Florida senior guard Nina Rickards has a silver chain with her jersey number: 15. For some players, that could just be a symbol of ego or pride. But for Rickards, it’s something more.
Clare Droesch, who lost her fight to breast cancer in 2018, wore the number throughout her playing career, and it’s become a symbol for Rickards to connect with someone who helped elevate her game – her assistant coach at Christ the King Regional High School.
The number stands for a connection to Rickard’s New York City roots, and it’s a meaningful tribute to Droesch — one of the coaches who helped her get to this point in her career.
“I keep it on during warmups, so I'm just reminded who I'm playing for and what I do it for,” Rickards said.
Rickards capped off her fourth season with the Florida Gators March 27. She was one of two players on this past year’s team who spent all four years in Gainesville, and Rickards surpassed 1,000 career points.
Throughout her success in college, those New York roots always ground her.
The basketball culture in New York City helped inspire Rickards to pursue the sport, she said. There are always huge crowds on park courts, and people spend all hours of the night hooping indoors, she said.
“It's an honor to come from a place like that,” Rickards said. “New York City is really big on basketball, and I think I'm one of the lucky ones.”
Rickards attended one of the most prestigious basketball schools in a basketball-mad city: Christ the King Regional High School in Queens.
The program has produced Women’s National Basketball Association superstars Sue Bird and Tina Charles. Countless other players have gone on to play National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 Basketball.
Joe DeLuca, an assistant coach at Christ the King, said he started working with Rickards in seventh grade. From the beginning, he was impressed by her work ethic and basketball ability.
“She loved basketball, [and] she was just very easy to work with,” DeLuca said. “She had certain things in her game at a young age that you can't teach.”
Head coach Bob Mackey knew Rickards had a lot to improve upon on the court and in the classroom but was immediately impressed with her work ethic and the habits she built, he said.
“She really worked hard and became a really solid kid, and a solid player, solid student,” Mackey said.
Rickards was coming off the bench in her junior season and was frustrated with her role, she said. Droesch joined the staff that season and helped Rickards elevate her game.
She didn’t click with Droesch right away, she said. But the new assistant coach saw something in Rickards and helped her improve on the court.
“I thought she was just picking on me, but she saw something that I didn't,” Rickards said. “We got closer; our relationship got stronger.”
DeLuca served as a mentor for her as well. But Droesch could provide unique guidance as a former top player, he said.
“I can be that big brother,” he said. “But I can’t tell you what it’s like to play in the NCAA tournament … She can. She gave that to Nina and also gave Nina someone to turn to.”
Rickards’ relationship grew with Droesch off the court.
When Droesch was battling breast cancer, Rickards made sure to check in on her in the hospital. After Droesch passed away in 2018, Rickards was given the honor of carrying on her legacy with the number 15.
Christ the King won a state championship the next season — Rickards’ final high school season. That 2019 team was focused and dialed in to succeed that season, DeLuca said.
“They knew what they had to do,” DeLuca said. “They were doing it for Clare, they were doing it for [themselves].”
Rickards built a relationship with then assistant coach Kelly Rae Finley at Florida during the recruiting process. She built a connection with the Gators’ program and felt like it was a strong fit for her.
But there was one small thing she needed before coming to Gainesville: the number 15.
“I made sure when I spoke to Kelly about if I was going to come to Florida, I have to have this number,” Rickards said. “I'm going to put on for my city, but I gotta put on for my coach too.”
Rickards spent four seasons at Florida, but it’s been a challenging tenure for the program. In 2021, then head coach Cam Newbauer resigned citing personal reasons. Several former players later accused the coach of abuse.
Despite the chaos, Rickards stayed in Gainesville. The commitment to stick with the program is a testament to her loyalty, DeLuca said.
“Nina sees everything she starts through,” he said. “That’s one of the most loyal kids I know.”
Finley was named interim head coach in 2021 after Newbauer’s resignation. Florida removed the interim tag after the season to make her the permanent head coach.
To Rickards, Finley has done an excellent job of turning the program around and building relationships with players, she said.
This past season was Rickards’ best yet. She set a new career-high in scoring with 12.1 points per game. Rickards spearheaded the Gators' run to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament Great Eight. She scored a career high 25 points against Wake Forest in the second round of the tournament.
Rickards topped 1,000 career points with her strong performance against Wofford March 16, where she scored 18 points.
“It's really exciting just knowing that all the work I've put in — I've been here for all four years — it's paying off, and it’s showing, and I'm glad to be here,” Rickards said postgame. “Forever a Gator.”
Even after a successful career with Florida, Rickards never stopped connecting with the people who helped get her here. Rickards still works with DeLuca in the offseasons, and the two have a strong bond, she said.
She even invited him to be a part of her senior day celebration, an honor DeLuca said he’ll never forget.
“I'll remember her asking me to be part of that day probably a little more than I remember us winning that championship,” DeLuca said.
Contact Topher Adams at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.
Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.