After Joni Taylor finished discussing Georgia’s thrilling win over Tennessee, the Lady Bulldogs’ head coach was greeted by her life’s biggest joy.
Her two-year-old daughter, Jacie Taylor, was carried down to the podium and instantly grinned in search of her mother’s arms. Taylor hoisted Jacie (along with a Tigger stuffed animal that was tightly grasped in her hand) in the air and smiled back.
It was an encounter equally as cherishable as Georgia’s conference win. Taylor was fully attentive to her daughter and the staffers left in the conference room were in awe. Any thought of the game seemed to escape Taylor’s mind for a split second, but Jacie wanted to celebrate.
“G-E-O-R-G-I-A,” she shouted, mimicking her favorite cheer from the game, as she was placed on her mother’s hip while being decked out in red-and-black attire. “Georgia!”
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It marked the third time Jacie’s made a press conference appearance this season, and one-of-many occurrences that Taylor’s daughter is around the Lady Bulldogs. As she’s grown, Jacie has become a fixture around the program and is adored by the players and coaches. Each player has a memory with the two-year-old bundle of energy (although she can be quite shy to the public eye).
The first public appearance came in the season’s opening weekend after beating Winthrop, and Jacie tinkered with the water bottles for five consecutive minutes. After opening the SEC slate against LSU, Jacie was brought in after smothering her face in lip balm, honed in on reporter’s questions and talked to Taylor about who she saw on a recent trip to Disney World: Cinderella, Donald Duck and a few more.
Taylor never intended to bring her daughter into press conferences, but Jacie wouldn’t let go from a hug and gave no choice. On most occasions, Jacie wakes up when her mother is already gone and Taylor comes home when her daughter is asleep. At times, they’ll go two-to-three days without interaction, Taylor said.
While coincidental, they give a glimpse into Jacie’s personality.
“She’s the cutest little thing,” Georgia forward Jenna Staiti said.
Lady Bulldogs’ guard Gabby Connally was at Taylor’s house for a gathering and was sitting outside having a casual conversation with three of her teammates. All of a sudden, Connally felt someone tugging on her hair.
To little surprise, it was Jacie. Darius Taylor, Taylor’s husband, said Connally and Caliya Robinson have the closest relationship with her daughter. They followed Mackenzie Engram, the favorite last season. This bond is centric around the braids, apparently, as that’s how the Lady Bulldogs’ sophomore guard is greeted.
“The first thing she does is reach for my hair — every single time,” Connally said, amazed by Jacie’s fascination.
Now at the age of two and with a greater sense of mobility (although Jacie is frequently attached at a coach’s hip, by her choice), Jacie is around the Lady Bulldogs more often and they wouldn’t want it any other way. She attends practice twice a week, and her latest appearance was full of engagement: Jacie had her wrist taped like she was ready to enter a game (she took it off moments later), she walked onto the court to greet her mother and high-five some players, and finished it off by listening to the “Baby Shark” hit by Pinkfong … but in Spanish.
Jacie will spend time with players at Taylor’s house, and Connally admitted she’ll make her way over to solely spend time with the two-year-old. Jacie will sometimes ask to go to the back of the bus and reveals more of her temperament with players. In fact, Jacie even knows all of the players’ names as she can rattle them off while Taylor points to pictures.
“It’s how their face lights up when (Jacie) walks up,” Taylor said. “The same thing for her, she gets so excited to see them. That’s when you realize the impact she has, both ways.”
Jacie gets to build upon these memories with the Lady Bulldogs in the spring, then does the same in the summer with the Atlanta Dream where Darius is an assistant coach. Jacie may not realize her influence, but the players see it as a lifelong relationship building.
“She’s our little sister,” point guard Taja Cole said.
A learner and competitor
Georgia held a “Toddler Trot” for its halftime entertainment during Sunday’s game against Tennessee. There were two heats of races and the winner of each heat competed against each other for a championship prize.
Jacie ran in the second heat, and while the Taylors weren’t going to claim the reward, their coaching instincts crept in. Darius practiced running with Jacie for two days, and it’s something Cole said she does in practice quite often. There was a strategy, too. As many of the participants were fearful to run, Darius asked Engram, who Jacie hadn’t seen in a long time, to be on the other side with her stuffed animal.
“Jacie’s pretty athletic, I think,” Darius said. “We had to prepare because some of those kids freeze up. I didn’t want her to do that and be uncomfortable.”
There was one more road block, however. Sunday’s game eliminated Jacie’s chances of nap time — an oh-so-valuable luxury for a toddler that some of us later learn was taken for granted. She sat with Darius and Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen and was honed into the first half of the game. She knows the basics of a shot, dribble and a pass, so Jacie is always learning and understanding.
Then, she began to show some signs of missing the midday shut-eye.
“Of course, three minutes before the half, she starts nodding,” Darius said. Jacie would win her heat and finish second after her father said she was “high-stepping” in the final round. “I said, ‘nah, I have to keep you awake.’ She stayed up for the rest of the game, and some of that might’ve been getting some Play-Doh.”
As the daughter of two coaches, it’s quite difficult to not learn the sport, regardless of age. She spends enough time around it, although Connally notices Jacie clapping for things she may not yet understand, too.
Jacie loves to get her hands on basketballs during practice. She’ll try to pass the ball, and has a goal at home that’s low enough to warrant a few dunks. When she asks Georgia players to come play in her tent, it involves more of the sport … or reading books.
“We usually have a basketball in our hands,” freshman Donnetta Johnson said. “We’ll be shooting it around and we’ll yell ‘threeeee.’ Jacie is a fun little girl.”
Taylor carries a focus on any life-related aspect around sports, and is trying to instill that in her daughter. Her belief is that sports can make someone well-rounded and teach camaraderie in regard to dealing with others.
“I hope she falls in love with something involving a ball or sport,” Taylor said. “If it’s basketball, that’d be great, but we aren’t going to pressure her.
Even at a young age, Jacie demonstrates her own interest in sports and being a competitor. She and Darius walked into practice three days after the Toddler Trot, and Jacie was still chirping in excitement.
“I ran to Mack,” she said to Darius, referring to Engram. “I ran to Mack!”
Soon-to-be big sister
Taylor is expecting her second child in February, so it likely isn’t the best time to ask the fourth-year head coach for specific details with a due date swiftly approaching.
“The pregnancy brain is real right now,” Taylor said.
Her per-usual sharp memory might not be present, but the excitement is for Taylor and her husband. The Taylors have been preparing in a couple of ways, too. On the basketball side, Karen Lange will assume head-coaching duties in Taylor’s absence as she did for Jacie’s birth.
Personally, Darius added the need to find a baby name. They’ve formed a list of a few options, but hope to make a decision in order to get Jacie accustomed.
“Right now, all she says is ‘Baby Taylor,’” Darius said.
Georgia players have been excited for the new addition ever since they learned of Taylor’s pregnancy over the summer. The baby’s gender won’t be publicly revealed until the Fast Break Club gathers to guess on it and the exact due date.
“I’m excited to hold her, because I love babies,” Connally said. “But Jacie might to be a little upset that there’s a new little one around the house.”
As the Taylors welcome another addition, Darius said he’s unsure as to whether it’ll be the last. Nevertheless, he’s fascinated by Taylor’s resolve to coach, be a wife, carry a baby and raise one of her own.
When Darius sees those awe-drawing interactions between Taylor and her daughter, it makes him smile as well.
“She does an excellent job and is like a superwoman to wear all these hats,” Darius said. “It’s a hard task and it takes a special person and a disciplined person to do it.”