FREMONT, Neb. — His heart is racing again. His head is woozy. He wants to stand for this, but he doesn't want to collapse.
In a cramped locker room, 15 Midland University basketball players stare at Josh Jones.
“I feel like when you play, there's no passion,” he says. “It's like y'all want things to be given to you.”
The Warriors — shoelaces knotted, white jerseys tucked in tight — are moments from a game with Nebraska Wesleyan. Jones, in jeans and a blue sweater, knows the Midland coaches. He also knows the team is off to a rough start. That's why he asked to be here. To do what he does best. Talk.
“Somebody's got to step up and lead this team,” he says. “If y'all keep this (stuff) up ...”
Jones, a 23-year-old senior, is barely older than the Midland players. But they know about his three state championships at Omaha Central and his nationally ranked Creighton team. They know eight hours ago he held a press conference and announced he couldn't play. His heart didn't work well enough.
Over the past decade, no face has been more prominent on the Omaha basketball scene, partly because his personality exceeds his performance.
“When he walks into a gym, all eyes just go to him,” Central High coach Eric Behrens says. “That's how it's always been.”
“He's just got this positive spirit,” former Creighton teammate Josh Dotzler says. “Everybody wants to be around him.”
That spirit is being tested. On Dec. 6, before CU's game at Nebraska, Jones blacked out and landed on the hardwood. For the second time in five years, he listened to a doctor describe a life-threatening heart condition.
On this night, his Creighton teammates are back in Omaha preparing for a California road trip he won't make. And he's watching basketball in a half-full NAIA gym, trying to figure out who he is without the game.
“You guys are blessed to be in those jerseys. ... Ask yourself, individually, whether you're the last one on the bench or in the starting five, what legacy do I want to leave when I'm done?”
He wraps up his six-minute pep talk, leaves the locker room and finds a seat behind the Warriors bench. Moments later, Midland scores.
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He showed up on Creighton's campus in 2008 calling himself “The Legend.”
He's been known to dunk and momentarily celebrate rather than sprinting back on defense. Or hit a 3-pointer and shrug to his bench, a la Michael Jordan.
His hip-hop performance in the Bluejays locker room made him a YouTube hit. (He shoots better than he sings.)
In March the Jays were in St. Louis, preparing for the Missouri Valley tournament as his alma mater was playing in the Nebraska state tournament. Jones called Coach Behrens' cellphone at 1 a.m. and left an inspirational message, asking him to play it for the Central Eagles the next day.
The lesson of all this: A team couldn't function if it had 12 Josh Joneses, Behrens says. But one is perfect.
They got to know each other Josh's freshman year of high school. Behrens took his team each Sunday to Kansas City for a fall league. One day, Jones rode shotgun coming home.
“The two kids in the back just fall asleep right away,” Behrens says. “And Josh, I'm not kidding, he started talking in Kansas City and I don't think he stopped talking until we got back to Central. He talked for 2 hours and 45 straight minutes.”
Where most of us sift through our thoughts and select the most important ones to share, Behrens says, “Josh just kind of verbalizes the whole process.”
High-profile athletes often erect barriers between themselves and the public, harboring their real emotions. They have no choice. If they give everyone sincerity, they wouldn't have any energy at the end of the day. Jones is different. He gains energy from interaction, even as his fan base multiplies.
In 2009 Jones was working a Creighton basketball camp when a west Omaha 7-year-old named Luke Ranck befriended him.
|Creighton's Josh Jones lifts Luke Ranck for a dunk at his birthday party.|
The next March, Luke was planning his birthday party, jotting down friends he wanted to invite. Last but not least: Josh Jones. His mom, Shelly, said what the heck and dropped off an invitation at the Creighton basketball office. Unannounced, Josh showed up. He lifted kids up to dunk the ball. He played knockout. He told Luke he never misses a free throw.
Now Luke has a life-size autographed Fathead poster of 6-foot-2 Josh in his bedroom — actually, Jones has signed almost everything in his room. Luke copied Josh's hairstyle — three grooves in the back of his head, one for each of Josh's state championships. Josh came to one of Luke's basketball games.
More recently, Luke hit back-to-back 3-pointers from the corner in a nail-biting win. He saw Josh after a Creighton game and boasted, “I stole your sweet spot.”
No. 5's reply: “Dude, you were Josh Jonesing it up!”
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At Luke's age, Josh played most of his basketball in his backyard, emulating Kobe Bryant's fadeaway jumpshot.
Basketball took Josh all over the country as a kid, but the game had its limits at home.
His father grew up in Mississippi and dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help his family. He moved to Omaha with a quarter in his pocket — and three fingers missing from a work accident. He plowed snow. Hauled trash. Worked roofing and concrete. Delivered food to the homeless shelter on his 14-foot trailer.
“I looked at my dad as Hercules.”
The Joneses' big, white house on 22nd Street was built in 1895. John heated it with two wood-burning stoves. Josh and his older brother spent many winter nights splitting and stacking logs behind the house. Central High teachers occasionally smelled Josh's clothes and accused him of smoking. It was the stoves.
One night Josh was on his way out the door for a Central basketball game — he made varsity as a freshman — and his dad stopped him. You're not going anywhere, he said. Josh had grass to cut and wood to chop.
He called Coach Behrens in a panic. Three teammates showed up at his house to help finish his chores. He made it in time for tip-off.
By that time, his dad was sick. Every night he and Josh went to Carter Lake to fish. Josh passed the time skipping rocks, talking on his phone, nodding off. He stayed awake for the important parts. No matter what happens, John said, take care of your mom.
But when he died from an enlarged heart, the family temporarily fractured. Josh clashed with his mom and older brother. There was no money to pay the bills. No wood to throw in the stove. A few nights, Josh slept in a coat. Then he moved in with a cousin.
|Bellevue West's Jeff Allgood defends Josh Jones during the 2007 Class A state final.|
His first month of his senior year, he ran high fevers. He could barely move. His doctor discovered an infection in his heart.
During a 5½-hour emergency surgery, Jones' aortic valve — the main outlet from the left ventricle — was removed and replaced with cow pericardium.
He missed a month of school. Six months after surgery, Josh led Central to its third consecutive state title.
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Behrens never worried about Jones falling into trouble in a tough neighborhood. He did worry that Josh carried too much burden.
“A lot of guys at the Division I level, they go away and they basically just worry about themselves.”
By choosing Creighton, just up the street from home, Jones not only accepted greater pressure to perform on the basketball court, but a responsibility to take care of his family.
Basketball was heavy enough.
In high school, Jones had the green light on offense. Sometimes he'd miss his first three or four shots, then get hot. In college, he didn't have the same freedom. If he missed the first one — or took a shot coach didn't like — he might spend the rest of the game on the bench.
“It made me question my own talent,” Jones says. “I'm, like, 'What? I'm not good enough?'”
As a junior last year, Jones settled into a role, adding scoring punch to one of the best teams in school history. Last month he scored 18 points after halftime to save Creighton from an upset.
On Dec. 6, Jones anticipated a big night at the Devaney Center, where he had won nine straight state tournament games in high school. In warmups, he went down.
The diagnosis, delivered two days later, devastated him: He had an atrial flutter. He needed surgery again.
His initial reaction: What am I going to do now?
He thought about his team and he thought about his family, which he hoped to support through professional basketball. Then he thought of Omaha.
He had watched college athletes slide from beloved to forgotten. They shed their uniforms and drifted away. Lost their influence.
“I thought I was gonna be one of those guys,” Jones says.
Last Sunday, after two days mostly alone, Jones logged onto his Twitter account — @62JJonesy. What he saw changed his mind. Hundreds of messages like these:
>> “hope u feel better Josh, u visited me in the hospital when I had a dog bite and if I could I would repay ur visit. Will be praying”
>> All I want for Christmas is a healthy @62JJonesy. Get well soon, Legend!
>> Played and won my game tonight for @62JJonesy. Keeping you in my prayers! #legend
For years, Jones had pumped blood into Omaha gyms. Now it was flowing back.
One message, from a 17-year-old on Facebook, stood out:
“Hey Josh. I know you have no idea who I am, or probably don't even have time to read this or reply to it. But I wanted to let you know I'm praying for ya. I'm the biggest Creighton fan there is, been going to every game since I was 3. You're definitely my favorite player, not just because of your skill, because of how you act, and never give up on anything. I know you're going through a tough time right now, but I also know you'll get through it, because you have before.”
* * *
Losing basketball, he says, is like losing his dad. Every day “I just wanna hoop.”
But even if doctors clear him to participate the final two months of his senior season, he's leaning toward the bench.
“I'm scared right now.”
The week before the Nebraska game, Jones ran into an old teammate at Creighton. Dotzler works with kids in north Omaha. They talked about life — and finding purpose when Jones' career was over.
Wednesday night in Fremont, Jones was brainstorming possibilities. His long-term health prognosis is good. Maybe he'll work in the same neighborhood where he grew up. Talk to kids about dreams. Or he could choose the easy road: “I might be president one day.”
“If I have to go out like this,” he says, “I'll be satisfied.”
Midland has victory in hand when Jones feels lightheaded and dizzy again. It's the medication, he says. He leaves his seat in the second row and climbs the bleachers, stopping twice when someone wants a picture.
When he turns the corner, the concession stand is closed. He stops for a moment. I bet I can still get them to sell me something, he says.
Moments later, he walks back into the gym with a hot dog, popcorn and M&M's.
Back in Omaha, Shelly Ranck — who once drove downtown and delivered a birthday invitation to a stranger — was trying to explain to her son what happened to the player on his bedroom wall.
I'm not sure Josh is gonna come back and play, she said.
Why, Luke said.
He's gonna have to have some tests on his heart.
He has to come back, Luke said.
Well, it may take some time.
Mom, people need him. He's Josh Jones.
He's still Josh Jones, she said.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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• Video: Josh Jones' press conference