Jalen Joiner

Playing for Mom

Freshman Jalen Joiner lost his mother right after receiving his Lees-McRae offer letter, but he knows she's still his biggest fan

When Jalen Joiner, a freshman on the men’s basketball team, received his offer letter from Lees-McRae as a 17 year old in Greensboro, North Carolina, he had no idea that in six days his life would change. 

Joiner, the second oldest of five children, fell in love with sports at a young age due to encouragement from his father, who played basketball, and his mother, who wanted him to stay active. 

“My parents were very big on me playing sports, especially my mother," said Joiner. “She wanted me to play anything I was really interested in and to stay active. She did not want me to be lazy.”

As Joiner’s focus shifted from football to basketball during his freshman year, his mother became a staple at his games and watched her son battle game in and game out—all while facing her own battle.

"My mother developed cancer my freshman year in high school," said Joiner. "Playing in front of her, knowing what she was going through, made me play harder every single time I was on the court. Every loose ball that I would dive on, I would think of my mother. Just knowing that she fights every day…why shouldn’t I."

After playing for two years and making a name for himself in the basketball world, Joiner drew the attention of Lees-McRae Head Men’s Basketball Coach Steve Hardin and his assistant coach Desean Motley. 

“Recruiting Jalen was a dream,” said Hardin. “He was always engaging and appreciative of our time and effort. Jalen is a man of god and had to grow up early in his life. He is the type of young man we look for in our program. High energy and high effort kid that is a selfless player. He embodies our FIRE culture.”

Once Joiner received the offer letter, his first instinct was to show the person who was a driving force in helping him achieve this honor. 

“I showed my mother the offer letter and she was ecstatic,” said Joiner. “She knew this was something I had been working for and it had finally come to fruition. It is just really crazy to think about today, because this was the only offer letter she was able to witness.”

Jalen’s mother passed away six days later on Oct. 8, 2018.

“I didn’t know where I was in life in the first few days after my mother passed away,” said Joiner. “Having a mother for 17 years of my life and then just waking up and not having her the next day is really tough.”

Joiner ultimately found peace on the hardwood and played every game during his junior year as a testament to the perseverance she had to make sure Joiner continued to do what he loved. 

 "Basketball is what I loved," said Joiner. "Not having her in the stands in those first couple of games was tough, especially with big accomplishments not feeling the same without her there. I know she wasn’t there physically, but I know she was there spiritually. I just kept my head forward and my focus on the future."

Besides basketball, Joiner’s support system of four sisters and his grandmother helped him continue to thrive on the basketball court. 

“As the only boy in my household, I had to set a good example to my sisters,” said Joiner. “My grandmother knew how much I loved basketball and she did everything she could to help me through this situation. I thank her every day for this. I am not sure where I would be without her and my sisters.”

As his high school career came to an end, Joiner realized that he had a future home at Lees-McRae thanks in large part to Coach Steve Hardin and Coach Desean Motley. 

“The love that I received from Coach Hardin and Coach Motley was incredible,” said Joiner. “They stuck by my side from day one and helped me get to where I am today. Even the team—I talked with a few of the guys before arriving in August—gave me support and told me to stay on my path and trust God. I’m incredibly thankful to be here and to be a part of this family.”

Joiner, who is now three games into his career in Banner Elk, sat down virtually with Director of Sports Information Patrick Smith to talk about his life experiences and took a moment to stop and reflect on how his tattoos showcase his journey.

“My tattoos mean a lot to me,” said Joiner. “They are a driving force for me. They are going to be a part of my life forever and every time I look at them I remember what has brought me to where I am in life.”

Those tattoos, including bible verses, a tattoo to honor his mother and godmother who both passed away from cancer,  and elephants on his shoulder to honor his mother, who was a Delta, remind Joiner constantly of the journey from Greensboro to Banner Elk.

“Jalen will become a big-time performer for Dunk Mountain before his career is over,” said Hardin. 

Even though Williams Gymnasium continues to be empty of fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jalen Joiner feels that his number-one fan, his mother, has found a seat in the bleachers to watch every game so far. 

By Patrick SmithJanuary 21, 2021