Regis Jesuit girls basketball coach Carl Mattei was at home playing with his kids when he received a phone call from one of his assistants.
“Carl,” she said, “Who’s Fran Belibi?”
“Fran Belibi? Mattei responded. “I’ve never heard of her, why?”
“Well, she just dunked at open gym,” Mattei’s assistant told him. “She’s a tennis player who wants to learn to play basketball. She wants to know if she can make the team.”
That September 2015 phone conversation serves as the launching point for one of the more remarkable stories in high school basketball. A girl who could scarcely shoot, pass or dribble as a high school freshman has since emerged as an elite basketball prospect, one who someday could propel the sport forward with her singular ability to play above the rim.
At 15, Belibi became the first Colorado high school girl to dunk in a game. At 16, the 6-foot-1 forward received her first invitation to play for USA Basketball. Last May, she accepted a scholarship offer from Stanford. And then Wednesday night, she unleashed a bolt of athleticism as impressive as any ever seen before in high school girl’s basketball.
In a matchup between the two top-ranked programs in Colorado, Belibi helped Regis Jesuit gain revenge against the team that eliminated her Raiders in the Class 5A state championship game last spring. Belibi scored 32 points, including this one-handed transition slam that left fans in the stands in awe and had one former NBA player comparing her to James Worthy.
“She stole it from a 6-8 kid, took four dribbles and she went up and thundered on that little kid,” Mattei said. “I was calling timeout as fast as I could because the place exploded. There were parents on the court. The referee got knocked down. It gave me goosebumps.”
It’s sometimes difficult for Mattei to believe how dominant Belibi is now because he remembers a time when she was unfamiliar with basketball’s most basic concepts.
The daughter of doctors who immigrated from Cameroon, Belibi grew up in a television-free household with a heavy emphasis on faith, tennis and academics. Not only did she not play any basketball growing up, she also had scarcely even watched the sport either.
When Belibi tried out for the Regis Jesuit basketball team for fun as a high school freshman, she didn’t know a pick and roll from a dinner roll. She was so green that in one of her first varsity basketball games, she celebrated scoring a driving layup … only to realize she’d forgotten to dribble.
“She could run fast and jump high, but that’s all she could do,” Mattei said. “You could pass her the ball, and she’d be so nervous or scared that it would look like she was playing on ice. Her feet would start sliding out from under her.”
Belibi made up ground rapidly on her peers because of her remarkable physical gifts, work ethic and aptitude for learning new concepts. Failure was not an option for a girl with a GPA of over 4.0 and aspirations of becoming a doctor like her parents.
At first she received a crash course in the basics — how to jump stop, pivot and pass with two hands. Then she learned how to use her size, strength and 40-inch vertical leap to bully smaller players and get to where she wanted on the floor. Mattei also called friends with NBA coaching experience to figure out how to best teach someone with such unusually large hands how to shoot.
“She takes what you tell her and the next day she’ll come back and already have it mastered,” Mattei said. “It’s unbelievable. I’ll tell her to work on a baby hook. The next day she’ll have it perfected.”
The more Belibi played basketball, the more frequently she flashed immense potential. By her sophomore year, Belibi averaged a double-double, cracked SportsCenter’s Top Plays segment and had some of women’s basketball’s most prominent college coaches bombarding her with scholarship offers.
While Belibi’s ability to throw down reverse slams and alley-oops in practice has made her a social media sensation, her dunking prowess sometimes wrongfully overshadows the strides she has made in other areas.
No longer does she doubt herself after a missed shot or prefer to defer to her more experienced teammates. Now she boasts the confidence and assertiveness you’d expect from a consensus five-star prospect and McDonald’s All-American candidate.
Belibi is averaging 23.4 points, 15.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals as a senior, propelling Regis Jesuit to a 5-0 start to the season. She’s a powerful interior scorer and fearsome defender and rebounder who’s working diligently to improve her footwork, to learn to attack 1-on-1 off the dribble and to extend her range out to beyond the arc.
“She’s a freak athlete, but she’s not just a dunker,” said recruiting guru Dan Olson, owner of the Collegiate Girls Basketball Report. “She’s really starting to put her game together. People have a really difficult time defending her because she will jump over you and she has such uncanny body control.
“If she can add a 3-point shot to her repertoire with a degree of consistency that makes the defense have to guard her, she’s got the explosiveness off the dribble to blow by her defender.”
If Belibi’s offensive skill set continues to expand, she has a legitimate chance to blossom into a WNBA prospect at Stanford, not that she necessarily aspires to have a pro basketball career. Belibi has told Mattei she intends to pursue her ambitions of becoming a doctor immediately after college, a plan the Regis Jesuit coach hopes she’ll eventually reconsider.
Since women’s professional teams overseas are only allowed to roster two Americans apiece, elite players from other countries are especially valuable on the open market. Belibi’s dynamic game and Cameroonian heritage could someday land her a lucrative contract from a wealthy club in Turkey, China or Russia.
“She always has the medical career to fall back on if she gets hurt or she falters, but I hope she doesn’t limit herself,” Mattei said. “God gave her a gift. I’m hoping she ends up the best doctor in the world, but before she does that, I’d also love to see her at five Olympics winning gold medals. I think she has that kind of potential.”
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