By Leandra Cilindrello
When the FDU Women’s Basketball team takes the court, there is a tall and elegant black woman on the sideline who looks as though she had stepped right off the pages of a fashion magazine and onto the hardwood. Few fans could know that the first steps of her journey started at a housing project.
“My first experience with basketball came when I was 10 or 11 years old,” said Devin Jefferson, associate head coach of the Knights women’s basketball team. “My mom drove me and my sister to the JFK basketball courts, which were located across the street from the Prince Street Projects in Newark.”
Jefferson credits much of her basketball success to a great high school coach and two relatives: Coach Vanessa Watson of Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, and two uncles who played at Seton Hall and St. Peter’s universities.
“During the summers, my uncles would take me to Orange Park, a local park known for competitive pick-up games,” Jefferson recalled. “I would watch them in games all day, admiring their ability to dominate. This was where my inspiration came from. I chose to attend Seton Hall University to play college basketball in the Big East Conference, one of the best conferences in women’s basketball.”
When Jefferson finished her elementary education at St. Joseph’s School in East Orange, N.J., her parents decided to send her to Mt. St. Dominic Academy, an all-girls private high school. She was none too happy about the decision.
“At the time, I thought this was the worst decision ever, mainly because I had to take two public transportation buses to and from school,” Jefferson said. “My parents had foresight to know I needed to be in an environment that was strong in academics and sports. I learned how to adapt to different environments. This was a huge life skill I learned at a young age.”
Jefferson is a middle child, one of three girls. She attended all Catholic schools, but her family isn’t Catholic.
“Our involvement in the church was very important,” Jefferson said. “I grew up in a traditional Baptist Church. Sundays were occupied with Sunday school and church service, and at least one day during the week, I was at church for youth group meetings and/or choir practice.”
Her family came to New Jersey from the South, and they maintain their ties there. “My parents have Southern backgrounds,” Jefferson said, “so summer family vacations were more like long road trips in a caravan to South Carolina.” J
efferson had coached high school basketball, and when her playing days were over, she decided she wanted to be a college coach. Her first full-time job was at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Then one day, a coach from her high school playing days gave her a call that changed her life.
“I was in my office at UVM on a random day, and got a call from Head Coach Pete Cinella,” Jefferson said. “I previously knew Coach Cinella years back when I was in high school. He had recruited me to play at American International College (AIC) in Massachusetts, and had done a home visit with my family. I always remembered him and would see him at recruiting tournaments at FDU. He explained the vision and philosophy of his program, and offered me the position to work for him. It was no-brainer for me. I accepted the position.”
Jefferson is in her fourth season with the Knights, where her main responsibilities include recruiting, scouting and player development.
“Scouting involves developing offensive and defensive game plans for our non-conference and Northeast conference opponent,” Jefferson said. “Player development involves teaching the players skills and drills to improve their overall game through on-court and film sessions.”
Although Jefferson relishes her role in helping athletes hone their skills, there is something even more important for her.
“As a coach, it’s good to see a player’s development and how their overall game improves,” Jefferson said. “It’s even better to see the maturity of each player year by year. As freshman, players are usually unsure of their roles, lack confidence, and in some cases, may not be mentally tough enough to endure the lifestyle and demand of a Division I student-athlete. It is rewarding to see them grow as young women, and more fulfilling to see them graduate and take on their own careers.”
From the outside, Jefferson’s life looks like a steady climb upwards. But it didn’t always seem that way to her.
“I have to remind myself most days that my life is filled with purpose,” Jefferson said. “My journey has been filled with ups and downs and some detours. There were days, weeks and months where I could not make sense of that present moment.”
And if Jefferson could talk to that 10-year-old girl stepping timidly onto the court in Newark years ago, what would she say?
“I would tell my younger self that I am where I need to be.”