Heart of Gold: Gennifer Brandon’s strength and love

With a smile on her face, first-team All-Pac-12 forward Gennifer Brandon has kept her family intact

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Gennifer Brandon, a redshirt junior forward, averages a double double for the Bears.

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Gennifer Brandon was riding her bike shoeless when she heard the scream.

She had seen two men, one tall and one stout, both wearing black, walk up to her house and knock on the door. She had seen her mother open the door, hear the news and break down. And she heard that scream.

The year was 1997, and Valencia Brandon told her kids that their father, who was mistaken for an armed robbery suspect and shot and killed, had gone to heaven to live with angels. “We didn’t understand what death was,” Gennifer says. “I just didn’t understand.”

Valencia’s father had passed away a few months earlier and her mother years before that. Her youngest son was 9 days old.

Gennifer had to grow up fast. With a giving heart and a smile on her face, Gennifer was resolved to keep her family intact.

“She says, ‘I think that my father’s spirit comes through me and gives me the inspiration to do better,’” Valencia says. “And she does. Gennifer Diane Brandon is a gift from God.”

The Brandon family struggled to make ends meet in the wake of its patriarch’s passing. They were homeless for long periods of time, bouncing around L.A. County, living from hotel to hotel while their mother battled alcoholism.

“She was drinking like it was water,” Gennifer says. “I guess that was her food, her harmony, her getaway from the real world.

“Me and my sister would always get on her, but we didn’t understand that it’s a disease.”

Because their mom would wake up late from drinking, the sisters would get their brothers ready in the morning and walk them to elementary school, making sure their brothers arrived on time even if that meant they were consistently late themselves. Not that school had the girls’ undivided attention, as their lives were full of distractions.

On the basketball court, it was a different story. Kimberly was the more polished one, but Gennifer had “freak-of-nature athletic ability,” says Michelle Chevalier, her club coach.

Like her father, a prolific rebounder at Creighton and a 1984 draft pick of the Seattle Supersonics, Gennifer had a knack for finding the ball and soaring in the air to grab it. Chevalier gave her extra motivation to pound the glass by satisfying her sweet tooth with Skittles for rebounds.

“Potential” was a word used over and over again to describe Gennifer. Chevalier remembers telling her, on the way back from a game in eighth grade, that if she acted as a sponge and soaked in all the advice, she would be a McDonald’s All-American.

“She looked at me like a 2-year-old, like I had candy in my hand,” Chevalier says. Then she asked what a McDonald’s All-American was.

Gennifer, who of course would go on to receive that accolade and many more as an elite high school prospect, did not have the kind of support system at the time to put her on track for that kind of honor. Despite all the responsibilities she took on at home, when it came down to it, she was still this sweet, innocent girl.

“It always amazed me that she had this luminescent smile that would just light up a room, yet she had so much going on in her life,” Chevalier says. “Her heart is so pure. I think she truly hid all these things and tried to be happy.”

Chevalier and her then-husband Andre, who coached Kimberly and then Gennifer on the top-tier club team, were more than just coaches to the sisters. They looked out for them, provided for them. The Chevaliers would even pay for the girls’ food on trips, as they could not afford it themselves.

They knew the Brandon sisters were talented enough to receive scholarships to major conference schools, but they might not get there while acting as parents at home. They talked about adoption, but Valencia was understandably wary of giving up her “babies.” A year later, she approached the Chevaliers and agreed that it was best for them to take in her two daughters.

Their new home in Sylmar, Calif., in the San Fernando Valley opened up a whole new world for the girls. At first, they did not realize that they had no responsibilities other than school and basketball.

“It was the first time that we could be kids and not have to worry about lights being turned off, water being turned off, waking our brothers up for school,” Gennifer says.

Now Gennifer and Kimberly were the ones being woken up for school. They had the opportunity to enjoy things they could not before, like holidays.

A household with structure was a novel concept to them. There was no TV during the week, because school work had to get done. They would all sit around the table during family dinners and talk about their day. Life finally had some stability.

“They were just so grateful, so humble,” Chevalier says. “Quite frankly, they were parenting dreams.”

About two years after the sisters were adopted, their brothers went into foster care. Even though they were put into a nice family and not split up, Gennifer was still surprised her mother did not cry that day.

“I probably would interpret it as a burden being lifted off her shoulders, that they could finally be in a stable home,” Gennifer says.

During breaks from college, Gennifer and Kimberly would visit their brothers. The five siblings, together again, would go to the movies and laugh and reminisce.

The hardest part was saying goodbye. After bidding farewell, the sisters would stop for gas together before parting their separate ways, Kimberly east to Arizona State and Gennifer back to Berkeley. Gennifer would cry in the car during those long car rides up the I-5 but never in front of her brothers. She had to stay strong, she had to be positive reinforcement. She had to keep smiling.

“Gennifer will go out of her way to do anything she can; that’s my daughter,” Valencia says. “Everything she does is just a Gennifer way of life. She thinks of things in a positive way.”

Despite all she has been through, Gennifer remains an unusually upbeat and friendly force at Cal. Guard Layshia Clarendon calls her personality “infectious.” Center Talia Caldwell says she is always laughing. She jokes that she is concerned Gennifer will start losing teeth given how much candy she eats. She would certainly be worrying dentists if she were still getting paid for boards by the Skittle.

Wearing her father’s No. 25 jersey number, Gennifer shattered Cal’s single-season rebounding record last year, snatching 346 boards after missing the entire 2010-11 season with a stress fracture in her shin. With 337 already this year, she should top that mark in the Bears’ NCAA Tournament first-round game on Saturday.

The 6-foot-2 redshirt junior exploded for 23 points and 26 rebounds in an overtime win over USC on Jan. 17, her second 20-20 game in as many years. Her 17-point, 16-rebound, four-steal performance in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals on March 8 was less exceptional as it was the norm for the first-team All-Pac-12 forward who averages a double double.

Her progression in becoming one of the elite players in women’s basketball is not just the standard narrative of talent, athleticism and hard work. Just as important is her family’s improved situation. She does not have to worry as much anymore about her brothers, who now live with recently graduated Kimberly, or her mother, whose drinking is under control. The two talk on the phone all the time, and Gennifer visits when she can.

“My sister and I both get our metaphysical strength from our mom,” Gennifer says. “That woman is amazing. Words can’t even describe how hard she worked to keep us together.”

The same is true for Gennifer and Kimberly. As their brothers’ guardian, Kimberly is the discipline one, while Gennifer bribes them from afar with gifts for good grades. She says she wants to spoil her brothers, because she never got that when she was growing up.

She may be the family jokester, but Gennifer is very serious about her brothers’ future. She sighs. “I’m very anxious to start providing.”

The WNBA is still a year away. After a few years of pro ball, health provided, Gennifer wants to become a cop out of her love for people and desire to protect her family and neighborhood. She wants people to be happy and safe — and to smile.

That is nothing new for Gennifer, who has a unique selflessness to her. Her mother says she is the kind of person who will see homeless people on the street and hand them money.

“She’s just a beautiful spirit,” Valencia says. “Gennifer has a heart of gold.”

Contact Jonathan Kuperberg at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanKupe.