In Denton, Texas, the love runs a mile deep and a half-inch wide. The little green bracelets were Jalie Mitchell’s brainchild, one part mantra, one part message, and one part impassioned plea: #FlyHigh5.
“And it’s a way to remember without always talking about it,” the North Texas women’s basketball coach explained. “You know what you’re saying, you know what you’re meaning, but honestly — which is why I’m the only one talking to you — I have some kids that are still extremely emotional about it. It’s a way to remember it without actually have to go in-depth to talk about it.”
The Mean Green, who play at Rice Saturday on ASN, have worn the bracelets since June as a way to turn the page without ever forgetting the grace and glories of the previous chapter. “Fly High” refers to the old North Texas nickname, Eagles. And to No. 5, Eboniey Jeter, the smile and the spirit soaring above them all.
“She’s a kid that worked her butt off,” Mitchell said of Jeter, the redshirt sophomore forward who was found dead in her dorm room last May 5, a death later ruled a suicide. “And the kids would tell you the same. And the kids would tell you she had the goal to be great.”
Mitchell’s goal was simpler: Trying to piece together a world for players to whom it no longer made much sense. Grief follows no playbook.
“There’s no manual,” said Mitchell, a UNT alum who was handed the keys to the program last April. “They can’t really tell you how to handle it. I just really had to do the best that I could. All I could do, honestly, was just be there for them. You have some tough, and some — for lack of a better term — just some really close-knit conversations. You talk about life and death and when you first (take over) something new, that’s not one of the conversations that you have off the top. I knew I had to adjust and just be there for them, whatever they needed.
“That’s a tough thing for anybody to deal with, much less a college student. I think my staff did an incredible job of just being there.”
New coaches are often inclined to wield a heavy hand, to establish new expectations, new boundaries; players invariably test them. Mitchell thought it best to tread lightly. A team psychologist remained in the frame. There were counseling sessions. Tears. Space and distance, where necessary.
“Which is interesting, because it became so much less about basketball at that time and a lot more about relationships,” Mitchell said.
“But I think it gave us a chance to build that relationship. You’ve (got) a new team, new group of people, new coaches, new rules, new everything. And the amount of time we were able to spend and communicate was helpful, to be quite honest with you. Again, it wasn’t so much about basketball, but it allowed us to form those relationships sooner than we probably would have.”
Which brings us to the other side of the little green bracelet, where Mitchell placed her favorite acronym, “PRIDE.” Passion. Resilience. Investment. Discipline. Excellence.
Another mantra. Another message. Another plea.
“Being an alum, pride was something that I wanted to make sure the team had,” the coach said. “Pride in themselves. Pride in the program. Pride in the university. Just pride in what they brought to the table, pride in leaving a legacy.”
It didn’t take them long to deliver. With a roster reduced to nine bodies — and just six by the end of the contest because of personal fouls — UNT went to No. 17 Oklahoma on November 16 and snatched a 61-57 victory. It was the first in Mean Green history over a ranked opponent, let alone a ranked opponent on the road. The wind beneath these eagles’ wings wasn’t forgotten in the euphoria:
— Acheil Tac (@BIG_A23) November 17, 2015
I got you #5. I got you ? #FLYHIGH5
— Acheil Tac (@BIG_A23) November 17, 2015
That game was for you jeter!! #Flyhigh5 ?????? Our angel!
— BreUnt22 (@BreAnnaDawkins) November 17, 2015
Time heals. But not quickly. Not completely. UNT breaks the huddle with the cry of “Fly High!” The Mean Green plan on presenting Jeter’s family later this year with a certificate honoring her academic achievement.
“We spent a lot more time together and had a lot more intimate conversations,” Mitchell said. “And when they shared grief and are comforted by the people around you, I think it kind of naturally evolves and develops bonds that might otherwise take a little more time. That’s something that brought us closer together. I feel we’ve got really good chemistry. I think my team gets along really well off the court, and that plays a big part of it.”
The smile? It never left. For that matter, neither did the soul.
“Everybody knows,” Mitchell said. “They know what it means. And they know about the Eboniey part and everything, that it means an eagle soaring. I think it’s good to have people involved with it and remind you as well, when you may not be around one another, (to) hear somebody else talking about it. So I think it’s a good reminder.”
To fly. And to never, ever, ever forget.