A long and winding basketball road traveled by Anton Jenifer finally reached heaven's door about 30 minutes from his Baltimore home.
The union of Jenifer and Bowie State has been a happy and productive one for both parties, climaxing nearly eight years and countless starts and restarts for the former Walbrook High All-Metro guard, who will lead the defending Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association champions into the league tournament tomorrow in Raleigh, N.C.
Jenifer, known as "The General," is with the right army at last and playing for the commander-in-chief, coach Luke D'Alessio, he always wanted to join.
D'Alessio has been on the player's recruiting trail since the mid-1990s, but even he was skeptical that Jenifer, who turns 27 in April, was prepared to make the necessary commitment and sacrifices to the game after missing nearly two years. Since Jenifer enrolled in January 2003, the doubts have been overwhelmingly erased.
"Every time somebody counts him out, he proves them wrong," said D'Alessio. "Nobody expected him to go back to school. But once he started, I knew I could have the best player in the league. He should have been the CIAA MVP. Of all the kids I've coached in terms of will to win, he's probably the best. He just hates to lose."
Surmounting obstacles has been the story of Jenifer's young life. His mother, Valerie Nelson, has battled diabetes for years, and Jenifer has often short-circuited his college career to take care of her needs and those of his two children. At one stop, Virginia Commonwealth, he had to drop out of school without ever playing because of concerns about his mother's health.
Other than the brief stay at Virginia Commonwealth, he has stayed close to home, delaying for a year his entrance to college, then going the community college route locally because his grades did not meet Division I standards.
His only fling in Division I, at Morgan State, was a troubled one. Although Jenifer led the Bears in scoring, steals and assists in 2000-01, he and coach Chris Fuller didn't hit it off.
"He knew I was a scorer," Jenifer said. "He was telling me about a lot of things he was going to let me do, like be a coach on the floor. Then, he'd go over top of me. There was a lot of punishment involved, like not starting. We just weren't clicking."
Fuller was dismissed shortly after the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament after a 6-23 season. An impending coaching change meant a parting from Morgan.
Before this season, that was the last time Jenifer had competed in a college-level game.
But he was well aware of the talents of last year's Bowie guards, Baltimoreans Cornelius McMurray, Omarr Smith and Arthur Lewis, the last a teammate at Catonsville.
"Last year, I wasn't in any shape, and I was just working out," said Jenifer, who has averaged 22 points with 127 assists and 44 steals this season. "I knew I was playing against the world and that would get me ready.
"There were no guards better in the conference than the ones here. I wouldn't have to worry about coming here and stinking up the gym. ... I got to clicking during the summer. I think Luke knew he had a diamond on the campus."
Jenifer does not lack for self-confidence on the court and plays with a swagger. Vocally. All out. And with a smart, complete backcourt game.
"I can strike the deep ball [three-pointer]," said Jenifer. "I can put NBA range on them if they're not going to play me out there. When they deny me, it opens up my penetration. There's nothing I like better than setting up a teammate. I like getting other guys involved."
The teammates attest to his skills. Veterans like Shawn Hampton (St. Frances) and Allen Van Norden were not surprised when Jenifer took the command post.
"It's been a great experience playing with such a good guard," said Hampton. "He brings a lot of energy, experience and leadership. I've seen him do this for a year, and he's done it everywhere he's played.'
"He always finds a way to get everyone the ball and plays to your strength," added Van Norden, his backcourt mate. "We were known as a team of big men last year, but this time it's mostly guards doing it."
Boldly, Jenifer said the CIAA is better than the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, although it is a Division II league.
"It's a little better, because if you don't come with your 'A' game, anybody can take you down," he said.
Jenifer once scored 55 points against D'Alessio's Catonsville team while with BCCC. So D'Alessio recruited him to come to Catonsville, only to leave shortly thereafter to take the Bowie job. They are finally a team.
"Last year's team [which reached the Division II Final Four] was more balanced," said the coach. "This year we need more from certain people, and Anton is one of them. He has put us at a different level. I know you can give him the ball and he'll make sound decisions. And he's the kind of person who can't give up the game."
Jenifer has two cousins who have been in Division I programs (Keith at Virginia, now at Murray State, and Damien at Loyola).
"I felt real excited for the team last year. There were a lot of kids on that roster who went through a lot," said Jenifer. "I'm hoping this time we can get the championship."
He, too, has been through a lot just to reach the possibility.
Site: RBC Center, Raleigh, N.C.
When: Today through Saturday
2003 champion: Bowie State
2004 favorite: Bowie State and Virginia Union. Not much separates these two powerhouses from the Eastern Division, who are by far the class of the league with 22-4 records. The Bulldogs beat Virginia Union twice by narrow margins during the regular season to win the East by a game under league Coach of the Year Luke D'Alessio and edged the Panthers, 72-71, in last year's championship game. But Virginia Union placed three on the All-CIAA team (Ralph Brown, Luqman Jabber and Darius Hargrove) to Bowie's two (Letheal Cook and Anton Jenifer).
Dark horse: If anyone can break through the two-sided power block, it is probably West champion Saint Augustine's (19-8), which features the CIAA Player of the Year in 6-foot-7 forward Desmond Peoples from Clinton, Md. Peoples led the conference in rebounding (11.4) and was fifth in scoring (20.2).
Player to watch: Anton Jenifer, Bowie State. Nearing age 27, Jenifer has his final chance to flourish on a big collegiate stage. The CIAA final was the third best attended among all leagues last year (21,786), topped only by the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences. Jenifer has been a scoring machine everywhere he's played.
Outlook: The first two finishers in each division earn first-round byes. Elizabeth City State, a potential first opponent for Bowie, was one of two league teams to beat the Bulldogs, but in the return match Bowie romped by 36 points. Unless there is a major upset, the Bulldogs and Panthers are headed for another showdown.