BERKELEY, Calif. – Gennifer Brandon is on the rise -- literally and figuratively.
The 6-2 junior forward is blossoming into a star for Cal, which is having its best season ever, but there was a time when it looked like she would not even go to college.
Her father, Gregory Brandon, a 1984 Seattle Sonics draft pick, was shot and killed in 1997 when he was mistakenly believed to be an armed robbery suspect. After a few years of living in and out of hotels, her mother had to put her and her siblings up for adoption. Gennifer and her sister Kimberly were adopted by her club coaches at the time Michelle and Andre Chevalier.
“Gennifer and her older sister (Kimberly) had just started playing club basketball with our team,” says Michelle Chevalier. “We knew that things were tough at home when we had to pick them up to come to practice and tournaments and as we spent time with them, we spoke to their mother Valencia. We could help them achieve their goals, including helping them get an education and a degree. Eventually, Valencia agreed,”, and Michelle and Andre Chevalier adopted the two girls.
“It was a hard time,” says Gennifer, “but it was good for my sister (Kimberly) and me. “The Chevaliers were great.They exposed us to a different culture than what we were used to.They gave us some stability in our lives helping us with school, basketball and putting food on the table.”
Gennifer says that being adopted and going through this experience has really helped her as a player. “It has really taught me never to give up. You never know the outcome unless you push through it and give it your best.”
“Situations like that would harden most people” says Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “It’s the opposite with Gennifer. On the court, she it tough and physical -- off the court, she is one of the sweetest, kindest persons I know.”
When the time came to choose a college, she selected Cal, even though older sister Kimberly was at Arizona State. “I really love my sister, but we had grown up together,” says Gennifer. “I thought it was time for me to become my own person. The coaches at ASU were great, but I also really connected with the Cal staff and players.”
“I recruited Kimberly, Gennifer’s sister, when I was an assistant at Cal,” says Gottlieb. “I knew they would both be good college players, so when I became the head coach at Cal, I already knew Gennifer and how good she was. It was important for me to reconnect with her.”
It’s been important to Cal’s basketball team as well, since Gennifer has developed into one of the leading rebounders in the country. She’s a tremendous leaper and has that rare rebounder’s instinct to get the ball when it seems like she shouldn’t. Gennifer is averaging a double-double this season of 13 points and 11.6 rebounds, the third best rebounder in the Pac 12 and a top 10 rebounder in the nation.
“Gennifer’s biggest strength is her athleticism and knack for finding the ball,” says former WNBA player and Cal assistant Katy Steding. “With her size, skill and speed, she is one of the best athletes on the floor. What’s scary is she has so much room to grow in all aspects of the game.“
“Gennifer works very hard on and off the court,” says Gottlieb. “This past offseason we challenged all of our players to raise their game and improve Cal basketball”, and Brandon’s improvement is noticeable. In fact, her work ethic, fueled in part by her early years of adversity, has molded her into a marquee player.
“Gennifer has been that spark for us,” says Gottlieb, whose Bears are in the hunt for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament – and like Brandon, are on the rise.