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April 18, 2008

Brandon Jennings: Safe & Sound

| Tough Neighborhood, Tough Love | City on the Move | The Realization | From the Flatlands to the Hill | Back on the Block |

More than 13 years ago, Compton-based rapper David Blake's third album "Safe + Sound" was one of many that resonated with hip-hop fans during the popularity peak of California-based "West Coast gangsta rap" music. On the album's featured track, Blake, better known as D.J. Quik, spoke about the perils of growing up on the streets of Compton's west side and how money was his safe haven against deceiving friends, religious misconceptions and against the false pretenses of love and happiness made by materialistic women.

For D.J. Quik, and those with similar experiences to the ones described in his lyrics, money was the key in staying grounded and yet progressing. In the case of 2008 EA SPORTS Boys Basketball National Player of the Year Brandon Jennings, it's not money. For the 6-foot-1 point guard from Virginia's Oak Hill Academy it's family and, more specifically, a place he can call home.

"131st, yeah, that's the spot," Jennings proclaims on a warm summer afternoon last year. "Nobody treats me like no superstar here."

With his boyish looks, outgoing personality and his basketball skills, the 17-year old Jennings is an attention magnet wherever he goes. Jennings has adoring female fans that try to meet him through his MySpace page. He also has complete strangers calling his cell phone that he has no idea how they got the number. That attention is only heightened because he played two seasons for the nation's most well-known high school basketball program located in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia.

Tough Neighborhood, Tough Love

With its lack of affordable real estate and the steadily increasing cost of living, the South Bay of Los Angeles doesn't have clear boundaries. With some longtime residents moving east and inward from the affluent beach communities in search of affordable housing, the region has a reputation for being one of the most diverse, economically and ethnically, in the United States.

The city of Gardena exemplifies the South Bay, but make no mistake, the community of 60,000 is not nearly as affluent as communities on the Palos Verdes Peninsula or the beach cities south of the Santa Monica Bay. The area has it share of urban problems like Blake's hometown that is located just west of Gardena.

Raised by his mother Alice Knox, a 1979 graduate of Claremont High School, Jennings and his mother lived in various Southern California communities during his youth and attended schools in the Compton Unified School District when the family lived in nearby Carson. Although moving was often in the cards in order to find the best situation for her son, Knox knew the home of Marcia Phillips, just off 135th Street and Van Ness Avenue, was a place Brandon could call home.

It was in this community of single-story homes and well-kept lawns where Jennings felt safe growing up. It's also the place where he honed the basketball skills that would eventually earn him a scholarship to the University of Arizona and make him the most highly-honored player in the Class of 2008.

"When he was five years old, we always played in the driveway and coached him up at the park," recalled Jennings' 25-year old cousin Chris Phillips. "We told him he could play if he wasn't scared."

The park Chris referred to was Rowley Memorial Park, located West of the Phillips residence on the corner of 132nd Street and Van Ness. The thought of Jennings being scared may sound preposterous to those that have seen him play at the park and at nearby Purche Avenue Elementary School, but he was often playing with boys and young men five to seven years older. Many were bigger, stronger and sometimes, tougher.

Phillips and his younger brother Steven, 23, would often rough Jennings up while trying to mentor him in various sports. They were tough on him not only because they were older, but to prepare him for what he might encounter on the streets of the neighborhood.

"One time they broke my arm, pushing me up in the air right in front on the driveway," Jennings recalled. "They were able to do that type of stuff to me."

"When he was, like, seven years old, yeah, we broke his arm," Steven says with a grin. "We told him, 'sit in the sun and it will heal.'"

Talk about tough love.

City on the Move

The city of Gardena and the identity of Gardena High School, including its athletics programs, have changed in recent years.

Gardena is well known for its ties to gambling, as the Normandie Casino and Larry Flint's Hustler Casino are located within the city limits. The city is also home to one of Los Angeles' oldest Japanese communities. Casinos, however, have been popping up all over the state in the last ten years and many of the younger generation of Japanese residents are moving to communities east of the 605 Freeway in the San Gabriel Valley.

Gardena High School has a proud athletic tradition, producing the likes of record-breaking quarterback Steve Sogge (1964) and running backs Charles Evans, two-time L.A. City Section Player of the Year ('65-'66) and Gaston Green, a sprinter who was one of the nation's top recruits during the 1983 season.

The Mohicans annually had one of the best all-around sports programs in the section, but the program has fallen on hard times in recent years. Eleven years ago, when the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to eliminate all American Indian mascots, Gardena became known as the Panthers. This further alienated and distanced alumni from the program, who were proud of the Mohicans' athletic tradition. They were now just the Panthers, a nickname they share with numerous schools in California.

Gardena also has had its share of tragedies associated with the athletic program. From the death of All-City running back Ken Smith from complications 12 days following knee surgery in 1974, to the death of popular basketball player Hernell "Jeep" Jackson, who collapsed and died at a charity game only a month after completing a stellar four-year career at the University of Texas-El Paso in 1987. The school's athletic program definitely has had its ups and downs.

Chris and Steven were not immune to tragedy when they attended the school. They did their best to shield their younger cousin from some of the experiences they endured as standout football players for the Panthers.

"Since Brandon never hung out with his age group, people would try to test him," explained Steven, an all-area selection by the South Bay Daily Breeze as a senior and three-year starter at strong safety for Gardena between 2000-02. "One time some dude tried to fight him, somebody that was four or five years older. Brandon was 14-years old at the time. We had to step in....."

"Growing up playing sports and being able to stand up for yourself when you walk these streets, it's like a rite of passage around here," added Chris, a quarterback for the Panthers who led them to the 2000 L.A. City Section Invitational Title.

That season, the Phillips brothers helped Gardena revert back to its proud Mohican days, as the Panthers played Roosevelt of East Los Angeles at the L.A. Coliseum in the title game. They were able to advance to the title game when Chris threw the game-winning touchdown pass with just under a minute remaining in a 26-23 semifinal victory over Narbonne of Harbor City. There was a damper over the title game, however, as Roosevelt mourned the death of lineman Steve Delgado, a player on the team who was shot to death the previous Sunday morning. Roosevelt's coach had to be talked into playing the game by Delgado's mother.

Roosevelt entered the game on an emotional high, but was not ready to play. Phillips shredded the Roughrider defense for 132 yards passing and two scores in Gardena's 31-7 win. Steven, and especially Chris, dealt with a situation like that before, as two years earlier Gardena quarterback Jeffrey Gardner was shot and killed. The brothers didn't want their younger cousin to have to experience those kinds of things coming up in the ranks.

"Everybody on this block (131st) kept him out of that (street) element completely," explained Chris. "We always told him to leave that stuff out in the streets and to stick to sports," Steven added.

Keeping him safe was one reason they encouraged him to focus on sports, but they also knew he had talent even if they didn't necessarily express it in words. Similar to one of his favorite players in the NBA, the Denver Nuggets' Allen Iverson, Jennings followed in his cousins' footsteps and played football. Iverson was a star quarterback and defensive back at Bethel High School in Hampton, Virginia but Jennings didn't end up playing on the high school level.

"Brandon was a pretty boy football player.... he thought he was Deion Sanders," Chris explained. "When he scored or did something nice, he would break out with these silly dances. We told him to stick to basketball!" Steven laughed.

The Realization

Jennings stuck with basketball and played in the neighborhood with older players such as Albert Miller (a starter on L.A. Westchester's 1998 Div. I state title team) and Josh Childress (an All-American at Lakewood Mayfair High and Stanford who now plays for the Atlanta Hawks), which did wonders for his game. It wasn't always easy, however, and Jennings had to prove himself on more than one occasion.

"When we played, we had to pick him up because nobody else was going to," Steven explained. "Playing with the older guys, he developed a nice tear drop. One time, he made one over this older dude and next time down the floor, the guy fouled him real hard. Brandon wanted to cry but we told him to keep his head up. We knew he had game, knew he was going to be something."

Jennings' arsenal was more than just a tear drop as his game developed.

"When the first And 1 Mix Tape came out (1999), he tried to copy every move," Steven said. "He watched and studied every And 1 tape religiously."

The And 1 Mix Tape, Vol. 1 featured teenage playground sensation Rafer Alston playing in streetball games after leaving Cardozo High School in Queens, New York. Others were eventually featured, but it was Alston that originally created the streetball craze of the late 1990's and early 2000's. Although it was the moves of the current Houston Rockets point guard that Jennings tried to emulate, it was another point guard from Queens who he would ultimately be compared to when he enrolled at Dominguez High School in the fall of 2004.

Like Jennings, Kenny Anderson is a left-handed point guard who was named
National Player of the Year by Student Sports months before Jennings was born in 1989. Anderson left Archbishop Malloy High School as New York's all-time leading scorer with 2,621 career points, but as a freshman, even though he was easily one of the best players in the city, he didn't start for coach Jack Curran.

Dominguez coach Russell Otis brought along Jennings the same way coach Curran did the former Georgia Tech All-American, but the Dons' heralded freshman had his coming out party against cross-town Centennial at the California Hoop Challenge in January of 2005. The 6-foot freshman made key plays down the stretch, including the game-winning three-pointer with one second remaining in a 57-54 victory.

"He's the real deal with a capital D," Otis remarked in the locker room after the game. "He's a special player."

The Hub City buzzed over Jennings and fellow freshman standout Demar DeRozan of Compton High School. Dominguez advanced to the CIF SoCal Div. II Regional title game and by the end of the season, Jennings was arguably the best player on a 26-6 team. Both he and his friend DeRozan were named to the Student Sports All-American Underclass team and Jennings was named state freshman of the year by CalHiSports.com.

Although Dominguez had a similar record (25-6) during Jennings' sophomore season, they were clearly not one of California's best teams. In fact, they were routed in national games against O.J. Mayo-led North College Hill of Cincinnati, Ohio (91-57) and St. Patrick's of Elizabeth, New Jersey (84-56), led by 2007 EA SPORTS All-American Corey Fisher. Individually Jennings had a solid season, but CalHiSports.com named Drew Gordon of San Jose Mitty state sophomore of the year.

Even worse, he was getting some of the flack for Dominguez not making its usual deep run in the state tournament and for not progressing as the other top players in the Class of 2008 were. He did not make the Student Sports All-American Underclass team.

Moves had been made in the past to put Jennings in the best possible situation and another was made that spring as he was off to "The Hill."

From the Flatlands to the Hill

The motto for Baptist-affiliated Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia is the "turning point." The school has been around for 130 years trying to help students from all over the country better themselves, but in the last 30 years it has become best known as a prep basketball powerhouse. Head coach Steve Smith has compiled a 718-44 record in 23 seasons, producing numerous all -americans and six national No. 1 finishes in Student Sports-produced rankings.

For Jennings, the move to Smith's program wasn't a turning point on the court. After all, he was the point guard on one of the greatest AAU teams ever assembled in the summer of 2006, playing along side two-time EA SPORTS All-American
Kevin Love and super junior Renardo Sidney. It was more a turning point as far as his dedication to the game and his academics, the latter always a concern of his mother.

At the famous boarding school in Virginia, basketball players have almost no choice but to focus on academics and integrate their individual games to fit Oak Hill's team philosophy. If they don't accomplish both tasks, they probably won't last in the program. Luckily for those student-athletes, besides hanging out or saying hello to Mrs. K at the Alumni Campus Store or making the 13-mile trek to Ciro's Restaurant in Independence, there is not much to do besides hit the books and the court. After an early-season suspension by Smith, Jennings started working on and off the court in the fashion the coach looked for and that his mother approved of after she sent him some 2,500 miles from his home base in Gardena.

Playing alongside EA SPORTS All-American Nolan Smith and Roundball Classic participant Alex Legion in a three-guard attack, Jennings shined although still demonstrative on the court at times. He was visibly upset at the end of Oak Hill's nationally-televised 78-75 loss to EA SPORTS All-American Derrick Rose and his team at Simeon of Chicago. According to Yerrick Stoneman, an assistant coach and teacher at Oak Hill between 1995 and 2007, Jennings on-court demeanor is often misconstrued by those that don't know him.

"People see him talkin' trash or getting upset, but he just wants that extra edge out there," Stoneman explained. "He's so competitive on the court, but off the court, he is so nice to hang out with. B (Brandon) as a person is great."

That game in Chicago was the only one Oak Hill lost during the 2006-2007 season, as the Warriors rolled to a 40-1 record against a national schedule. Jennings finished the season with averages of 15 points and 11 assists per game. He earned second team EA SPORTS All-American honors in the process, as Smith's club finished No. 1 in the Rivals.com FAB 50 and won mythical national title number six.

Jennings wasn't finished winning that year, either, as he followed up his fine junior season at Oak Hill by helping his new AAU team win a championship. Jennings sent the championship game into overtime with a three-pointer in the closing seconds. He was the lead guard on two different championship teams at Reebok-produced Las Vegas events in back-to-back summers.

After a long basketball season, Jennings was ready to spend some time with friends and family at the end of the summer.

Back on the Block

Perpendicular to Ardath Avenue sits nine neatly lined streets that dead-end just east of Crenshaw Boulevard. With Purche and Van Ness Avenues being the only outlets to the rest of the city, 131st Street is an ideal place for a block party.

It's at this end-of-summer block party where everyone seems to know each other. Some stop by to hang out, others to eat and some to catch up with friends or family they haven't seen in awhile. The older folks are sitting in front of their lawns enjoying the summer breeze, the young kids are running around and playing in the Cul-de-Sac while the teenagers and young adults are enjoying the music or playing in a pick-up basketball game.

The common denominator is everyone being friendly to each other and having a good time.

"We've been having this block party for over 10 years," Steven explained. "All of these families have been living on the block at least that long. Back in like '91 or '92, nobody really knew each other. It started off with just the neighbors and went from there."

Unlike when he traveled with Oak Hill's basketball team, Jennings doesn't hear any whispers or get any stares here. In fact, he doesn't really get any extra attention. Everyone is too busy having fun to notice the nation's top high school basketball player playing in a pick-up game with some family and friends.

I've played here and up at Purche (Elementary) since I was five years old." Jennings said after the pick-up game. "Around here I'm still little Brandon."

After the game, some of the older guys look for a drink and almost all the players are hungry. On this day, Jennings doesn't get any questions about the game or get bothered by anyone that doesn't know him. If people don't know him, they just keep going about their business and that is something Jennings really can't find anywhere else. Besides, he's busy formulating plans with his cousin Steven, who now lives three hours away from Oak Hill in Richmond, Virginia, on which games he can come to during his senior season. Jennings also has some barbecuing duties to keep him busy.

Before people leave, make evening plans and before the sun goes down, there are some family-reunion type photos to take. DeRozan and his older brother Jermaine stop by to see Jennings before he leaves back to Mouth of Wilson. Right away we ask the 6-foot-7 DeRozan to use our photography light reflector and his height to block out the sun as Jennings, Chris and Steven pose for the camera.

"Man, I barely got here and now you want me to do work!" DeRozan muttered.

There is a delay in the photo session because "T-Money" is missing. "Where is T? Where is T?" family members say to each other but to no one in particular.

T is Marcia's godson Terrence Phillips, Jennings' 12-year old brother known for his quick-wit and resourcefulness. He's the kind of kid that can convince an officer to pull out his revolver from its holster or a janitor to give his the set of spare keys to the gym.

"You know Terrence, he'll find a way...he's always into something," says his mother Alice.

Like his older brother, Phillips likes football and basketball, some even saying that he is a better cager than Brandon was at the same age. Right now, however, he isn't honing his skills. He's somewhere out of sight, down the block on a scooter. Or maybe on a bike. No one knows for sure.

But what they do know is he's safe and soon to be back.

We've seen him (Brandon) grow up," Chris remarked. "Both of us (me and Steven) wanted the same things for him. You've seen where it has led to for him. We always told him basketball can take you far. He definitely wanted to come back here (131st) before he left back."

"My cousins, Steven and Chris, they are known," Jennings added. "I'm pretty safe around here because of their reputations. Anytime I need to come around, when things get crazy, it makes me feel comfortable. I was supposed to leave today, but I just had to stay for the block party. Everyone I know seems to be here."

As his cousins knew it could, basketball has indeed taken Jennings many places. With his safe haven always there for him and with the sound decisions he hopes to continue to make, the sky is the limit for how far the game can take him.

Postscript: The next day,
Brandon Jennings boarded a plane headed back to Oak Hill Academy for his senior season. For the second consecutive season, he planned to be in a three-guard attack with two-guard Willie Warren of Texas replacing Nolan Smith and long-time friend Malik Story replacing Legion. Before the season began, Warren left back to North Crowley High in Ft. Worth and Story did not finish the season with the Warriors. For the first time since the 2002-03 season, Oak Hill finished a season with four losses, compiling a 34-4 record and finishing No. 6 in the final Rivals.com FAB 50 rankings. Jennings' former school, Dominguez, returned to national prominence by finishing 31-3 and No. 13 in the Rivals.com FAB 50.

Story returned to California and did not play for another high school team. Warren, meanwhile, led North Crowley to a 38-1 record and a Texas Class 5A state title and joined DeRozan on the EA SPORTS All-American first team. With a young team minus Story and Warren, Jennings set school scoring records for three-pointers in a game (13), points in a game (63), points in a season (1,312), points in a career (1,927) and single-season scoring average (35.5). Jennings also became the first-ever EA SPORTS/Student Sports Boys Basketball National Player of the Year from the famed boarding school. Jennings will be one of five boys players highlighted on this year's EA SPORTS High School All-American Television Show that will be syndicated across the country throughout the spring.

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