CLEVELAND — Jantel Lavender has worked hard her entire life and doesn't plan on stopping any time soon. The grind is something she thrives upon and credits her hometown for instilling that in her.
"What sticks with me the most about being from Cleveland is the grind. Everybody I know from Cleveland is extremely hardworking," Lavender said. "Nothing comes easy."
That holds true for Lavender, who has turned her hard work and perseverance into a thriving career in the WNBA—a career she hopes can further pave the way for young girls, especially here in Northeast Ohio, to not only pursue their dreams but to be able to do so equally to their male counterparts.
Lavender's basketball career didn't have the Hollywood movie script beginning one might picture. She didn't pick up a basketball and sink a three at the age of two, nor did she watch a star player and aspire to be them by emulating their every move.
No, Lavender was simply tall.
"I was in the sixth grade. I was 5'11" and I wasn't on the team. And they're like, 'You going to try out for the basketball team?' I'm like, 'No,'" Lavender recalled. "And then one day I was like, 'You know what? Okay, I'll try it.' And so I tried out—completely sucked."
Lavender admits she wasn't blessed with natural basketball abilities, so throughout middle school and high school, she turned to hard work instead. Balancing basketball, school and work at the Justice Center, Lavender's grind never stopped.
"I just started working out. I just started going to workouts, no matter what time of the day it was, it could be 8:00 at night. It could be morning. It could be after I got off of work at the Justice Center downtown at four o'clock and I would shoot to Lonnie Burton [Recreation Center]," Lavender said. "I just always was like on a grind because I felt a release, sort of a release in my life, just being able to just play basketball and kind of fit in somewhere."
In a summer program with the Justice Center, Lavender worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., moving from the parking violation bureau to sitting in on court cases, learning about the legal system, getting work experience and making money, heading to the Lonnie Burton Recreation Center to work on her basketball skills until 8 p.m. each night, then heading home to focus on school work.
Despite everything else she needed to apply herself to, Lavender's dedication to basketball never wavered.
Recruited by multiple area high schools, Lavender had chosen Central Catholic because she wanted to be coached by the esteemed Mel Burke. Under his guidance, Lavender really began to shine.
Ms. Basketball and beyond
In 2007, with her 21 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game, Lavender helped lead Central Catholic to the Division III championship title, collecting numerous accolades along the way, including the prestigious Ohio's Ms. Basketball award and state tournament MVP.
With her talent on full display, Lavender had colleges looking her way, hoping to land her as a commit. In the end it was Ohio State that secured Lavender, a school that was close to home but could still help her make strides in her basketball career.
Lavender said never really loved basketball. Liked it? Sure. She wanted to be good at it so she worked, but that was just about the extent of it. Until she joined the Buckeyes.
"In college is when I started to love it. I didn't really love it in high school. I felt like I was becoming good at it, I was putting my time into it, but in college was when I started to have a keen focus, like I want to score twenty every game. I just love the feeling of getting buckets. I love the feeling of scoring on people," Lavender said. "I started to have a fuel for like I wanted to be the best out there."
The 6-foot-4 center let that fuel take her to the top with Ohio State, earning Big Ten Conference player of the year honors four times and becoming the school's all-time scoring leader with 2,818 points. Lavender also notched the Big Ten rebound record with 1,422.
Despite earning all of the accolades and solidifying herself as one of the best in the game, Lavender's basketball aspirations weren't what one might expect from a star.
As a young woman from Cleveland playing basketball at a high level, Lavender didn't have many role models to look up to when it came to pursuing a career in the sport.
"I still at that point had no aspiration to play in the WNBA either. I was just hooping and I was playing—I had no idea. Nobody from where I was around or in my age group was even in the WNBA that I looked up to," Lavender said.
But Lavender was good and the scouts were watching. Still unaware of how much the talent she worked so hard at attaining could shape her future, Lavender continued to be surprised by her own success every step of the way.
From getting an agent to playing on the USA Women's U18 and U19 teams where she won gold medals to being selected with the fifth overall pick by the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2011 WNBA Draft, Lavender's path—a path that had few icons or role models clearing the way for her—began to form.
"Here I am, 11 years later, in the WNBA," Lavender said. "It's been a journey. It definitely wasn't something I grew up doing or something I aspired to do. But I was blessed and I had the talent—my body stood up to all the work and labor I was putting it through."
Lavender began her career with the Sparks, spending four years with the team coming off the bench and solidifying herself as a reliable scorer and rebounder.
In 2015, Lavender's role on the team expanded with Candace Parker resting, making the Cleveland native the starting center. That year, Lavender averaged 14.5 points per game with 8.3 rebounds, earning WNBA All-Star honors for the first time in her career.
Lavender was on the Sparks until the end of the 2018 season, averaging 8.6 points and 4.6 rebounds and being named the Sixth Woman of the Year.
Just before the 2019, Lavender was traded to the Chicago Sky where she became an immediate starter. But that season brought a new challenge for Lavender—injury.
After fracturing her left foot during a game, Lavender was ruled out for the remainder of the season, needing surgery to repair the damage. Initially, Lavender was expected to be sidelined for eight to nine weeks, which was less than ideal but something that she could manage.
But the lingering foot injury impacted Lavender's 2020 season as well, taking her out the entirety of it after she had to undergo yet another surgery on the same foot.
In August 2020, after missing the end of the 2019 season and all of the 2020 season, Lavender was traded to the Indiana Fever where she plays now after signing a multi-year deal. Even though the foot injury took her out for longer than she expected, Lavender said she is feeling good again and is happy to be back on the court.
"My rehab has been going amazing. I feel better. I'm feeling really good," Lavender said. "A lot of times people don't understand that when you have one point of injury, it affects everything around it. So it's a work in progress to build those muscles up around it. So my initial injury, which was my foot, is fantastic. It's like the other things, the other mechanics, your hips, your knees, your IT bands, your calves, everything is just trying to crank back up."
As she winds herself back up, at 32-years-old, Lavender doesn't plan on slowing down any time soon.
"I think everybody needs to expect to see high level play from Jantel. I'm going out with a bang. I don't know when I'm going to retire. I don't know what the future holds, but I know for the expectations that I have for myself, they're extremely high, high level basketball," Lavender said. "And everybody can expect that from the Indiana Fever, because I'm a captain, I'm one of the leaders of the team. And the expectations for the team is high. They know they understand it. And we're all excited to keep growing together."
In June, reports were released showing ESPN's viewership jumped 74% from the 2020 season and 68% from the 2019 in the first few games alone.
For years, women in the WNBA have fought for equality and representation and the disparity between their sport and their male counterparts in the NBA were jarring and disheartening. In fact, the average salary of WNBA player being just 1% of the average salary of NBA players, which falls back on the revenues and profits.
But while many argue WNBA players are making less because their product doesn't bring in the same viewership and fandom, that correlates directly with the way the league has been mis-marketed for years.
Lavender herelf believes that the hard work that she has built her life around, is one of the biggest keys to getting more people to appreciate the women playing the sport.
"I think that a lot of times we're mixing up genetics with talent. And I think that those two don't go hand in hand. It's the amount of work you put in, the loads you put in, the hours you put in that I think you should go based off of," Lavender said.
The push to get eyes on the WNBA doesn't come solely at the hands of Lavender, nor her teammates and opponents. They're already doing the work, putting their bodies on the line and constantly honing their skills. Instead, it comes from making their league more visible, branding the top players as stars and getting the open support from those with eyes already on them—like in the NBA.
"I think is just it's constantly challenging and going against the grain as women, and people with platforms have to keep continuing to push women. Women have to support women," Lavender said. "And the men in these same professions have to say 'Man they're doing the same amount of work. I did a workout with her. She was she worked hard.' You see Russell Westbrook working out with Elena Delle Donne and saying how hard she works in encouraging her."
While NBA players like Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, among others, show their support, Lavender's team is doing its part to bring more eyes to the WNBA.
The Indiana Fever, which already livestreamed home games in Indiana last season to bring more eyes to the sport in the midst of a pandemic, has expanded their streaming services to reach right here in Northeast Ohio and down into Kentucky.
Offering the streams on their website and Facebook page, fans can watch Lavender and her teammates throughout the season, even across state lines. That accessibility is something Lavender is proud of and believes can continue growing the already expanding interest in the WNBA.
"If we can reach more audience, more people will start to support. It's that simple," Lavender said. "The more people we have watching, the more people I think will start to respect our grind, respect what we do and understand that we really do know how to play this game and just really start to be our fans. And I think that that will just help our league expand."
And as the WNBA continues to grow, Lavender hopes that her journey, which was and still is molded by hard work and dedication, can help provide much needed representation to young girls everywhere, but especially back home in Cleveland where she struggled to envision her future in the sport with so few examples ahead of her.
"Don't let anybody deter you from your dreams. I've heard so many times how not good of an athlete I am, how I'm not worthy I am, how Jantel is not good enough to do this. And you can't listen to that. Just block out all of the distractions, focus on what you want to focus on, because anything we want to do in life is hard," Lavender said. "So stay focused, work hard at it, have your own goals, stay in line with it and block out the distractions."
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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