The story of a bracelet and Mema's love that powered Jenna Staiti to a career-best day

Staiti wears a purple wristband on her ankle that says 'Love, Mema.' She scored 30 points in the regular-season finale at Florida.

Georgia center Jenna Staiti (14) during a game against LSU at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Thurs., January 28, 2021. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith — UGA Sports Communications)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Three minutes remained and Georgia transitioned into a slower offense to chew some clock. It wanted to seal a road victory at Florida as the lead swelled to double digits. Jenna Staiti caught a pass and had different plans.

The senior had felt it all afternoon. Staiti dominated in the paint with eight points in a matter of a few first-quarter minutes. She hit a handful of mid-range jumpers, including a pair on consecutive possessions. She found a stroke from the perimeter. Staiti didn’t miss and couldn’t pass on her chance.

This moment came inches away from head coach Joni Taylor. She saw Staiti take a small step back behind the 3-point line.

“No, no, no!” Taylor said. “Don’t shoot.”

Splash. A few seconds later, Staiti backpedaled with a grin.

Her signature moment from the perimeter preceded another jumper with less than a minute remaining. It finished a scoring rampage, and Staiti finished with a career-best 30 points in Georgia’s (18-5, 10-5 SEC) 95-80 win at Florida. Her previous best was 24 points, set twice last season.

“I woke up feeling dangerous,” Staiti said. “I know everything is going in. That makes it easier.”

“You see me backpedaling, because I've got that much faith in her,” fellow senior Maya Caldwell said. “I trust her every time — double-team, triple team, one-on-one. I know it's going in.”

Staiti’s 30 points came at a 13-for-21 shooting clip, but she didn’t miss a single attempt in the second half. A perfect 7-for-7 to cap off a crucial win for the Lady Bulldogs brought true joy to the senior who has worked for three years to lead Georgia to a point where it can have success.

“That's in her bag as we like to call it,” Taylor said of Staiti’s 3-pointer. “We have no problem with that. Sometimes, players know best.” 

Sunday’s moment, however, was in honor of her angel. Staiti’s career day happened because Mema, her late grandmother, cheered her on from above and made her presence felt at the arena.

Ann Reda, 79, is remembered by a bright purple wristband that is strapped onto Staiti’s ankle. Her eternal love is the fuel for the senior to flourish.

“There are moments where Jenna is playing for her,” Taylor said. “On a day like this, Jenna knows she has made her proud.”


Knowing Mema’s love

The oldest Staiti siblings, Jenna and Jimmy, grew up about a 10-minute drive from Reda’s house. Every weekend until they turned about 12 or 13, they’d spend nights at Mema’s house.

They got older and busy as time went on, but the sleepovers continued on occasion at grandmother’s love with childlike joy. A few years later, the youngest child Jillian came along and became Reda’s new buddy. Her adoration lived on through the third grandchild.  

Reda (who we might as well refer to as ‘Mema’ from here on out) was their second mother and an extension of their mom Sandi’s love. Mema shamelessly showed her love to Jenna, Jimmy and Jillian at any opportunity she saw.

“They were her babies,” Sandi Staiti said. “They were always her munchkins. She radiated with pride over her grandchildren.”

Mema didn’t have the greatest athleticism. She grew up as a dancer, and Sandi isn’t sure where the athleticism to play volleyball at Providence College came from. Nonetheless, Mema had a steep learning curve when learning about basketball when Staiti transitioned from swimming — which had a basic concept of who could touch the wall first — to hoops as an eighth grader.

Staiti would get a text message from her grandmother that would say something like “Such a great job with all of those points!” 

Mema tried though. She was going to show her support for her granddaughter in every way she could. She downloaded the ESPN app, kept up with her games at Georgia and Maryland, and took advantage of attending a lot of games at Stegeman Coliseum over Staiti’s first few years as a Lady Bulldog.

Not only did Mema show support for Staiti, but she stayed on top of things with her coach, too.

“Her grandmother was such a classy lady,” Taylor said. “I can hear her in my head giving a compliment on my outfit or something. After the game, I'd see her in the locker room, and she'd say ‘Those pearls you had around your neck today were beautiful.’”

In late July, Mema lived through her final days. Staiti got to return home to her family in Cumming, because Taylor wouldn’t have it any other way despite the numerous Covid-19 protocols in place. Staiti got to spend a final week with their grandmother before her passing.

She moved on from her home into a hospice facility, but they said farewell in the same way that their bond grew. They had sleepovers.

Sandi said her children were their best in the family’s toughest moment. They spent every moment with Mema in her room. They took turns, and nobody wanted to leave. Everyone had their night with Mema, except for the youngest, Jillian. Sandi had some pause, because she didn’t want anything to happen with only the youngest child by her side. So, Jimmy joined her. They got their night with Mema as if they were kids.

On the one night nobody stayed with Mema, she passed. As Sandi’s mother and grandmother of her three beloved “munchkins,” it was her last protective act.

“It all came full circle,” Sandi said.


The pain of goodbye

Mema was in her third battle with cancer. She had breast cancer at the age of 42. She had leukemia for eight years, then went into remission. Her latest battle with Myelodyplastic syndrome (MDS) was her latest victory into heaven.

On Aug. 4, two days after her 79th birthday, she passed after many days, months and years from the disease that doesn’t produce enough healthy blood cells in the bone marrow.

“She’s a warrior,” Sandi said. “She should’ve been gone eight years ago (after leukemia).”

Staiti and her siblings have never experienced the passing of someone close to them, until one of their closest loved ones made a farewell after 79 years and two days on Earth. Many of her moments were with beloved grandchildren by her side.

Mema’s disease worsened in 2019, but began to reach a critical stage in January of last year. Sandi made sure her mother didn’t do too much with Covid-19 and all of its risks to those with underlying medical conditions.

But you’d never know it.

“It meant everything to have her presence. She'd have the worst day and in so much pain, but she'd still be the happiest person I know,” Staiti said. “She was so loving and caring.”

Staiti always saw her grandmother in the best shape, regardless of her condition. Sandi said Mema was always “dressed to the nines,” even if her pain level indicated that efforts to dress formally weren’t worth it.

Even at the time of her passing, Sandi was told that there were no signs of immediate death. They thought she had a few more days. Mema didn’t want anyone to know it was time to go.

“She's a fighter,” Staiti said. “She fought ‘til her last breath and loved us in every moment.”

After Mema’s passing, the Staiti family went to her house to collect her belongings. The Staitis have two dogs, Auto and Suzie, who Jenna adores and cherishes every moment with. They bolted into Mema’s house and bolted up the stairs. They expected her to be there to greet her “grandpuppies” with love, like she did with everyone else.

She was gone, but watching from above.

“They were looking for her,” Jenna said. “That hit me so hard. She was such an amazing woman who died so quickly.”


‘A piece of her is on me’

Staiti moved into a new apartment complex in August while the family grieved the loss of Mema. Her family unpacked everything to put in her unit, and Mema showed up.

Staiti randomly found a letter from her as she transferred from Maryland to Georgia to be closer to her loved ones. She’s not sure how it got there, because she thought it had been thrown away a long while ago.

It became a prized possession. Staiti carries it everywhere.

Dearest Jenna,

I wish you all of the BEST in your ventures at UGA! I’m so happy you’ll be near home, and I’ll get to see you more often.

I’m so proud of you and love you with all my heart, always & forever.

Be all YOU CAN BE and I know that will be your be your BEST! I’m proud to be your Mema, and you’re in my prayers always.

XOXO

Every moment of sadness. Every hardship. Every negative thought. Every frustration, Staiti takes a moment to reflect. She reads the letter. She talks to Mema in her own way. She’s reminded that her presence is there.

“She appreciated everything in her life,” Staiti said. “She didn't have it all. She took every little thing and made it the biggest. I have to be so grateful. That's one person who did not deserve to die.”

In the days before the Lady Bulldogs’ season began, Staiti struggled. She had a tough time coping with the loss of her Mema. It was also around the time of Sandi’s birthday, and everyone faced challenges with the loss and all of the circumstances surrounding it.

Taylor began to brainstorm. The fall semester was in full swing, and Georgia opened its season on Nov. 25 in the midst of a pandemic. Staiti couldn’t go back home with her family, but she had plenty of anxieties — missing her grandmother and worried about her mother, Sandi.

“We sat around one day and I said ‘Listen, what can we do?’ What can we do to honor your Mema?’” Taylor said. “We want to give you comfort and remind you that she's still here with you. She will always be in your heart.”

All Taylor had to do was look down at her wrist. She suffered a loss of her own over the summer. Her best friend’s mother, Catherine Jones, lost her battle with cancer. Taylor called Jones her “second mom,” because of everything she did for the Georgia coach and her best friend, Angela Jones.

After Catherine’s passing, they had the idea of pink wristbands. They passed them out to family, friends and loved ones at the graveside service. Taylor put it on her wrist as a reminder of Catherine’s presence. She hasn’t taken it off once.

Taylor shared the idea with Staiti. She gave her a website and the responsibility to create them for family and friends. A symbol of Mema’s love was born forever.

“I will eternally be her biggest advocate. Everything she does is incredibly touching,” Sandi said of Taylor. “It's those intangibles that make the difference.”

The bright purple bracelet reads “Love, Mema” and “forever and always” in her handwriting. Staiti plays each game with the band strapped around her right ankle.

Mema is still there to watch basketball, but from a different seat.

“It goes a long way for me. It feels like a piece of her is on me,” Staiti said. “It doesn't feel right when I don't have it on.”

Twenty-two games and months of hardship passed before Sunday’s regular-season finale at Florida. She strapped on the wristband one more time, and Staiti got her blessing from Mema.

A career-high night.

“It’s all for her,” Staiti said.

After the game, Staiti probably had a message written to her from above. Much like the ones Mema sent many times before.

“You did that, Jenna!!” Mema wrote. “I proudly enjoyed watching you play! I loved you in the past, love you in the present and will love you into the future — always.”