From Bronx struggles to Bluegrass success

Kentucky Wildcats senior guard Jennifer O’Neil(0) originally from Bronx, NY poses for a portrait during a shoot at the Joe Craft Center in Lexington, Ky. Illustration by Michael Reaves.

By Kevin Erpenbeck

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Every day after school, 10-year-old Jennifer O’Neill raced to her home in the Mitchel Houses in Bronx, N.Y., eager to play a pick-up game of hoops with her brother, cousins and friends. She traded in her backpack, grabbed a ball from her room and ran to the nearest blacktop court to meet up with the guys.

O’Neill didn’t care that her hands had turned a solid black after a couple dribbles of the basketball; the parks of the Bronx were rarely kept clean, causing the residue of the courts to cling to the ball. She was doing what she loved and what she knew she always wanted to do.

“I want to play in the WNBA,” O’Neill said to her mom. “Okay,” her mom said, as if responding to a little kid saying they wanted to be a superhero when they grow up.

But it wasn’t a pipe dream to O’Neill, even at a young age. She made it her goal to become a premiere basketball player, not just someone who plays basketball. No matter how many times she was cut from a team in elementary school, or the difficulties of growing up in a three-kid, single-parent household in the projects of New York, O’Neill was determined to make her dream a reality.

That dream took commitment, though.

In eighth grade, O’Neill was accepted to St. Thomas Aquinas, a prestigious Catholic high school in the Bronx. But at the last minute, O’Neill decided she wanted to attend St. Michael’s Academy, a now-defunct all-girls private school in Manhattan that was known for its basketball prowess.

Her mother, Maritza Robles, had already paid the near $1,000 St. Thomas tuition fee and denied O’Neill’s initial request to switch schools. But as O’Neill kept pushing for it, Robles saw the determination in her daughter to pursue her dream; the same determination that 10-year old O’Neill displayed years ago.

“If you’re going to do this, you’re doing it all the way; no half-assing it,” her mother reminded her before approving the transfer.

O’Neill was going all the way.

That’s when O’Neill met Jerry Powell, a world-renowned basketball mentor in New York. Powell runs a training program called Basketball Results, which helps young athletes develop into better basketball players, according to the program’s website.

Powell saw raw talent in O’Neill, and wanted to help her achieve the “next-level basketball” she was capable of. But the trainer didn’t think that could be accomplished if O’Neill had to travel back-and-forth from school and home. So he asked Robles for O’Neill to make different living arrangements: staying with him on Long Island.

What followed was a basketball mentor becoming a father-figure to a girl who desperately needed one.

“I’m like her dad to her,” Powell said. “I never meant for it to be like that, but that’s the relationship we have. She’s my daughter.”

O’Neill spent most of her high school years with Powell, working out with him every day after school. O’Neill admitted not truly knowing what hard work felt like until she was with Powell.

“I was just a freshman in high school and he kept pushing me to get to that next level,” O’Neill said. “It felt like my lungs were about to burst and I had blood in my throat. I didn’t really understand why he was doing that to me, to a young kid. But I did later.”

Powell wanted O’Neill to become the player that she wanted to be. He wanted the best for his “daughter.”

“I love her, and I knew from Day 1 she could be great,” Powell said. “I thank God every day that I had the opportunity to help her.”

That next level was getting O’Neill to be a McDonald’s All-American, which she was named in 2010. College offers started flowing in to O’Neill after that, including schools like Syracuse, Rutgers, Georgia and UK.

When it was time for her to decide where she would go, O’Neill had narrowed her choices down to Georgia, coached by Hall of Famer Andy Landers, and UK, helmed by Matthew Mitchell. Both Landers and UK assistant coach Matt Insell, who was recruiting for Mitchell at the time, came to a lot of O’Neill’s AAU basketball games to watch her play.

But during one of those games, O’Neill remembered looking toward the first row of seats and noticing that Landers had left and only UK had stayed. That told the guard all she needed to know.

“It showed me that Kentucky really wanted me and that they believed in me,” O’Neill said. “I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”

Mitchell made it his goal to bring the Bronx native to the Bluegrass because, like Powell before, he saw the potential in her and knew she had the desire to be something great.

“We wanted to build this program into something special, and she’s a special player” Mitchell said. “We were on fire to make it happen and make it work.”

And it worked to perfection as O’Neill became the first McDonald’s All-American to play at UK. During her five years with the program, the 5-foot-6 guard helped UK make five straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, including two consecutive Elite Eight finishes, a first for the school. O’Neill also broke UK’s single-game scoring record when she racked up 43 points against Baylor her junior season.

O’Neill’s accomplishments as a player have etched her name into UK’s history, but it’s what she has done as a worker that Mitchell says defines her. O’Neill was asked to become the team leader during her final season at UK and help develop the younger players around her. Freshmen like Jaycee Coe and Alexis Jennings have attributed a lot of their progress during their first year to O’Neill’s teachings.

O’Neill said she wanted her teammates to know that she was there for them; that she could show them how to be a hard worker.

“I wanted to build a relationship with them,” O’Neill said. “The seniors during my freshman year showed me how to be a leader and a role model, and they taught me how to be a better teammate.”

O’Neill’s collegiate career came to an end when the Cats lost to Dayton in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. But O’Neill refuses to quit on the dream she envisioned when she played hoops in the Bronx. The dream of playing in the WNBA is no longer her own hard work. It’s the collective work (and struggles) of those around her during her journey. O’Neill wants to show them that their help was not taken in vain.

But most of all, she wants to use her potential WNBA fame as a means to help those who may need it in the future, just like her “family” helped her.

“I would make a difference in people’s lives, because people did that for me,” O’Neill said. “My mom saw I was ambitious about my dream and believed in me. Jerry didn’t know me and didn’t have to take me in, but he did and took a chance. Kentucky really wanted to have me.

“My struggles were bad, but the good part about it was that I had my family there. That made my accomplishments that much better, because it was me and my family’s accomplishments.”

The first thing O’Neill would do for a future protégé: show them what it means to be a hard worker and to be committed to a dream.

“Never let someone tell you that you can’t do it. I had a lot of people tell me ‘You’re too small’ or ‘Look where you come from. People like you don’t make it,’” O’Neill said. “There’s a point where you feel like you’re born to lose, but when you put all that work in, you’re actually built to win.”