With a stunning, fluid move that made everybody who saw it do a double-take, the former Regis Jesuit girls basketball star threw down a rim-rattling in-game slam dunk that got transmitted across the globe in mere minutes.
Belibi — then a sophomore, now a freshman at Stanford University — became the first Colorado girls prep basketball player to dunk in a game and her legend spread shortly after a 16-second clip hit Twitter.
“It’s really interesting because you can go from being a nobody to suddenly people know who you are and what you do and are inspired by what you do,” Belibi said. “In a big way, that’s really important, to have people that you can look up to and see them even if it’s on a screen and still be inspired by them.”
Things are done on a screen these days, with great effect, for the good or the bad.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat — free apps piped to smart phones, tablets, laptops and televisions across the globe — have changed the world of athletes of all ages more than any new strategy, philosophy or piece of equipment.
It’s how a soft-spoken, intelligent young lady from a family of physicians (Franck and Suzanne) with an extensive tennis background and very little experience in the game of basketball — just over one year at that point — became a phenomenon in seconds.
Belibi watched video of her dunk on the phone of assistant coach and Regis Jesuit Girls Division Athletic Director John Koslosky in a back hallway outside of a jubilant Raiders’ lockerroom, about the same time it was on its way to screens across the world as part of ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 highlight reel.
Regis Jesuit girls basketball coach Carl Mattei, a mild-mannered native of Canada, had seen a lot of things in his career coaching basketball, but nothing like an event that even got him a message on WhatsApp from the national coach of Cameroon.
“Fran can dunk and by the time we go to Chili’s across the street from Regis, it’s all over the country, it’s everywhere,” Mattei said, shaking his head. “That’s what social media has done. It’s provided opportunities for people to see things that make them go ‘Wow!’ on a positive note. There’s some negatives, too, but on a positive, it’s so exciting.”
Belibi became a social media legend before she was even on it herself and her image was even used (without permission) in an overseas ad campaign.
Her name, picture and videos had been circulated millions and millions of times prior to her advent of the platform. Once she arrived, people found her as her Instagram account has nearly 25,000 followers since she created it in February.
THE PERFECT (VIRAL) STORM
The stands in the Regis Jesuit Girls Division gym sat largely empty for a nondescript, non-league girls basketball game on a crisp December night against a winless Grand Junction team that had to travel four hours and brought very few people along.
The stage lacked luster, but it provided the impetus for a dunk seen round the world that became the eye of perfect social media storm.
In the midst of a game that was quickly turning into a blowout, Belibi decided she would give dunking a try after getting a steal near midcourt and breaking toward the basket ahead of the field.
People love dunks to begin with, but when they come from a bespectacled high school hooper — a female, no less — they go crazy. Ten years ago, Belibi would have appeared on SportsCenter, eventually, but it might have taken a video tape mailed and plenty of prep and editing time before it made the airwaves.
Such a meteoric rise to the top of social consciousness has never been possible for an athlete — prep, college or professional — the way it is now.
From the first dunk until the end of Belibi’s prep career, Regis Jesuit girls basketball games became major events. Hordes of people with camera phones at the ready watched her intently every time she touched the basketball and rose from their seats when she had even a little bit of a head of steam towards the basket.
Belibi fed the hungry social media beast with nearly a handful of dunks — all of which went viral at some level — but most notably a tomahawk jam on the run in a huge contest against Grandview and her finish of an alley-oop dunk thrown by teammate Avery VanSickle.
“Fran is unique; to have a guy get the response that she got, they would have to do something otherworldly,” said Matt Langley of popular local blog Basketball Colorado and a frequent social media user in the world of hoops.
“She was so unique as a high school girl dunking and she’s smart, so she checks every single box that you need for perfect viral material,” he added. “She had everything that goes into making it such a unique story.”
Belibi picked up hundreds and hundreds of college scholarship offers and chose the athletic and academic package offered by Stanford. Belibi went on to earn McDonald’s All-American honors — only the second Aurora player ever to do so following former Grandview star Michaela Onyenwere — won the Powerade Slam Dunk contest on national television and was then was immortalized at the Aurora Sports Park by SportsCenter’s Hometown Top 10 campaign.
WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY
Social media is a double-edged sword of good and bad that slices both ways for athletes as much as anybody else and often with high stakes.
For every Belibi-like success story that is furthered by the social media tidal wave, there are many others with the opposite effect that cost athletes, coaches and others involved in organizations dearly.
With a camera and a microphone in hand 24 hours per day and the ability to weigh in on every single flavor-of-the-day issue from politics to religion to racism to violence and everything in between, the dangers are real.
It can be a swirling world for athletes — especially those still in school — who have to maintain the grades to be eligible, work hard on their sport and promote themselves properly to the college programs they hope will take a look, while at the same time trying to fit in with their peers.
At the prep level, the majority of the responsibility of educating players falls on the coaches. They certainly care about the wellbeing of their players, but they also have to look out for the reputation of their programs as well.
Grandview boys lacrosse coach Scott Hussey has seen the good of social media, but also became acquainted with its worst in a recent incident.
“There was a coach who was fired from another school and from his coaching job for retweeting a video with a racial slur in it,” Hussey said. “That violated school district policy and his club’s policy. It’s an example of how very dangerous social media is, even for adults.
“We talk about that all the time with our guys and bring up that example. A coach lost his ability to do the thing he loved, his job and his ability to work with young people over literally a 1-second mistake when he hit a retweet button. That is a sad, but unfortunate reality in the world we live in. Even a 1-second mistake can cost you a job, a scholarship and the ability to do what you love.
“We ask our guys to pause before they hit that retweet button to make sure what they are about to do won’t hurt them or anyone else in our program.”
Smoky Hill boys basketball coach Anthony Hardin is young, but has an old school mentality when it comes to the social media use of his team.
He knows that fighting against the use of social media is futile, so he asks his players to never post something they wouldn’t say in real life.
“Social media is extremely powerful on both extremes, the good and the bad,” Hardin said. “It’s a reality and it’s not going anywhere, so I do my best to go out in front of the curve. Instead of trying to react, I try to work around what is going to happen.”
Hardin maintains the team’s social media account for informational purposes — scores and highlights go out every quarter during the Buffaloes’ contest, as supplied by coaches or other team personnel — but he won’t have a personal Twitter account for a very calculated reason.
“That’s a lose-lose situation for me to be who I am in the community and for me to express my personal opinions in public like that,” Hardin said. “Some people are going to agree with you and some people aren’t going to agree with you, so at the end of the end of the day, there’s no winning there.”
PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS WATCHING
Young athletes with professional aspirations should know, if they don’t already, that somebody is always watching what they do and say digitally.
They don’t exactly know who is watching, however.
Seth Medvin, Senior Strategic Communications Manager for the Denver Broncos, spends a good amount of time monitoring the social media use of the organization’s current players as well as that of any potential prospects the team might be looking to draft or sign.
Many things he sees throw up big red flags for Medvin.
“Concerning behavior includes illicit drugs, drinking, profanity and dangerous situations,” Medvin said. “In addition, you can see from athletes’ social media use the way they interact with teammates, who their friends are and how often they use social media.”
Medvin gave a short presentation on use to a segment of athletes in a variety of fall sports who attended the Broncos’ High School Media Day event in August. Among the local groups to hear it were the football teams from Eaglecrest and Grandview.
It’s virtually impossible for just about anybody — especially young people, who are influenced and pressured in so many ways — to be totally perfect on social media. Some, however, have a standard they always measure what they post against.
Former Eaglecrest softball star Rachel Sabourin, a 2019 graduate now at the University of Hawaii, uses social media every day — Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat — mostly to keep up with friends and family and follow her favorite female athletes and the New York Yankees.
As far as her own postings, she got social media training in house from her mom, Kathy.
“When I first created my social media accounts, my mom told me, ‘Before you post something, would your grandparents approve of it or would they not like it?,’” Sabourin said. “That kind of stuck in my head just because I wouldn’t want my grandparents to be disappointed in me or feel uncomfortable about something.
“It also keeps me from posting or even thinking about doing something stupid.”
The current generation of high school-aged athletes on social media get the benefit of seeing the ramifications of others’ mistakes play out in front of them.
Well-publicized situations involving Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Josh Hader at the 2018 Major League Baseball All-Star Game to former Villanova men’s basketball star Donte DiVencenzo after the NCAA national championship game — both involving objectionable tweets unearthed from many years in the past — provided stark examples.
Neither athlete lost their chances of playing professionally, but a firestorm surrounded both of them for some time because of it.
“A lot of older people say they are glad social media wasn’t around when they were young, because we made poor choices,” Langley said. “They just weren’t around on a social media platform to be seen 10 years later. I taught for 17 years and kids aren’t thinking about their career on a day to day basis when they are in high school. They are trying to think about what decisions they can make so they can go have fun on Friday.”
Added longtime Rangeview boys basketball coach Shawn Palmer: “It’s hard for high school-aged kids to really view the future. They have enough trouble deciding what they are going to have for lunch, let alone think about something that they do now affects them 10 years from now. Some of them are learning from others’ mistakes. That’s a pretty valuable way to learn as opposed to learning from your own mistakes. Seeing other people say things or get caught up in things they can’t come back from helps them learn from those missteps.”
BULLETIN BOARD MATERIAL
Motivation for athletes comes in many forms, but nothing is quite so powerful as perceived slights from opponents.
“Bulletin board material” as it is termed has gone from things overheard to things seen in public on social media feeds.
Those things do not go unnoticed, by his team at least, according to Grandview volleyball coach Rob Graham.
“I know that when my athletes see something posted about our team that puts us down, or makes fun of us, they all seem to be aware of it and seem to be a bit more motivated to beat that team,” Graham said.
THE GOOD EDGE OF THE ‘SWORD’
While the use of social media can certainly trip up an athlete or coach if not done right, it can be used for a great amount of good.
A Sentinel Colorado survey of mostly former Aurora prep athletes found that most believe the positives of social media vastly outweigh the negatives.
Earning a college scholarship is the main goal of many serious prep athletes who sink so many hours and money into the process, so earning that first look from college program is the goal and social media makes that possible like it never has before for athletes.
The play may stand out on the field or court, mat or diamond, pool or pitch or rink, but as soon as an athlete is on the radar, college coaches know exactly where to go to find out just about anything they want to know.
Steve Smiley, an associate head coach on Jeff Linder’s staff with the University of Northern Colorado men’s basketball team for the past four years, has appreciated the ability to pick out the good recruits from the potentially risky ones in short order. An easy to find, carefully crafted social media account can be a big boon to an athlete.
“You see a kid at an event where there’s a lot of kids out there and you can search them real quick on your phone,” Smiley said. “I think the ability to gather that information quickly is definitely a positive. It’s basically their resume.
“Back in the day, we all had these one sheets of paper for our resumes. Now, the first thing a potential employer looks at is social media. They start with that and go from there.”
In the past, athletes had to wait for television highlights or newspaper clips to bring attention to their exploits and while those things still help, they aren’t as necessary.
Even a video clip taken from a spectator and posted to Twitter or Instagram could lead to big visibility for an athlete.
“I haven’t heard somebody say my Twitter or IG post got me a scholarship at a school, but I would say that those posts have gotten some intrigue going,” Langley said.
From an information standpoint, social media feeds are invaluable.
Hardin’s Smoky Hill boys basketball account puts out links to live feeds, scores per quarter and highlights for friends and family who can’t make it to the games.
Vince Orlando brought the Eaglecrest athletic department into the new age when he borrowed on some previous experience he had at a school in Southern California and set up the Eaglecrest Athletics account on Twitter.
It’s the school’s only official social media athletic outlet, but it boasts more than 3,400 followers that gives it by far the greatest presence among the athletic departments in Aurora high schools who use it (a group that includes Cherokee Trail, Gateway, Overland, Rangeview, Smoky Hill and Vista PEAK). Grandview and Regis Jesuit include sports updates and news on the school’s general accounts.
“I think you want it to be really informational, where games are being played, what time and all that,” Orlando said. “A lot of it is feeding information, but the other piece is raising the profile of our programs in the community and the good things our teams and athletes are doing.”
At the recently completed 5A boys state golf tournament, Orlando walked the Pinehurst Country Club course with Raptors’ freshman Andrew White, giving near hole-by-hole updates along with the school’s boys golf team account manned by assistant golf coach John Olander.
Orlando — who maintains the Twitter account using information from events he attends as well as scores and stats he gets from other administrators at other events — said Eaglecrest teams aren’t required to have a social media account, but about 95 percent of them do.
Palmer now has two social media accounts to update after he took over as the school’s athletic director in the offseason for now-retired Vic Strouse.
He doles out information about his program — which won the 2018-19 Class 5A state championship — and finds strong reaction from the community when it comes to good news or even when the program holds a fundraiser.
Medvin believes that social media use is positive 99 percent of the time when it comes to professional athletes, at least as far as the Broncos are concerned.
“From an outside perspective, the amount of money (Houston Texans star) J.J. Watt raised for Hurricane Harvey through a social media campaign would rank near the top of positive social media use,” he said. “We see positive social media use from Broncos players daily and it is important to reinforce positive behavior in person.”