togethers at my house and barbecues cookouts,” Neighbors said. “We’re a big relationship program, and we didn’t get to do those things physically, so we had to find alternate ways.”

His coaches, which also include associate head coach Todd Schaefer and assistant coach Pauline Love, are trying to compensate for the strain with extra support.

West Coast natives Osahor and Plum said they had strong mentors who inspired and encouraged them to take on roles with Arkansas – a team that neither had a connection to outside of Neighbors.

Mike Neighbors hugs Chantel Osahor and Kelsey Plum during their 2017 NCAA Tournament run at the University of Washington. Getty Images photo.

While he helped shape their careers, both also cited the influence of Morgan Valley, an assistant to neighbors at Washington who is now the head coach at Hartford. Osahor is also still close with former Husky assistant coach-turned Arizona head coach Adia Barnes, and has been the godmother to her son, born in 2015. Osahor said she speaks with both women every day.

“I know it’s so hard these days, we’re in a place right now where we’re trying to get more women in the game. And to have [Valley and Barnes] as my assistants… I had those people that I talk to every day about life. They were like second moms to me,” Osahor said. 

Plum also emphasized the importance of expanding women’s basketball and getting more female coaches into the game. By age 14, girls start to drop out of sports at a significantly higher rate than boys because there are fewer female mentors to inspire them, data has shown. Plum said the sport should strive for more female coaches, trainers, teachers, and mentors to empower their players. 

“Visualization matters….Think of (Vice President) Kamala Harris. I think this is such a big deal because visualization matters where young girls now grow up and see ‘Wait a second. This is legit possible,’” Plum said. 

Osahor has similar feelings, and said that while she appreciates all that Neighbors has done for her, having female coaches of color in the game is important, as they have had many of the same struggles and questions about life as the players they coach.

“It’s so vital and important to have female coaches coaching female players, specifically, women of color,” Osahor said. “I think it’s a simple thing that people don’t think of. As simple as, you can ask your coach, who’s a woman of color. ‘Hey, where can I get my hair done?’”

Plum considers it her responsibility as a professional athlete to “pass it down” to the younger generation, and show that it is possible to achieve dreams. She said she also hopes to become the kind of mentor to athletes that Neighbors has been to her.

“I think Coach has always allowed me to be me, and I think that’s what makes him special,” Plum said. “A lot of college coaches, try to really funnel you and dictate what you need to do on and off the court. Coach neighbors really uses the philosophy of trust, allowing his players to be the best version of themselves…And he gets the best out of his players. I think that just speaks a lot.”

Destiny Slocum and Chelsea Dungee celebrate the Razorbacks’ upset of Baylor. Arkansas Athletics photo.

Despite a new team, and new roles for Osahor and Plum, all three said their relationships haven’t changed. Neighbors joked that the only shift was that “they talk back to [him] more than they used to.”

Plum commended Neighbors for his willingness to tie his coaching past together with the present.

“I try to tell people at the end of the day, like this isn’t about me,” she said. “This is about Coach being savvy enough to tap into different people that he feels like can help his players. That is a testament to him kind of going outside the box.”

Neighbors said that once someone plays for him, they’re part of his extended family.

“This is a lifetime thing with us,” he said. “You come and play for us and I’m going to try to do everything I can do to make sure you’re successful.”

Sue Favor contributed to this report