To Kentucky's O'Neill, renowned trainer is just 'Dad'

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 23, 2013 

The UK women's basketball team participates in photo day at Joe Craft Center on August 20, 2012 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Britney McIntosh | UK Athletics

BRITNEY MCINTOSH — UK Athletics

  • Kentucky vs. Navy

    When: 12:05 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Queens, N.Y.

    Records: UK 27-5; Navy 21-11

    Series: First meeting

    TV: ESPNU (whip-around coverage)

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630

QUEENS, N.Y. — He's trained the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Rajon Rondo, Al Harrington and Eric Bledsoe.

The list of players that have come to Jerry Powell for individual basketball training reads like an NBA All-Star roster, both East and West.

But to Kentucky guard Jennifer O'Neill, Powell is just "Dad."

"I don't really call him Jerry," the Bronx, N.Y. native said this week as second-seeded UK prepares to start the NCAA Tournament. "I call him Dad."

Powell will be in a big group of UK fans at Carnesecca Arena on Sunday to cheer on his surrogate daughter, who grew up in different housing projects in this city.

But she spent most of her high school years living with Powell, his wife and their two daughters. O'Neill became like family to him.

"In my eyes, she's my daughter," he said by phone this week. "I don't look at her like she was some kid who came to stay at my house. That's how close we became."

If not for Powell, O'Neill isn't sure what she would be. She talks of holding down a dead-end job, never going to college, probably not straying far from her old neighborhood.

"Not going anywhere," she said. "I'd be stagnant."

A far cry from the 5-foot-6 UK point guard who takes the ball from one end of the court to the other in a flash.

Powell saw flashes of potential in the speedy guard who rode the bench her first two seasons at Saint Michael Academy.

He saw a future McDonald's All-American.

When he told O'Neill that after one of their early training sessions, she scoffed.

"This guy is crazy," O'Neill said she thought. "No way I'm doing that."

But she became just that — the first one in Kentucky history — thanks to Powell.

O'Neill's high school and AAU coaches both knew Powell. It was her AAU coach that encouraged the well-known basketball trainer to take her under his wing.

But Powell did more than that. He moved her into his home.

"She didn't have no father figure in her life," Powell said. "She had her mom and her mom was having to work a lot. She didn't have nobody like a father figure. Some kids want that. That's what I was. I became a sort of disciplinarian for her. Basketball was a sort of vehicle."

Powell would work O'Neill out daily and they butted heads almost daily. But slowly over time, Powell got her to understand his plan for her. He molded her into a player who not only played the game, but could change the game.

He elevated her basketball IQ dramatically.

"Athletically, I knew Jen could play at the next level, but it was just getting her to have a feel for the game and understanding things.

"She was raw; she needed some seasoning," he said. "She needed to understand fundamentals. She needed to know more about the game."

Powell had more confidence in O'Neill than she did in herself at the time. More than anything, she says now, he taught her to believe in herself and to work hard.

"When we started working out there were so many people better than me," she said. "But because I put the work in, I got better than them. That was something that stuck with me. People are so talented and gifted and sometimes they let it go to waste."

O'Neill, who is majoring in kinesiology and wants to be a nurse, had never been scared of hard work. She'd seen her mother Maritza Robles work two, sometimes three jobs to support her and younger siblings Raymond and Natalie Rivera.

This work with Powell was hard work she started to enjoy.

It was the same type of hard work she did this off-season at UK, where she dropped more than 15 pounds trying to prepare to run the up-tempo Cats offense.

She transformed her body and has become a key player for Kentucky, averaging 12.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and two assists in Southeastern Conference play.

UK Coach Matthew Mitchell admitted that he went into this season thinking O'Neill would be a three-point shooting specialist. She'd sat out the year before with a foot injury and as a freshman didn't do much more than come off the bench.

But like she did in high school, she continued to work and continued to get better. Now?

"Jen has taken control of the team," Mitchell said on Saturday of the 5-foot-6 guard who has scored in double figures 15 times this season and is second on the team in three-point percentage and made three-pointers. In fact, she's made as many three-pointers this season (58) as she attempted as a freshman.

"She's taken over that position and there's no one better at the point at Kentucky than Jennifer O'Neill. ... I'm happy that she's going to have a chance to show people what she's become at Kentucky."

One of those people in the blue crowd on Sunday as Kentucky (27-5) takes on Navy (21-11) in the first round will be Powell.

And O'Neill can't wait to see him again.

"He's a father, a mentor, a friend, somebody I could talk to about anything," O'Neill said. "He was different. He was someone I needed in my life and I am so thankful that I met him."


Sunday

Kentucky vs. Navy

When: 12:05 p.m.

Where: Queens, N.Y.

Records: UK 27-5; Navy 21-11

Series: First meeting

TV: ESPNU (whip-around coverage)

Radio: WLAP-AM 630

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com

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