- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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BERKELEY, Calif. -- On the court, Gennifer Brandon is tenacious, energetic, aggressive, even willing to curse when the occasion calls for it.
But sitting in front of you in her coaches' conference room before practice, Brandon radiates a gentle spirit. She smiles broadly, speaks quietly, is unfailingly polite, and the pink headband she's wearing, well, it only reinforces the image of a sweet girl who becomes something else when she walks onto the floor.
It's a fitting contrast for someone whose life has been and remains full of transformations.
No place more than in her basketball life. Lithe and deceptively strong, the 6-foot-2 Brandon is morphing into an All-America-caliber talent for sixth-ranked California.
She has always been able to rebound, her extraordinary leaping ability -- Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer calls her a "pogo stick" -- one of the first parts of her game to show itself.
But Brandon is learning to become a scorer, a physical and mental process that has included developing a midrange game and a sensibility about the importance of putting the ball in the basket. And the junior forward is learning to be more consistent, to play at a higher level day in and day out.
"I feel like this is the best I've played since I've been in college," said Brandon, who was added to the Wade Trophy watch list on Monday. "I'm paying attention to the details, what the coaches want from me. I want to make the shots I should make."
Brandon, averaging 12.7 points and 11.3 rebounds, can be excused if she is still catching up a bit.
The 16 months she sat out with a stress fracture in her shin between 2009 and 2011, unable to participate in any basketball activity other than lifting weights, set her game back a bit.
She's making up ground quickly. So quickly in fact that she's attracting the attention of quite a few WNBA coaches, who have to like the potential of an athletic, active post with a nose for the ball and a ceiling on her skills seemingly still not even in the picture. Her 23-point, 26-rebound performance against Southern California two weeks ago showed a glimpse of the possibilities.
"She's more skilled than she's ever been, yet I think she has a skill set that's relatively untapped," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "She's having an All-American season, and people who aren't seeing that are missing the boat. I already have WNBA people talking to me about her."
Gottlieb sees the two different sides of Brandon.
"She plays with this intensity, but she also is the most kindhearted person," Gottlieb said. "She wouldn't hurt an animal, but if there's a rebound in the air, she's going to get it."
Kimberly Brandon worries a little about her sister's kind heart.
"She will tell me that she was walking through Berkeley and there are people living on the street and she will stop and talk to them," said Kimberly, who played college basketball at Arizona State. "Other people will give them money or something, but Gennifer wants to have a conversation. She's unique like that. She wants to help people."
It's a reflex and a reflection of the way that Gennifer, Kimberly and their brothers have been helped and have found ways to help themselves. But for a long time, Gennifer walled off any conversations about what she calls "my past."
Her father was killed in 1997 in a police shootout after he was mistaken for an armed robbery suspect. Gregory Brandon, a 1984 Seattle SuperSonics draft pick, was 34 when he died.
Her mother, Valencia Brandon, struggled to raise five children and ultimately lost custody of all of them when Kimberly and Gennifer, who are just 13 months apart, were finishing high school.
The two young athletes were adopted by Andre and Michelle Chevalier, who were coaching the girls in club basketball, in 2006.
The three Brandon brothers were moved into foster care and split up.
Kimberly said she and Gennifer used their time off in college to drive to Southern California and visit their brothers.
"We were lucky that the people they lived with would let us visit, and we would take them places and spend the day," Kimberly Brandon said. "It was really hard for both of us. After we would drop them off, we would see them walk to the door and start crying. We wanted to be a family again."
Gennifer Brandon didn't used to be able to talk about her tough childhood without starting to cry.
"Time is the best thing, you know," Gennifer said. "Even though it's still there, old wounds are still there, time eventually heals. I take it day by day, but I am a little emotionally injured."
Gennifer said she is still in frequent touch with her biological mother.
"I love her more than anything," Gennifer said. "Our relationship hasn't changed, it's just that we don't live with her. She's the reason why we are so strong."
Kimberly Brandon graduated from Arizona State last spring and assumed custody of her two youngest brothers, 14-year-old Keenan and 15-year-old Nicholas. Their third brother, now 20, lives in an apartment close to where Kimberly is raising the boys on her own. She is starting a new job at a group home and hoping to become a social worker.
"I've never been a parent before," Kimberly said. "My brothers have been cooperative and respectful. I have to act like I know what I'm doing."
Kimberly and her brothers drove up north to see Gennifer over the Thanksgiving break, surprising her with a birthday party.
"I say she's crazy," Gennifer said of her sister. "But in a good way. She just got out of college and she's raising my brothers. My mom struggled, you know, and we saw how hard it was and we have a chance to change things."
When Gennifer's college career ends, she will live with Kimberly and her brothers, together again. "We have a chance to make everything pretty good," Gennifer said.
It's increasingly likely, however, that will be a part-time arrangement, as Gennifer, who eventually wants to go into law enforcement, looks headed to play professional basketball.
Her game invites comparisons with Stanford's Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike; all three players have a similar build and share reputations as ferocious rebounders with nonstop energy.
Brandon considers the connection an honor, "because they are beasts out there."
Colorado coach Linda Lappe, whose team has already faced Brandon twice this season, said Brandon is a particularly difficult matchup on the glass.
"She's so active, she doesn't stop working and she's relentless," Lappe said. "They are a tough team to keep off the glass, and she's a huge part of that. She has such a nose for the ball. And she always figures out a way to get a hand on it. There can be six hands there and she's always the one who seems to come down with it."
To say that Brandon is a raw talent isn't exactly fair; she has put in a lot of time working on her 15-foot jumper and becoming a better free throw shooter. For Brandon, it is all a means of transforming Cal from an "almost" team -- the one that couldn't get over the hump in big games last year -- into a legitimate Final Four possibility.
"I think it's beautiful that we aren't the 'almost' team anymore, that we've blossomed in a way," Brandon said. "A new leaf has turned, and we can put our foot down and say we aren't that team anymore."