The basketball didn't stop bouncing all day.
Before Howard Jenifer left for work one summer afternoon, he set up cones in front of his mother's house and gave his 5-year-old son, Justin Jenifer, some instruction to go with his small basketball.
The hours passed and the sun was almost down when Howard's phone rang.
"It was my mom calling and she was like: 'You know your crazy son is still out there dribbling that ball!'" Howard said. "From then on, Justin would do it religiously every day. That's when I knew he was really enjoying basketball."
Now the senior point guard at Milford Mill, the 5-foot-10 Justin Jenifer gets past defenders in his fourth varsity season with the same dogged persistence, plus a polished flair. Countless hours shooting jumper after jumper has given him a smooth outside touch. And his varsity experience plus years playing on top youth teams gave him acute court sense that leads to jaw-dropping passes.
The combination of hard work, natural athletic ability and passion has made Jenifer the most complete and fun-to-watch point guard in the area.
He has won championships, the last coming when he led the Millers to the Class 3A state crown in his sophomore year. He has received individual accolades, including All-Metro first-team honors last season when he averaged 17 points and 12 assists per game. And his success brought plenty of college attention — up to 10 letters a day, starting when he was in the seventh grade. In June, Jenifer, who maintains a 3.8 GPA, committed to Cincinnati.
This season, he's averaging 15.4 points, six assists and three steals for the No. 7 Millers, who take a 9-2 mark into Wednesday's home game against New Town.
"Basketball means a lot to me," he said. "It's always been a big thing for me to play Division I basketball and making it to the NBA is my No. 1 goal. I've been working for this a long time and I'm going to keep going."
'An every day thing'
When Howard Jenifer recognized his son's love for basketball, he told him: "If you want it, let's go get it and if you don't, it'll show."
Justin Jenifer, who turned 19 in December, has never wavered.
With his eagerness to learn the game, he reached his high level of play using calculated and unconventional methods.
In the early days his father, who played at Cardinal Gibbons and coached him, wanted his son to have fun while developing a strong work ethic that would benefit him in basketball, school and life.
Justin closely watched DVDs his father brought home of star players such as 'Pistol' Pete Maravich and Allen Iverson, and then had an uncanny knack to emulate their nifty moves on the court.
Workouts with high repetition and conditioning became routine.
Jenifer took jumpshots by the hundreds, ran up and down the stadium bleachers at Woodlawn High School with his father holding a stopwatch and picked from a deck of playing cards to determine how many pushups he would do.
"I always tell him it's an every day thing," Howard Jenifer said. "It's not a thing where you can just work on it one day and take the next day off because when you're not working, somebody else is."
'Blessed,' at an early age
Regularly playing for youth teams in age groups that were one and sometimes two years ahead of him, Justin Jenifer — 4 feet 6 when he was 10 years old — became regarded as one of the top point guards in the country.
He made a brief appearance in a sneaker commercial that featured NBA All-Star and Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony. Adidas showed interest in him and sponsored his youth team. While playing for the 10-and-under Bentalou Bombers in Baltimore City, he was featured in The Washington Post.
At times, the attention was overwhelming for Jenifer, who just wanted to play basketball and have fun with his teammates. But it also was beneficial. He learned how to handle pressure, became more aware of his talent and was always encouraged by his father and mother, Kisha, to stay humble.
"Every day, I thank God I am blessed," Jenifer said.
After playing his freshman season at John Carroll and being part of a team that won Baltimore Catholic League and Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championships, Jenifer transferred to Milford Mill and started for the Millers as a sophomore.
In the Class 3A state championship — a surprisingly easy 84-55 win over Washington, D.C-area power Potomac — he was the best player on the floor with 17 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
The performance caught the attention of Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, who was at Comcast Center for the game and offered him a scholarship on the spot.
While interest came from Louisville, Xavier, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton, among other schools, Cronin's consistent recruiting and Jenifer's official visit to Cincinnati made him want to become a Bearcat.
"I felt like I was at home, like I was back in Baltimore," Jenifer said. "So, it was like I didn't have to adjust to anything different. When I took my official, I just felt comfortable."
Having made his commitment, Jenifer is enjoying a fine senior season. He is relieved to have the recruiting process behind him, but there are still no breaks.
Milford Mill coach Ryan Smith, also the school's building operations supervisor, arrives to work at 6:30 a.m. and is the first one there — at least most mornings. On occasion, Jenifer beats him.
"Justin is always calling me on my ride in, asking 'Coach, can you open the gym so I can get up some shots?' Smith said. "A coach can't ask for a better kid or player. Justin makes everybody on the team better. He's the leader here and the kids follow him. And I always remind him of that — they're watching to see how you're reacting to everything."
After the Millers' string of five straight Baltimore County championships ended last season and they were upset in the state semifinals, Jenifer has extra motivation this season. But he really doesn't need any..
"Justin brings a lot to the table and when you're playing with him, you have to expect anything because he can shoot, pass and drive," said former Milford Mill standout forward Allen Costley, who graduated last season and now plays at Coastal Florida. "He sees the floor really well and all that separates him from other point guards. It's just the way he does things — I don't know how he does it honestly."
Having dealt with Jenifer the past two seasons, New Town coach Mike Daniel has a new plan when his Titans take him on Wednesday.
"We got some rope and we're just going to tie him up before the game," he said with a laugh. "I mean, how are you going to stop him? He can shoot the basketball. He can put it on the deck. He just does a lot of good things. So, the only thing you can hope for is probably what everybody else hopes for, and that's for him to have an off game."
Like every year, Jenifer plans to use the season to grow .
"This is the time I become the leader," he said. "I have to set an example for everybody. I have to be that person to do this and that on the court and in the classroom. This is preparing me, so I can go to Cincinnati with the same mentality and attitude."
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