On March 27, 2013 a buzzer sounded.
It put an end to not only a close fought WNIT Sweet 16 match between the Charlotte 49ers and Florida Gators, but it also brought an end to Jai Forney’s unforgettable playing career. Now, almost three years later, Forney’s days as an energetic guard may be behind her, but the legacy she left behind will live on for an eternity.
“Jai was one of my favorite players to coach, I wish would’ve had more time with her,” 49ers head coach Cara Consuegra said. “She gave you her heart every time she was on the court. Sometimes I’ll look at her and be like ‘I wish we had more eligibility for you.'”
Forney was just a hometown kid when she committed to Charlotte, joining the 49ers in 2009. But in 4 years, the Butler High School graduate would go on to accomplish unprecedented feats, both personally and with her beloved team.
In her freshman year, Forney was named A-10 Rookie of the Week, only the third 49er to achieve the honor. As her strong performances off the bench continued, Forney earned a starting role in four games and played double-figure minutes on 21 occasions.
As a sophomore, she played in a school-record tying 37 games and played an integral part in Charlotte’s most winningest season. Their record 27 wins included four postseason victories encompassing a trip to the WNIT Final Four. Forney cemented herself within the starting lineup in her junior season which included yet another postseason run.
In her final season with the 49ers, Forney helped lead the team on another deep run into the WNIT, playing all three games inside Halton Arena. Additionally, Forney solidified her spot as an extraordinary 49er appearing on Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays for her half-court, buzzer-beating bank-shot on senior night.
However, out of all the accolades Forney collected in her four years at Charlotte, one stands out more than the rest: A school-record 130 games played.
“That’s a credit to her,” Consuegra said. “130 games. She never took a practice off, she never took a day off, she worked her tail off, she wasn’t a kid we ever sat out because she needed a day-to-day to rest. She’s a competitor. She wanted to play and wanted to get better and you see that in her even today.”
It is rare. Not often does a player enter a program at such a young age and provide unparalleled contributions night in and night out. Forney competed in all but one game in her four years. She eluded injury while leaving everything on the floor in both practices and games. She presented the 49ers with a unique style of play. Both head coaches she played under had no choice but to give her the nod for more than a few minutes a night during her years of eligibility.
But what was Forney’s secret?
“Ya know, eating right, being smart, listening to your trainer and getting into that cold Whirlpool even though you don’t want to,” Forney joked when realizing she held the school-record for most games played.
Now, Forney looks back on her time wearing the white 49er jersey with the No. 23, tributed to Michael Jordan, stitched on the chest with smiles. She happily smirks when reminiscing on all the memories of when her peers addressed her as a teammate instead of what she is now: a coach.
Prior to the current season, Consuegra offered one of her favorite players an opportunity to rejoin the team, in a coaching role. Forney was ready and prepared. She completed the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s ‘So You Want To Be A Coach,’ a prestigious program providing future coaches with unrivaled opportunities.
“I already had the feeling that I wanted to be a coach,” Forney said. “Getting the opportunity to come back here, I had to jump on it. Cara offered me it and I couldn’t resist it.”
Forney’s response to the offer was music to Consuegra’s ears.
“We were thrilled to bring her back to the program,” Consuegra said. “She’s part of the winningest class in the history of Charlotte women’s basketball and any time you can bring somebody that has that experience and that success and have her around our young ladies and being a role model is really fun.”
The situation is perfect for Consuegra and the 49ers. Forney is fresh out of the game as a player, admired by her former teammates and new recruits. While some may find it difficult to adjust from playing under a former coach and alongside friends to coaching beside and mentoring them, Forney’s transition has been seamless.
“I think her transition from being a player to a coach has been seamless because her and I have always had a great relationship,” Consuegra said.
But Forney’s role as a coach isn’t a typical one. While serving as coach on Consuegra’s staff, Forney is also working toward achieving a master’s degree in special education.
While she has four years of experience performing the role of a student-athlete, acting as a graduate assistant coach has its similarities but it also poses its own unexpected hardships.
“It almost feels like the same since I’m doing the same exact thing as I was before,” Forney joked. “Minus-ing the playing. The playing part would be the icing on the cake but it feels the same, just doing my part and helping these ladies increase their game.”
Many coaches never played the game, but it’s said that the best coaches are the one’s that have experience on the court. They know the player’s mentality.
To Forney’s dismay, her eligibility expired years ago but that doesn’t stop her from envisioning herself within the ladies on the current roster. In fact, Forney believes that true-freshman Grace Hunter possesses many of the qualities she showcased back in the day, sprinting from end-to-end and cutting to the basket with urgency.
“Freshman, Grace Hunter. That’s my mini-me right there,” Forney said. “I want to sharpen her game and make her an even better player than I was when I was here. I definitely see me in her, in everything she does.”
Much like Hunter’s impactful start to Charlotte’s season, Forney’s mentoring and inclusion is paying off for the 49ers. Tabbed pre-season favorites to contend for the Conference-USA title, the 49ers are in the driver’s seat when it comes to making the most out of their season. And if there’s one player that the 49ers want by their side come playoff time, even if she’s holding the clipboard, it’s Forney.