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Basketball is a family thing for West's Staitis
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West Forsyths trio of Staitis Nick, from left, Jenna and Jimmy continue a family basketball legacy that stretches back two generations. - photo by Brian Paglia

James Staiti never misses a chance to watch his grandchildren play basketball.

Attend any West Forsyth game and you’ll see him in the stands, where he proudly admires Nick, Jimmy and Jenna — all of whom star for the Wolverines, all of whom share a name that, over the course of three generations, has become synonymous with athleticism.

Each Staiti kid brings a distinctive style to the court. Nick, the eldest of the threesome, is a natural shooter. He’ll often eclipse 20 points in a game, most being scored beyond the arc, often in the corners.

Jimmy is a versatile forward, one who uses his soaring vertical and long wingspan to wreak havoc in the paint. He’ll dunk when given the chance, authoring highlight reel plays that few teenagers his size are capable of executing.

Jenna, the youngest, dominates at center in ways few girls can. When healthy she’s all but a guaranteed double-double in every contest and is often impossible to guard by high school opponents.

Indeed, the Staitis have grown into quite a formidable trio, one known throughout the county for their prowess on the hardwood. And while there are many who will be quick to praise any one of them, their coaches may be the Staitis’ biggest fans.

"[Nick and Jimmy] are fantastic basketball players," said West boys head coach Jim Cook. "They’re both one-of-a-kind athletes, and they work so well together — just a treat to watch."

"Jenna owns the paint at both ends of the floor," said Lady Wolverines head coach David May. "There isn’t another girl out there like her."

Twice blessed

Though Grandpa Staiti is now resigned to the bleachers, he was once a star himself: back when basketballs had laces and a foul was needed to complete a three-point play.

He played college ball at Loyola, which was at the time part of the now-defunct Mason-Dixon Conference. According to Loyola’s website, James ranks 18th in school history in single-season field goal percentage (.5311), accomplished during the 1954-55 campaign.

James was fortunate to play against some elite competition during his tenure with the Greyhounds, including George "Mr. Basketball" Mikan, Richie Regan and Maurice Stokes, all NBA All Stars in their heydays.  

Now in his late 70s, James takes pride in seeing his family fall in love with the game he grew up with—a trend he began long ago as a child.

"I’m twice blessed," he explains. "Once for my own sons, and once for my grandchildren. They’ve all been wonderful athletes.

"That’s unique; not everybody gets to say that."

Jim and Joe both went to Marist in Atlanta, though their age gap prevented them from suiting up together in high school. Growing up, the two were competitive, their sibling rivalry fueling their competitive desires from a young age.

Jim went on to play college ball at Presbyterian, and Joe played for Armstrong Atlantic.

Jim is the father of Jenna and Jimmy; Joe, the father of Nick. The kids very much resemble their parents—both in appearance and in skill set—though their paths to success were very different.

Even though Jim Sr. trained Joe and Jim in basketball from an early age, Nick, Jimmy and Jenna were never pressured into playing. In fact, none of the three played competitively until middle school.

But eventually, all three gravitated to basketball. Nick decided to quit baseball before high school, and Jimmy quickly followed suit. Despite being a nationally-ranked swimmer, Jenna gave up that pursuit as well.

"I remember asking Jimmy, ‘Are you sure about this?’" Jim recalls. "And he says ‘Yeah dad, I’m sure. I want to play basketball’ And I’m thinking ‘Thank God!’"

Nick, Jimmy and Jenna could have been pushed into basketball the way Jim and Joe were, but raising superstars was never the family’s main prerogative. Fun always took priority over everything else.

For the Staitis, that approach has paid off.

"You don’t want to force them [into basketball]," Jim said. "You want them to do it because they love it. We always want our kids to enjoy what they’re doing.

"They came around and chose basketball, so it all worked out well."

Different paths

Unlike most boys, Nick and Jimmy have never been competitive with each other; rather, the two prefer to be partners. Off the court, they might be found driving about looking for train whistles for their pickup trucks or starting small fires in Jimmy’s backyard.

On the court, they’re frequently working together to generate offense. Nick is able to get the ball to Jimmy down low better than anyone else, and Jimmy always seems to find Nick open along the perimeter.

The chemistry between the two is one rooted in a lifelong friendship, built before either picked up a basketball.

"It’s instinctual," said Jimmy and Jenna’s mother, Sandi, who was a Division I volleyball player at Providence. "On the court they know how to find each other in ways others don’t."

Jimmy and Nick’s future is cloudy, as is typically the case for boys basketball players at their age. They’ll continue to play AAU with the hopes of catching the attention of some colleges.

It’s a difficult process, and is terribly unfair. If one’s AAU team isn’t strong enough to go far in tournaments, it’s difficult to get noticed by college coaches. Rarely will scouts show up to high school games, which can serve as a strong barometer of one’s ability.

Jenna’s future is far clearer. In three years she’ll head to college on a full ride to play for one of the premier women’s basketball programs in the country.

And the story of how she received that scholarship is a good one.

After a successful freshman year at West, Jenna visited several Division I schools to speak with coaches and showcase her talents.

No school, however, resonated with her the way Maryland did. College Park quickly became a place she could see herself at down the road. While spending a night in the Maryland dorms, Jenna texted her dad to express just how much she liked the school.

"She said, ‘I love this place, Dad, I don’t want to go anywhere else," Jim explained. "She had never done that before when visiting schools."

During this conversation, it came up that they had a meeting the next day with Lady Terps head coach Brenda Frese. Jenna asked her father what he thought the meeting would be about. He said he didn’t know.

Except he did.

Earlier in the day, Frese came up to Jim and told him they were going to offer Jenna a full scholarship. The coach’s one request, though, was to keep it a secret. One of her greatest pleasures is to offer kids scholarships—to see that immediate reaction on their faces and celebrate the good news.

So Jim obliged, and told a white lie when Jenna sent questions his way. The next morning they met Frese for a private meeting, which would go down as one of the proudest moments the family has ever experienced.

"The hair was up and down my back," Jim said. "It was just unbelievable."

‘The life for us’

Indeed, the talent in the Staiti family has only grown with each generation. And while Nick, Jimmy and Jenna have already accomplished so much, the best may be yet to come.

"We have the perfect storm," said Sandi. "Great kids, great coaches and great parents."

The Staitis weren’t required to be basketball players, but they were required to be athletes. Being involved with sports has shaped this family in countless ways.

"They don’t have a choice," Jim said. "Sports are great; they help you in your job, in your life, in your family, in making your friends.

"That’s the life for us, and we absolutely love it."