Listen to it often enough, and the clickety-clack of wheels over rails can become an acceptable background serenade for homework or even a catch-up snooze. Even at 6:30 in the morning, staring at a 75-minute commute from Long Island to Manhattan -- and back again. For Jennifer O'Neill, that familiar racket became a soundtrack, of sorts, for her dreams, providing her the additional perception of making headway.
That forward movement sometimes was obscured during a nearly two-year journey that was as circuitous as it ultimately seemed improbable. As O'Neill commuted back and forth between her trainer's home in Long Island and her high-school in Manhattan, mixing in jaunts to her single-parent, family home in the Bronx, she also was making a solo trek from an almost forgettable high-school walk-on to prized college recruit. The destination always was clear, she says, and committing to a scholarship to play basketball at the University of Kentucky, as O'Neill did Sunday morning, meant that she had arrived.
"It was all worth it," said O'Neill, a point guard ranked No. 30 in the ESPN HoopGurlz Hundred for 2010. "If you want something bad enough, sometimes you do things that you don't really hear basketball players doing. I wanted a college scholarship."
If O'Neill had articulated such a goal just a scant few years ago, she would have elicited laughter, even from those closest to her. Though quick and sturdy, she's probably a few inches short of her listed height, 5 feet 6. Back then, she didn't handle or shoot the ball well enough to make up for her lack of size.
When she reported as a freshman to St. Michael Academy, her coach, Apache Paschall, did not know what to make of the development. O'Neill had played for one of Paschall's Exodus club teams the previous summer, and he'd expected her to enroll at St. Thomas Aquinas in the Bronx. That was the original plan, but O'Neill saw a path to college through St. Michael because many of her higher-profile club teammates were attending the lower-Manhattan private high school.
It was an obstacle-strewn path, however. St. Michael already had point guards Anjale Barrett, now at Maryland, and Tasha Harris, now at Syracuse. What's more, Paschall's top Exodus club team also had Samantha Prahalis (Ohio State) and Erica Morrow (Syracuse), then added Bria Hartley (No. 14 in the ESPN HoopGurlz Hundred) at the position.
"To be honest, I thought Jen at best would become a Division II player," Paschall said. "I told her I had other guards and that she probably wouldn't play for two or three years. Nobody expected her to be as good as she became."
One significant somebody saw something in her. Jerry Powell, a renowned basketball trainer based on Long Island, started working with O'Neill on the advice of Ron Kelly, one of Paschall's assistants. After a while, O'Neill convinced her mother, Maritza Robles, to allow her to live with Powell, who has two daughters, 11 and 14. The arrangement offered a more consistent training regimen, as well as a father figure for O'Neill, who one day started calling Powell "dad" and never stopped.
"Working with Jennifer O'Neill was easy," Powell said. "She had the work ethic. All she needed was guidance."
The transformation has been startling. O'Neill has become a prototypical, super-aggressive New York point guard. Once nearly church-mouse quiet, she become an outspoken leader. "She was a mute," Paschall said of O'Neill's first two years at St. Michael. "You would have thought she belonged to the Helen Keller School."
Vocalization may have been in O'Neill's cultural backgound -- she describes her self as Puerto Rican and Irish "with a Black soul" -- but it was the boost in self-confidence that drew it out of her.
"I wanted to have a bigger role on the team," she said.
That, she obtained more quickly than anyone imagined. As a junior O'Neill helped pry open Christ the King's and Murry Bergtraum's vise grip on the New York Federation AA title and paced St. Michael to its first state championship. Along the way, she wrested more and more of the attention college programs intended to focus on teammates, particularly Hartley on the summer circuit.
Easily admitting his own lack of foresight, Paschall says he's never had a player who has progressed as far or as fast as O'Neill. "She's just a different breed of kid," he said.
Truth is, the more people told Jennifer O'Neill she couldn't have it, the more she wanted it. Too small, too reticent, wrong sport -- she'd heard all the reasons against her quest. In the end, when Jerry Powell pulled up at 6 a.m. for the drive to the Long Island Rail Road station, all those voices were what pulled her into the car.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.