This past basketball season, Waynesburg University added a new dynamic to its women’s basketball coaching staff in graduate assistant Jasmine Jenkins.
At just 24, Jenkins brings youth to head coach Sam Jones’ bench, and also high-level experience as a four-year member and two-year starter at Vanderbilt University.
For Jenkins, basketball was more than a hobby and even more than a way of going to college for free. For her, the game led her out of Gainesville, Georgia, a place she described as “the hood.”
“Honestly, I don’t think I would be a productive citizen [without basketball],” she said. “I think I would still be stuck in the hood because basketball introduced me to a lot of my mentors, a lot of great people that kind of helped guide me to make better decisions in life. So, it’s scary to think [where I would be] if I didn’t have basketball. I don’t think I would be here in Waynesburg.”
To put it mildly, Jenkins didn’t have a normal childhood.
Gainesville has a population of roughly 40,000 and a poverty rate more than double the national average according to DataUSA.
As if witnessing gang fights while waiting for the school bus and being offered drugs by dealers on a street corner weren’t troubling enough, Jenkins’ parents got divorced when she was just 10. This meant that instead of worrying about typical childhood staples like homework, toys, and TV shows, Jenkins had to be the primary caregiver for her younger siblings.
“As a 12-year-old, I was trying to figure out how my three younger brothers were going to eat,” she said.
One aspect of Jenkins’ life that wasn’t different from a typical American girl was sports.
Early on, Jenkins was a soccer player, idolizing Mia Hamm. As she transitioned to her teenage years, however, her focus shifted to basketball.
“I just fell in love with the process of team building and leadership in basketball, because I think it helped me grow as a person,” she said. “That’s why I’m still in love with it to this day, because I think there are so many life lessons within the game that you could learn, and it helps you improve as a person, well for me now as a coach.”
To improve her skills while keeping herself in line, Jenkins spent a lot of time at the local Boys & Girls Club, where she met its athletic director, Ken Huffman. It was through mentors like Huffman that Jenkins learned valuable life lessons, and always kept busy instead of giving in to the temptations offered on the streets.
“He taught me how to speak properly, how to dress properly, how to behave in certain situations, why it’s important to pay attention to how you carry yourself,” Jenkins said. “How to give feedback, how to take feedback. So he was a blessing for me for sure.”
Through her desire to improve, Jenkins made sure she would never lose sight of her goal. People like Huffman knew Jenkins had potential, and she was determined not to let any material possessions get in the way of her goals.
“I was mature enough to understand that I had an opportunity, and there were just things that just didn’t coincide with the success of the opportunity which was college basketball.”
Jenkins was just 15 when the future of her Division I basketball career were started. Playing in a tournament, it took young Jasmine just one game to receive her first Division I offer.
After the game, she was approached by a coach from the University of Alabama—Birmingham. Usually, Jenkins says, when schools first discover a high school player, they don’t make an offer on a whim.
“Usually they find you, then they court you [before offering] you, but [UAB] offered me the very same day,” Jenkins said.
When Jenkins visited UAB, she knew the big-campus life was something she wanted to experience. Although she wound up choosing Vanderbilt University because of the lively, musical culture of Nashville, Tennessee as well as the university’s academic reputation, it was through her first visit that she knew she not only wanted to play college basketball but play it at the highest level.
“From that moment on,” she said. “That was the goal was to go to college for basketball because I saw how the game could change my life and my reality.”
Vanderbilt University is a far cry from “the hood” of Gainesville. When Jenkins arrived on campus in August 2012, the faces she saw weren’t those of dealers looking to sell drugs, but rather students of one of country’s most respected private institutions, some of which having polar opposite backgrounds from Jenkins.
While Jenkins found it difficult to relate to students outside of her teammates, she saw the shift in culture as a positive; a sign of how far she had come from Gainesville.
“Yeah [Vanderbilt] definitely was a culture shock, just because outside of my teammates, it was just hard to relate to anyone,” she said. “It was just difficult making friends because it was just different. It was much of a culture shock, but it was a beautiful culture shock because I was able to see there is something better.”
“Something better” still was the NCAA tournament, which Vanderbilt qualified for as an at-large bid. Awaiting the Commodores in the second round were the University of Connecticut Huskies (UConn). The result was no different than most of the UConn’s games; a 33-point win. Nonetheless, Jenkins was thrilled to be playing against the premier program of women’s college basketball. Even more exciting was the fact that UConn’s best player, Maya Moore, was another Georgia resident who grew up roughly a half-hour away from Jenkins.
“It was just a dream,” she said. “Like ‘Holy smokes I could be that girl as well.’”
For the rest of Jenkins’ career at Vanderbilt, she helped the Commodores make one more NCAA tournament her sophomore year. After college, she considered playing basketball overseas— even going as far as to sign with an agent—but didn’t find the right opportunity.
After a year working at the same Boys & Girls club which was a second home for her, Jenkins got a coaching opportunity through a connection with Jones and Jenkins’ associate director at Vanderbilt, Candice Storey Lee. She found out a graduate assistant opportunity at Waynesburg was available. She then interviewed for the job, got it, and recently completed her first season.
“First of all, she had a great rapport with the athletes,” Jones said. “They valued her opinion and insight, as did I, but [particularly] the athletes. She had played college basketball, and gone to class, stuff like that. She played at such a high level; they were automatically intrigued to what she said.”
Jenkins, a 5’8 guard in college, worked primarily with that position. One of the players she mentored was freshman guard Haley Porter. For Porter, Jenkins’ knowledge of basketball was beneficial in all facets of the game.
“She’s a very selfless leader,” Porter said. “Anytime you want to get in the gym; whether she’s busy or not, she’s always making time for you to help you get better.”
Shortly before Waynesburg returned to campus for the spring semester, Porter suffered a sprained ankle and fell into a shooting slump. Jenkins encouraged Porter, and eventually, the freshman snapped out of it, climaxing with a 27-point performance against rival Washington & Jefferson Feb. 6.
“She was reassuring me that I know I can shoot the basketball,” Porter said. “I know my shooting abilities, and I just have to realize that while I’m playing, and eventually, they’ll start to go in, I just have to keep shooting. So that really helped my confidence.”
Only a year into coaching, Jenkins already intends on being a head coach one day. Overall, while Jenkins is proud of what she accomplishes, she feels that her success is owed to mentors who set her on the right path and led her to what she hopes to be a long career in the game of basketball.
“I think, yes people draw strength from my success story, but the thing is there can be 10,000 other success stories out of Gainesville, Georgia if they have the right mentorship,” Jenkins said. “So I think it’s a bittersweet situation because yes, I did see success, but there are 10 other Jasmine Jenkins’ in Gainesville Georgia that just need mentored and given some guidance.”