When Kiki Jefferson returns home from James Madison University to her hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, she encounters the utmost love and adoration. The support extends from a multitude of sources: her family, friends and the Lancaster community – especially the ever-expanding cohort of young girls who look up to her.
They undeniably appreciate Kiki for her incredible skill on the basketball court. Over the past three seasons playing for James Madison, she consistently put up top stats in the Colonial Athletic Association. However, skill fails to cover Kiki’s most enthralling attribute: her spirited and confident demeanor both on and off the court.
Those who know Kiki — like her best friend Madison Green — describe her as “passionate and energetic,” or as her father describes her, “a ball of excitement.”
Kiki’s smile, confidence, and relentlessly positive outlook radiate into every space she enters. So much so that some may find it hard to believe the challenges this young woman overcame. Kiki works to maintain her happiness, confidence and optimism by seeking perspective from the mentors around her, even in the darkest moments.
Kiki says her father is one of her biggest mentors. Marcus Jefferson plays many roles in his daughter’s life. Beyond raising her, he served as trainer, motivator, and, perhaps most importantly, Kiki’s self-acclaimed “best friend who knows exactly how and when” to talk to her. From a young age, Marcus recognized how special her skill was on the court. He recalled a young Kiki — age 3 — as “so talented playing with boys that were older and bigger than her, but she stayed aggressive and wanted to learn.”
He recognized her gift and fostered it, never having to worry about pushing her too much as she was “consumed with wanting to learn and be around me or anyone playing basketball at a young age.” After teaching her what he could with the resources and knowledge he had, he began driving her to her to three-plus hour AAU practices in the little rest afforded by his 7:00pm-7:00am work shifts.
Marcus’ sacrifice paid off as Kiki got older, as her “the love for basketball just kept getting bigger and bigger.” She was a skilled player upon her arrival in middle school and her extensive AAU experience helped her become one of the top high school players in Pennsylvania, garnering the kind of attention that eventually caught the eye of a slew of collegiate coaches.
She became drawn to James Madison in Harrisonburg, Virginia for many reasons. She was immediately drawn to “how the University felt like a community from the moment [she] arrived,” which “reminded [her] of [her] high school and my hometown,” which is almost exactly the same size as Harrisonburg. The team “welcomed [her] with open arms” and her coach, Sean O’Regan, "made it clear that he valued and would develop [her] as an athlete, person, and as a student.”
As high school drew to an end, she felt confident committing to this university that felt “so genuine and real,” but “really struggled turning down the other coaches at universities” with whom she had formed “real bonds” over the arduous recruiting process.
Another large challenge she faced in high school was her mom’s cancer diagnosis. Her mom, Kiyana, another of Kiki’s mentors, worked four jobs to support Kiki and her two older siblings, Steven and Ayanda. Growing up, Kiki’s mom quietly supported Kiki by teaching her valuable life lessons. Throughout her chemo treatments, she remained strong and Kiki was comforted by her persistence.
Kiki found herself playing for something larger than herself. She started playing for and living by her mother, writing “#4ma” on her shoe as a constant reminder. Kiki’s mother was soon healthy enough and to fill her spot in the stands to watch her daughter complete an illustrious high school career.
At JMU, Kiki entered into a highly competitive environment. She gained exposure to new challenges in the classroom, where she lacked the consistent confidence she had in the other facets of her life. In addition to the academic challenges, she found herself embroiled in a fight for a playing spot on a team with five seniors, all valuable contributors the previous several seasons.
Marcus described a situation where “she was walking into a team with five or six already fairly solidified minute players but she just kept pushing and pushing and with a couple of injuries to key players she ended up earning a starting role.”
While she earned a spot on the basketball court, she addressed her academic worries with tutors. These tutors helped her strive for high academic achievement, setting standards above and beyond what was needed to pass classes.
Kiki continued to ride the wave of her freshman year success into the following year, finding great success until Covid truncated the end of the season. She filled her graduated teammate’s shoes to earn the trust of her teammates.
“She does not try to tell people what to do but instead works hard and takes responsibility, leading by example,” said Green.
She also became the go-to scorer for her team, solidifying herself as one of the better players in the CAA. Off the court, things were not so smooth. Her mom underwent radiation for her second cancer diagnosis in the span of a few years, and although Kiki knew her mother was strong, she could not help but ache for her entire family and try her best to block it out on the court.
Kiki felt as though she played worse during this time, that she was “letting [her] teammates down with her performances or could have been doing more.” Her teammates did not share this sentiment. Green explained how the team “saw Kiki come to practice every day with the same, well-known and well-loved, bright energy to hype everyone else up, continuing to be a light for everyone else and bring her full heart, even while she was going through the unimaginable at home.”
Although her dedication and selflessness carried her through externally to allow her to continue playing and getting by in school, she was torn apart internally. To cope, she leaned heavily on a teaching from her great grandmother to keep her going. She had told Kiki that “obstacles in life are just speed bumps that will slow you down, but you just have to get over that speed bump and continue driving.”
To surpass one of the most significant speed bumps she had faced in her life, Kiki knew she needed help. She turned to some of her newer mentors: her college coaches. They “made sure [she] was taken care of and reaching [her] goals on the court, in the classroom, and in life in general.” In addition helping her maintain a sense of perseverance, humility, and gratitude, they also taught her small lessons, like switching her go-to pregame meal from “hot cheetos and blue airheads to pasta and salmon.”
Kiki took these lessons and ran. In 2021-2022, her junior season, Kiki put up her best numbers yet. Her consistent improvement offers an exciting glimpse into her basketball future. Kiki continues to pour herself into basketball, hoping to be drafted into the WNBA after the culmination of her collegiate career. While this dream seems personal, it extends so far beyond just Kiki. Kiki’s journey, although tumultuous, possesses undeniable triumph. Kiki knows that a large source of her inspiration and success comes from the people she relies on for advice and guidance. In the end, Kiki just hopes she can inspire the next generation as she has been inspired by the people before her.
Particularly, Kiki hopes to continue using basketball as a platform to influence the young girls in Lancaster to dream big and expose them to opportunities in women’s basketball. In this realm, Kiki is already making her mark. Her dad noted her impact saying, “younger females around the neighborhood and in the city want advice and want to be taught by her.”
Kiki echoed this sentiment: “the girls follow me on social media and direct messages to me. They come to my games near Lancaster and tell me that I inspire them, or that they play basketball because of me.”
For Kiki, the undying support from her parents, coaches, teammates, and entire Lancaster community coupled with her ability to inspire the youth empowers her and makes any speed bump (no matter the magnitude) feel manageable.
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