Ade Orogbemi of Great Britain (C) is challenged by Trevon Jenifer (L) and Steven Serio (R) at the men's wheelchair basketball bronze-medal game at the London 2012 Paralympic Games at the North Greenwich Arena on Sept. 8, 2012 in London.
Rolling onto the court at North Greenwich Arena in London, Trevon Jenifer had never seen anything like it.
The same arena that had filled up one month earlier to watch LeBron James and Team USA win an Olympic gold medal in basketball was again packed as Jenifer and his U.S. teammates went for the 2012 Paralympic bronze medal in wheelchair basketball.
“You can’t replace that,” said Jenifer, who played 23 minutes in Team USA’s 61-46 win over hosts Team Great Britain.
The London 2012 Paralympic Games were noteworthy for the engaged fan interest in the home country, both in arenas and on TV. Yet one year later, in 2013, Jenifer rolled onto another court in southern France and was again taken aback.
As he warmed up with Le Cannet, his professional team in France, the gym — admittedly much smaller — was again packed. Super fans dressed in bumblebee outfits banged on drums. The players even had pregame introductions and went through a postgame media mixed zone.
“These are things like you see LeBron James, Steph Curry doing,” Jenifer recalled earlier this month at the Team USA Media Summit in Los Angeles. “So to feel like you’re at that status is great motivation for you to try to do better for your next year.”
|Trevon Jenifer poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 8, 2016 in Los Angeles.
For Paralympic athletes such as Jenifer, who was born without legs as a result of congenital amputation, experiences such as those highlight both the progress disabled sport has made in recent years — and the lengthy journey still to come.
“I think we still have a ways to go, but it’s definitely in the right direction,” Jenifer said.
For Jenifer and other elite Paralympic athletes, the goal of winning a Paralympic gold medal is often parallel to the goal of being seen for what they are: world-class, highly competitive athletes. And that’s something Jenifer hopes will continue this summer in Rio de Janeiro.
“We want to change the perspective,” he said.
Team USA will bring 12 wheelchair basketball players to the Paralympic Games, and whether Jenifer makes the cut or not, he expects the sport to continue winning over new fans.
“They’re going to see an intense game,” he said. “Wheelchair basketball is an intense-based game. You’ll see people getting hammered, people falling over, people manipulating their chairs in order to reach someone who’s two feet taller than them, which means you go up in a tilt to steal the ball.
“These are things we train and do, and when people see them they’re in awe.”
Watch one game, he promises, and you’ll be hooked.
“I’ve always said, it only takes one game for people to get hooked on wheelchair basketball,” Jenifer said. “And it’s true, because the passion and the intensity that they see out there on the floor is second to none.”
In Rio, Team USA will go after its first gold medal since 1988. That’s a sour point for a team that’s routinely considered one of the most talented in the world. According to Jenifer, that top-level talent is again evident in this year’s squad, and this time the camaraderie and teamwork are there too.
“It’s seriously been a brotherhood these last four years, and some of them even longer,” he said. “I’m pretty excited, if I’m able to make this team and play for Rio, it’ll be an honor for me and I couldn’t wait.”
Jenifer’s journey to 2012 Paralympian and 2016 Paralympic hopeful has been eventful and eye opening.
|Trevon Jenifer demonstrates wheelchair basketball during the 2016 Team USA Media Summit at Pauley Pavilion on March 8, 2016 in Westwood, Calif.
Growing up the middle of seven children in crime-stricken Prince George’s County, Maryland, Jenifer used to watch his brothers and sisters play sports. He began sports himself at age 4, playing wheelchair basketball and track, and in high school he wrestled. Competing against able-bodied opponents, he finished third in the Maryland state tournament as a senior.
Although that didn’t lead to a college scholarship, he did catch the attention of the wheelchair basketball coach at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. It was a “huge step” up from the junior level, he said, “but it’s not as massive as the step of going from the collegiate level to the Paralympic level.”
Looking back, Jenifer can barely recognize the player he was during that first year in Pennsylvania. Everything has changed, from fundamentals to fitness, and today Jenifer is a world-class basketball player whose defensive intensity helped Team USA win a Paralympic bronze medal.
For a U.S. team that doesn’t have the height of some of its top rivals, those attributes will be essential again this summer.
“We’re going to use our speed and our pressing and our abilities to get up and down the court quicker than anyone else can in order to beat them up, and beat them in transition and stop them defensively,” Jenifer said. “And that’s what we’re looking at to win a gold medal.”