When Fever forward Jantel Lavender tells you she wasn’t the one of the best when she first started playing basketball, she does it with a great smile and a greater sense of accomplishment. With determination, hard work and some personal challenges from her mom, Lavender became one of the top high school players to come out of Ohio.
“I remember one specific day in eighth grade I was sitting on my grandfather’s floor in Cleveland and I was tired and just didn’t want to go to practice and my mom told me, ‘oh no, you’re going. This is something you committed to do, you’re going to be accountable and go to practice.’ Even though I didn’t understand it at the time, she was so right,” Lavender said.
Her mother’s positive influence didn’t stop there. For most children wanting to play college basketball, it is imperative to join a travel team and play grassroots or AAU tournaments. The expenses to play, however, made it difficult for Lavender to compete.
Her mother was dedicated to making sure Lavender had every opportunity available to her. She did everything possible to make sure the future Buckeye was able to join an AAU team and travel with her team. Her mother would even raise the money through garage sales or donations from family and friends, who were more than happy to support.
For Lavender, it once again reminded her of how blessed she was to have family who loved and believed in her so much.
“My mom was at most of my games. My sister was there every step of the way, and the trips that my mom couldn’t make, my aunt came to,” she said. “Basketball wasn’t my career yet, but I feel like that was a very intricate part of making me who I am because I had so much support from them.”
When it was time to go to college, family was still the first priority. She made sure every college recruiting her knew her twin sister, Jazmine, had to be recruited as well.
“I wasn’t going to school without her and I told most schools that,” Lavender replied. “She was valedictorian and she was the smartest person in our school. I knew we could figure something out.”
The school they both decided on was Ohio State University, allowing the twins to stay together and even offering Jazmine the chance to join the team as a student manager.
“I don’t know how to describe being able to go to school with someone that is your peer, your sister and your best friend. All I can is that I was blessed.”
While at Ohio State, she earned Big Ten Player of the Year all four years, the only male or female Buckeye ever to do so.
Drafted fifth overall by the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2011 WNBA Draft, Lavender went on to win a WNBA Championship and the Sixth Woman of the Year award with the Sparks in 2016, before being traded to the Chicago Sky a few days before the 2019 season. Lavender broke her foot toward the end of the 2019 season and required surgery.
Add an extensive recovery time amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Lavender says she experienced more than she anticipated watching her team from home.
“For somebody who has been as strong as I pride myself on to be, I never felt like I would get to the point where I was so low,” Lavender said. “Not being able to do something I love and to really have it stripped from me because of an injury was hard.”
Lavender is not only feeling strong physically, but mental and emotional side are improving every day as well.
“Right now, I feel fantastic,” Lavender said with smile. “My body feels good, and I can’t wait to get in the gym. The same vulnerability that broke me down at one point is also what’s building me up.”
Couple that with Thanksgiving, Lavender reflects on how grateful she is, in particular about her new opportunity with the Fever ahead of the 2021 season.
“I’m thankful for life. I’m thankful to have the ability to do something that I absolutely love. I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful to the Indiana Fever for believing in me while in an injured state and knowing that I am going to come back and be the player that they need me to be.
“I’m grateful for all the opportunities, and I am going to exceed everything. I am going to be what I know I can be in this league before I retire. I’m grateful and thankful for that because this time has really shifted my mentality.”
As for her Thanksgiving plans, Lavender and her family will not all be together like they normally are to stay as safe as possible. Instead, it will just be her immediate family. But one thing for sure is they will enjoy some home-cooked food, which includes Lavender’s honey baked ham that she describes as “finger-licking good.”