By Dr. John Huang
Welcome to Greenville, South Carolina for the 2020 Women’s SEC Basketball Tournament.
In the first game of the Thursday session at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, 9th-seeded Georgia defeated 8th-seeded Alabama 68-61. A 10-2 Bulldog spurt to begin the 3rd quarter was all Georgia (17-13, SEC 8-9) needed to withstand a late Crimson Tide (18-12, SEC 8-9) rally. Georgia’s Jenna Staiti turned in another monster performance, leading all scorers with 20 points and 14 rebounds.
“I just think playing strong and just my coaches, my teammates give me so much confidence,” Staiti said afterwards. “They tell me all the time: The only one that can stop me is me. Just keeping that positive mindset, doing what I can, just giving all the effort that I can.”
For their efforts, Georgia now receives the unenviable honor of taking on top-seeded South Carolina in the quarterfinal round tomorrow.
Tweeting without thinking can be hazardous to your health
I’m here on assignment to cover the Cats, so you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide in my very first column ever at the SEC Women’s tournament. That’s a good question. Keep reading—I think you’ll enjoy my answer.
It all started out from the game last week when Kentucky defeated Georgia 88-77 at Memorial Coliseum. In my usual and customary fashion, I was trying to paint a word picture of the action down low. Although the Wildcats were red hot from behind the arc, Georgia was hanging close due mainly to the play of their 6’5 junior center Jenna Staiti. She was scoring on Kentucky’s smaller inside ‘bigs’ in an impressively dominating manner.
Midway through the contest, I tweeted out the following.
BIG MISTAKE! You would have thought I insulted the Royal Family, as loyal Bulldog supporters came at me with guns blazing. For my use of the word “heftier,” I was called everything in the book—from unprofessional to sexist to pompous to arrogant. It seemed like the whole state of Georgia wanted my scalp. One person even threatened to “kick my skinny little ass.”
Bottom line: I screwed up. In trying to compliment Jenna’s play on the court, I used an adjective describing her personal appearance. You simply can’t do that with a media platform today. You can bet your bottom dollar I won’t do it again.
In the midst of all the tweets, emails and epithets questioning my inclusion in the human race, I received one message that stood out among all the others. Perhaps due to maternal protective instincts—or maybe just out of pity for me because (in her words) the ‘village had pounced’—Sandi Staiti, Jenna’s mom, got a hold of me. With a chance to respond, I immediately apologized to her for all the anguish I had caused. I tried to explain my rationale for such a poor word choice, and I also asked that she pass along my sincerest regrets to Jenna.
Tweeting without thinking led to a wonderfully serendipitous encounter
Here’s the best part of this story. Not only did Sandi accept my apology and mercifully call off the Dawgs, but she agreed to meet with me and talk openly about her obvious pride and joy.
What followed was one of the most natural and free-flowing conversations I’ve ever had with an opposing player’s parent who–by the way–I was meeting face to face for the very first time.
Here’s what took two seconds for me to surmise. In addition to being a multi-talented basketball player, if Jenna Staiti is anything like her mom (exceptionally cordial, respectful, honest, gracious, and accommodating), she has to be one of the nicest teammates around. As we’ve heard before, every good tree bears good fruit, right?
A team player like no other
“She loves her team, her teammates, and her coach,” said Sandi, a former volleyball star herself. “Jenna never cares about anything but the team winning. She just loves to win.”
A swimmer earlier in her athletic career, Jenna finally saw the light on the basketball court. Why get up at five in the morning, get in a cold pool, practice for hours—all for a twenty-second race? She quickly fell in love with basketball and the camaraderie associated with the team concept.
An incredible high school career resulted. A native of Cumming, Georgia, Jenna was Gatorade Player of the Year as well as Miss Basketball in her home state. What unexpectedly followed, however, was a freshman year of college at the University of Maryland that wasn’t quite what she was promised. Luckily for Georgia fans, after a short time away, Jenna returned home to exactly where she was destined to be all along.
Coming home to Georgia
“Our family is indebted to the Georgia program for taking her back home,” Sandi continued. “We’ve always waited for ‘high school Jenna’ to show up as ‘college Jenna.’ We know she can do it. We know what she’s capable of.”
Boy, is she paying it forward in spades. Jenna has started all 30 games this season, and she leads the Bulldogs in scoring in conference play with nearly 13 points per game. She’s on a torrid pace as of late, scoring in double figures now in eight-straight games and averaging over 20 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game during that span.
What’s it like being the tallest girl in the room?
Eventually, our conversation circled back around to the topic that triggered our meeting in the first place—Jenna’s physical stature.
At 6’3 in the eighth grade, Jenna has always been head and shoulders above everyone else. Having been tall her entire life, she’s learned to carry her height elegantly. Sandi describes her daughter as beautiful, confident, and strong. Jenna doesn’t seem bothered by her stature at all. In fact, she embraces it.
“It’s hard to find clothes sometimes,” Sandi lamented somewhat jokingly. “But I love how she carries herself proudly, graciously, and with confidence. Our proudest moments as parents are when we see her after the game with all the little girls who look up to her.”
So, what does Sandi ultimately want for her rising superstar of a daughter? The same thing every parent wants.
“I want her to be happy,” she said. “Do something you love. Surround yourself with a village of good people. I think Jenna has been very good at recognizing who her people are. She understands that these girls you spend every day with are always going to be your sisters.”
“I see her focus, I see her intent, I see her drive,” Sandi added. “But when I see the glimpses of her smile on the court, that makes me happy. I want my kids to be happy. Be happy, be gracious, be appreciative, be a good person. It’s important—it goes a long way in this day and age. We’re incredibly proud of her.”
One of the hardest things for me to do in this newfound media gig is not to cheer from press row. You may see me sitting stoically behind my computer screen when Georgia takes the floor tomorrow. But on the inside, I’ll now be cheering as hard for Jenna and the Bulldogs as if they were wearing blue.
Be careful what you tweet. It may just change your entire perspective…and make you a fan for life.
4 thoughts on “A Wonderful Thing Happened after my Dumbest Tweet Ever”
Great “article”, John. I love reading your reports, etc.
Thanks Martha. Appreciate you checking in. Continue to spread the word:-)
Dear Dr. John,
I was the Director of Athletics at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, NY when Sandi Reda Staiti was an outstanding student athlete and even more impressive young woman. What you have seen, and so eloquently described, is a mother who has been an amazing role model for her children and certainly a great source of pride for her coaches. Sandi has raised Jenna to be the reflection and image of her Mom. .
I commend you for the classy way you have handled your admitted “slip of the tweet.” The behavior of a number of your colleagues would have been much less mature, introspective, dignified and respectful. I wish your Wildcats continued success, but I know the Bulldogs have a new super fan in you..
Thanks Rod. Appreciate your kind words more than you’ll ever realize. I’m finding out what so many already knew. What a wonderful family are the Staiti’s. Truly blessed!