Well, I guess these things happen. My favorite UK Hoops player – ever – is Jen O’Neill. And I was super psyched she caught on with a WNBA team this season. The undersized O’Neill caught on with the league’s best squad, record-wise, and I talked with her last week about what her journey was like. I was planning on running the story below on KSR tonight.
Then, I saw this on the Internet:
I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Just sick. Not only because my story was canned, but because my favorite player was out of a job – and just one day before her contract was guaranteed.
I wish I had a contact for her – I’d call her and tell her I was sorry. But I only worked through the Lynx public relations people, so I have no idea how to reach her. She was so pleasant. Here, if she ever gets to read it, was the piece I wrote for my favorite player, who had – for the briefest of moments – reached her dream:
UK star Jen O’Neill fulfills dream, finds home with WNBA’s Lynx
by Ryan Clark
By the end of the two weeks Jennifer O’Neill wasn’t certain where she stood.
She’d given it her all, for sure, but was it enough? Was it ever enough? At 5-foot-5, she was used to basketball people underestimating her. Then she would just outwork them and get where she wanted to be.
Sore from an afternoon practice, she walked back to the locker room. This was the dream, she thought.
She’d cried when she got the phone call from her agent. It was just a tryout, he said, but she cried anyway. She just needed a chance, she said, and the agent congratulated her and hung up. A few minutes later, he called back. He felt bad because she was crying. Was she really alright?
O’Neill convinced him she was great. Perfect. On top of the world.
She was going to try out with the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA. The two-time World Champion Minnesota Lynx.
It was not just a tryout to her. It was everything.
That was two weeks ago. Training camp was now over, and soon she would find out who made the official 12-woman team roster.
One question remained: Had she done enough?
Since she was a girl growing up in the Bronx, O’Neill told her mother what she wanted to do.
“I want to play in the WNBA,” she said.
Each day the girl would come home from school and play ball with the boys. And her mother, God help her, did what she could to help. She sent her to a basketball factory far away in Manhattan where she could hone her skills.
She watched her daughter become one of the best high school players in the nation, cat-quick, fearless, with a propensity to score in bunches and lead with gusto. Her jumper was deadly, and she had no fear when driving into the paint. She averaged 25 points, six rebounds and five assists for her squad, which was ranked eighth in the state. Yes, she was small, but she’d been small all her life. She learned to out-quick and out-wit bigger players to the hoop.
O’Neill’s mother watched her become a McDonald’s All-American, then watched as she had dozens of the best schools in the country come recruiting. O’Neill was drawn to two more than the rest: the tradition-filled Georgia Bulldogs and the upstart Kentucky Wildcats.
Turns out the Cats just wanted her a little more. Jen O’Neill loved Kentucky, and she decided to become the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with them.
Tears of joy
Don’t blink. An athlete’s college career tends to go by that fast. For O’Neill it was no different – but it was unique in how successful she and the team performed. During her career, which included a redshirt year for overcoming a stress fracture in her right foot, UK won more than 130 games, and made the NCAAs each year.
She finished twelfth on UK’s all-time scoring list with 1,356 points and hit 197 3-pointers, which ranks second all-time. She scored a school-record 43 points in Kentucky’s four overtime win over ninth-ranked Baylor in 2013. And she earned the SEC’s Sixth Woman of the Year Award two years in a row.
Most importantly, she graduated in May with a degree in Kinesiology.
After Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament loss in March, she began working out with UK assistant, and former UConn and Minnesota Lynx star, Tamika Williams, as well as her husband, former Lakers and Grizzlies player Richard Jeter. The pair kept O’Neill focused and in shape – just in case an opportunity came along.
All she wanted was a chance at the WNBA.
Then, one day in mid May, while she was in the middle of packing – she was leaving Lexington the next day to play for the Puerto Rican national team – she got the call from her agent.
She’d gotten her shot.
And she cried those tears of joy.
‘You earned it’
But was it enough?
Sitting in the locker room in Minnesota, the two-week training camp was over. She’d spent the time giving everything she thought would help the team – whether it was running the offense and setting up her teammates or cheering from the bench. One nice coincidence – the Lynx run the dribble-drive offense, something O’Neill was familiar with from hanging around John Calipari and his players.
So … She wondered how she would find out. Did she make the team?
She didn’t have to wait long.
Word came from team star Seimone Augustus.
Augustus, a five-time WNBA all-star and former LSU standout, walked up to her. “Congrats,” she told O’Neill, “you made the team.”
Their coach, Cheryl Reeve, followed.
“You earned it,” she told O’Neill. “Nobody gave it to you.”
They smiled and high-fived. Her teammates congratulated her.
She did it. She was in the league.
“She put in countless hours of hard work to prepare for her opportunity and it paid off,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “Jennifer will be a great asset to the Lynx.”
“Now I have to focus on being the best professional I can be,” she says after a recent practice. O’Neill is averaging more than eight minutes per game for an injury-plagued team that has the best record (12-3) in the WNBA.
“Everything is different from college,” she says. “It’s all about working out, keeping your body right, eating right, lifting. It really is your job.”
Now she has a new mentality.
“I’m trying to act like I haven’t made the team,” she says. “I have to think that way because you can’t let up. So I have to keep working that way.”
And it helps she isn’t the only former UK star in Minnesota. A month ago the Timberwolves made Karl-Anthony Towns the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. O’Neill and Towns have talked and watched each others’ practices, she said.
“We look out for each other,” she says.
Still, no one knows what the future may hold for O’Neill. She hasn’t played more than four minutes since June 21.
“I have to stay ready,” she says. “Everything is a process. You can’t expect to automatically be what you were in college.
“I’ve got what I wanted – an opportunity,” she continues. “I know there’s nothing guaranteed. You always have to go out there and work.”