Jen­nings’s fire was fu­eled in Comp­ton

With Oubre un­avail­able, Washington guard will be counted on to pro­vide a spark off bench Sunday night

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CANDACE BUCK­NER candace.buck­ner@wash­post.com

Through­out the Washington Wiz­ards’ play­off run, Bran­don Jen­nings has lamented through late-night phone calls with close friends, telling them he’s not im­pact­ing the team enough. Their ad­vice re­mains the same: Just try to make a dif­fer­ence, Bran­don. Be that spark.

On Sunday night at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter, the short­handed Wiz­ards will look to tie their Eastern Con­fer­ence sec­ond-round se­ries against the Bos­ton Celtics but will do so with­out re­serve for­ward Kelly Oubre Jr., who has been sus­pended for Game 4. Some­one off the bench will have to be that spark. Jen­nings must be grin­ning, ready to play with fire.

In his own way, Jen­nings made a dif­fer­ence by send­ing Thurs­day night’s con­tentious Game 3 into a spi­ral of bed­lam. Jen­nings re­turned to his play­ground days, when he used to talk junk and shame adult men. Early in the fourth quar­ter of the Wiz­ards’ 116-89 rout, he picked up Celtics guard Terry Rozier, nag­ging him the length of the court and bait­ing the sec­ond-year player into com­mit­ting two fouls in one sec­ond of game time. Less than a minute later, a ca­coph­ony of whis­tles dis­rupted the ac­tion.

Bos­ton Coach Brad Stevens, usu­ally placid to the brink of ap­par­ent bore­dom, grew en­raged. Cam­eras caught Wiz­ards Coach Scott Brooks snarling and shout­ing even as his player, Bo­jan Bog­danovic, was about to at­tempt a free throw. On ESPN, the broad­cast team couldn’t keep up with all the tech­ni­cal fouls.

Chaos had taken over. But, even as he was ush­ered off the court after be­ing ejected with two tech­ni­cals, the in­sti­ga­tor was smil­ing.

Jen­nings had cre­ated a spark — and he left be­hind a game in flames.

Back in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Jah­mond Dantignac watched the un­rav­el­ing on his 65-inch big screen and shook his head. Turns out, he taught his baby cousin too well.

“Where we grew up, we talked a lot of smack and you didn’t want no­body talk­ing smack to you,” Dantignac said. “So he would do what­ever he had to do.”

The Jen­nings of to­day — the troll who started a pre­sea­son scuf­fle with Wiz­ards train­ing camp in­vi­tee Casper Ware, shoved 7-footer JaVale McGee and pointed a fin­ger gun at Jared Dud­ley — was bur­nished on the black­tops of Comp­ton.

“My cousins made me that way,” said Jen­nings, who is listed as stand­ing 6 feet 1, but that ap­pears to be gen­er­ous.

“When I was younger, they used to punk me and make me play against older guys. The only way I could play is if I showed tough­ness and didn’t cry. That’s where it comes from.”

Back then, Dantignac was a stand­out high school bas­ket­ball player. Jen­nings, 14 years younger, was his shadow. Ev­ery park and play­ground that Dantignac vis­ited in search of pickup games, the runt fol­lowed.

Jen­nings was 4 years old — all arms, big head, no body — and yet the kid thought he be­longed, too. At first, the cousins shooed him away. But Jen­nings whined and so they made a deal: Wipe your tears and we’ll let you play.

The cousins were strap­ping teenagers, and they pushed Jen­nings around. Hacked the mess out of him. Made him fight and hold his own. This was bas­ket­ball. Not babysit­ting.

“Not at all,” said cousin Christo­pher Phillips, who played high school foot­ball and is seven years older than Jen­nings. “I guess in to­day’s time it would be con­sid­ered bul­ly­ing. But not back then.”

Nei­ther did they spare his feel­ings. If lit­tle Bran­don really thought he be­longed, then he’d get trash-talked just like every­one else. The big cousins didn’t real­ize then, but they were cre­at­ing a mon­ster.

In games played at Lau­rel Street Ele­men­tary in Comp­ton and Row­ley Park in Gar­dena, Calif., Jen­nings had learned a few AND1 tour moves by study­ing the street­ball leg­end known as “Hot Sauce.” And some grown man — the poor guy who had to de­fend Jen­nings — un­wit­tingly sprawled into his high­light reel.

“He really made them look silly,” Phillips said. “Then they’d be ready to fight.” Fight a kid. Kelly Wil­liams, a renowned coach in Los An­ge­les youth bas­ket­ball cir­cles, spot­ted Jen­nings at a re­cre­ation league game. Wil­liams groans at the mem­ory.

“Just a brash, cocky, ar­ro­gant lit­tle kid,” Wil­liams re­called. “He was the small­est thing on the court, but he had the most swag. Just the most con­fi­dence, and he just didn’t back from no­body. Just su­per, ul­tra-com­pet­i­tive, and that’s what kind of got my at­ten­tion.

“He was really the best player on the court,” Wil­liams said. “Couldn’t no­body tell him any­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Wil­liams in­her­ited Jen­nings as an eighth-grade ris­ing star and later coached him on a loaded AAU team that fea­tured fu­ture Cleve­land Cava­liers for­ward Kevin Love and the older brother of Golden State War­riors guard Klay Thomp­son, My­chel.

Even while play­ing in big-time tour­na­ments and shar­ing the court with fu­ture NBA stars, Jen­nings was the box of­fice draw. Wil­liams re­mem­bers a very Bran­don mo­ment dur­ing a cham­pi­onship game in Las Ve­gas. His South­ern Cal­i­for­nia All-Stars met the Chicago Mean Streets; their back­court fea­tured Der­rick Rose, the NBA’s most valu­able player in 2011, and Eric Gor­don, who now plays for the Hous­ton Rockets. When Jen­nings dis­cov­ered he wasn’t strong enough to keep Rose from driv­ing to the rim, he turned his at­ten­tion, and his bad­ger­ing, to Gor­don.

“Ev­ery time he got rid of his drib­ble, Bran­don was there,” Wil­liams said. “Once he fig­ured Gor­don out — ahhh, I mean, you’re talk­ing about the clap­ping in the face, talk­ing to the crowd. It was just on full dis­play.

“With Bran­don, he don’t let stuff go,” Wil­liams said. “He’s go­ing to let you know: I’m here.”

Jen­nings bathes in drama. The sub­ject of his tac­tics Thurs­day against Rozier pro­voked a de­vi­ous grin spreading across his face as he said: “It was a men­tal thing, and I got him off his track of what he was sup­posed to do, which is play bas­ket­ball. It was on some Den­nis Rod­man-type men­tal thing.”

Off the court, friends know a dif­fer­ent guy.

When a good friend was hav­ing dat­ing prob­lems, Jen­nings took it upon him­self to in­tro­duce her to a nice young man. Yes, Khloe Kar­dashian and Cleve­land Cava­liers for­ward Tris­tan Thomp­son are to­gether be­cause Jen­nings played match­maker.

A few sum­mers back, when nearly 20 kids were fol­low­ing his ev­ery move at an Un­der Ar­mour tour­na­ment, Jen­nings called for an im­promptu shop­ping spree, telling the ex­cited bunch to grab what­ever they liked. He han­dled the bill. Row­ley Park now bears his name — with green rub­ber courts and NBA reg­u­la­tion rims — be­cause Jen­nings wanted to ren­o­vate his old bas­ket­ball home.

Here in Washington, team­mates em­brace him.

“He’s not afraid to get un­der your skin,” Wiz­ards big man Ja­son Smith said. “I think that’s what he wants to do, and that’s a good thing for our team.”

Coaches look past his on-court an­tics.

“Tech­ni­cals I can do away with,” Brooks ad­mit­ted, “but I like guys that com­pete. I like feisty point guards.”

And in liv­ing rooms across South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, cousins watch with pride.

Al­though Dantignac didn’t care so much for the tech­ni­cal fouls in Game 3, be­liev­ing that Jen­nings needs to “chill,” he de­lights in watch­ing the fiery player he once groomed now raise hell in the NBA.

“The one word that comes to mind is just ‘wow,’ ” Dantignac said, then sighed. “I see some­one who was de­ter­mined to do from a young age and didn’t let noth­ing or no­body de­ter him from that.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Mim­ick­ing his play­ground days dur­ing Game 3, Bran­don Jen­nings (7) was an in­sti­ga­tor and got ejected.

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