Jaiden McCoy was ready to quit.
McCoy’s senior season at Farragut was limited to one game after suffering a concussion, just six days after signing to play basketball for Louisiana Tech on Nov. 11, 2015. Five months later, the 6-foot-2 center asked for her release from her national letter of intent when coach Tyler Summitt resigned.
She rushed to find a new landing spot, with Ole Miss and Virginia Tech extending offers.
McCoy had formed a great relationship with Hokies coach Dennis Wolff, who had offered her a scholarship previously. However, Wolff was fired in March 2016 in the middle of McCoy’s search. She still elected to sign with Virginia Tech for academic reasons, but McCoy said she didn’t mesh with the new coach, Kenny Brooks, or any of the players. McCoy left Blacksburg one week before official practices began.
A long and winding road through four schools in two years, including a hiatus from basketball, led McCoy to Tennessee and back to her hometown, where her college journey will end after the 2020-21 season.
“It’s really a dream come true,” McCoy told Knox News. “It’s just awesome to be in my hometown playing in front of the crowds I grew up cheering with. It’s just surreal.”
‘I thought I was done’
After leaving Virginia Tech, McCoy returned to Knoxville and enrolled at Pellissippi State College and traded basketballs for a price gun at Old Navy.
“Right after I left Virginia Tech, I thought I was done,” McCoy said. “I was over it. My college experience was crummy from the get-go.”
Although she was happy to be around family in her hometown, and everything felt “normal,” she was not satisfied.
“I was like, this isn’t for me,” McCoy said. “I was missing something, and it was basketball. I just missed playing, and I had such a love for it. I was like, I need it back in my life.”
She and her father, Maxteen, started scouting junior colleges because McCoy had to finish her associate’s degree before attempting to play Division I again.
Northwest Florida coach Bart Walker got in contact with McCoy. He knew several of her former summer league coaches and had watched McCoy play basketball since middle school.
Walker, whose coaching resume includes stops at Tennessee Tech, Chattanooga State, Motlow State and Hiawassee, said that he met McCoy and her father at a Starbucks near West Town Mall and convinced her to take a visit.
“The one thing that I really liked about Jaiden is she had a lot of toughness,” Walker said. “She just plays very hard and physical, and she’s a coachable player. The best trait that I could say is that she’s got an inner desire to play.”
In June 2017, McCoy found a new home in Niceville, Florida.
Her first season back on the basketball court in almost two years ended abruptly after four games when she fractured the left femur near the hip. McCoy needed surgery, and what was a promising freshman season, was finished.
McCoy’s parents did not tell her at the time, but after the surgery, doctors said they would be surprised if she ever walked normally again, let alone played basketball.
“I was not in the state of mind where I was going to give up,” McCoy said. “After I got hurt, I was like, OK, cool, I just need to rehab and get back to where I’m supposed to. I never thought of quitting again. That never came to my mind.”
McCoy made good on her promise. She was back in the lineup for Northwest Florida’s 2018-19 season opener on Nov. 3, more than 12 months after the surgery. After the game, she said her parents, both crying, told her how close her playing career was to being finished.
It was quite a comeback. McCoy was named first-team All-Panhandle Conference, averaged 10.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game and helped the Raiders advance to the Elite Eight of the NJCAA Tournament. She drew attention from schools such as Missouri, Kansas State and St. John’s.
Prior to a scheduled visit to Missouri, McCoy was told by Walker that Tennessee was interested. She immediately canceled the Missouri trip for an impromptu return to Knoxville.
Shortly afterward, newly hired Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper called McCoy while she was on an official visit to St. John’s with a scholarship offer in hand and her father in her ear. McCoy said all they talked about was committing to the Lady Vols.
On May 19, 2019, McCoy made it official.
“I didn’t need to waste my time with all these other schools,” McCoy said. “When I told my parents, they were like, ‘You could be home. You could be playing for your dream school,’ and I was like, ‘Of course.’ You can’t say no when Tennessee calls.”
She started in Tennessee’s season opener in 2019-20, suffering a broken pinky diving for a loose ball against East Tennessee State. The injury caused her to miss the next four games.
Although she didn’t earn her starting position back, McCoy appeared in almost every game, especially when the Lady Vols needed some toughness under the basket, averaging 2.7 points and 1.8 rebounds per game.
“Her freshman year, she took a leap of faith and came here with us and we turned the program around,” Walker said. “I’m just really happy for her because, again, she’s fought adversity; now here she is living out her dream playing for the Lady Vols.”
‘You can never stop talking about it’
The way McCoy explains it, she has grown up hearing people tell her she’s “too white.”
Maxteen McCoy is Black, and her biological mother, Kristen Blossom, is white.
“I am on the lighter side of the mixed side,” McCoy said. “I have always been told that I look more white, which I’ve always hated because I’m mixed and I identify as being mixed, so I never like when people just try to tell me I’m too white, or I’m not Black enough.”
McCoy said that the death of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality have led to conversations with friends and family about racial injustice.
While McCoy said she never experienced prejudice growing up, she’s seen and heard of her family’s experiences.
“It’s just so heartbreaking that people can hate you just because of the color of your skin,” McCoy said. “It hurts. I’ve cried with my dad, my sister, my mom. I’ve shed many tears over this topic because that’s not OK. It’s never been OK.”
McCoy hopes that she can be a resource to anyone in need.
“I’ve said the same thing with my teammates, my coaching staff, like everybody,” McCoy said. “I’m here. I’m always going to be supporting you, no matter what.”