Josh Jones tried to keep calm, but every minute at this point was precious. Every possession.
It was after 10 p.m. Thursday, and Jones — as he often does when his wife is rocking his 10-month-old to sleep upstairs — self-quarantined in the basement to watch a basketball game. His alma mater, Omaha Central, was in the Class A quarterfinals.
The state tournament holds a special place in Jones’ resilient heart. He won three straight titles at Central (2006-08). He still bleeds purple, especially when the Eagles meet rival South High, which edged Central on a last-second layup in last year’s championship game. Ouch.
“This is Central’s year to get it done,” Jones said at tipoff.
Josh would’ve been in Lincoln if the NSAA hadn’t restricted attendance. That was the first jaw-dropping headline from a surreal hoops week. Then the NCAA barred fans from the NCAA tournament. Then the NBA suspended the season. Then the NCAA canceled March Madness entirely.
Coronavirus ruined his college alma mater’s hope of a magical run, too, after just 20 minutes at Madison Square Garden.
“Can you imagine absolutely loving Creighton basketball and they don’t come back from halftime? I was trippin’, bro!”
In the past 48 hours, the coronavirus has hit our sports world like an early spring tornado.
Jones’ love for basketball is second to none, but that’s not why I sought his perspective. He knows what it’s like to be robbed of basketball. He knows what it’s like to wonder how long he’ll live. Each time we spoke the past few days, Josh pulled back another emotional layer, circling around an inner conflict.
How do we balance fear with appreciation? How do we wrap our minds around the precious nature of life as we’re losing the parts we love most?
“I’m so torn,” Jones said. “It’s killing me.”
The Eagles tested Josh’s blood pressure Thursday night. They led by five. Trailed by six. Back and forth all game. In the final moments, Jones moved to the edge of his seat. To calm his heartbeat, he grabbed a ball off the floor and dribbled.
With four seconds left, Central trailed 48-47 when senior Max Polk pulled up and fired the critical shot. The ball smacked the glass and caromed back to the rim, circling around and around before falling ... out.
Josh cursed. Then his tone changed. Torn again.
“I’m thankful for what I just saw. I may not get to see any more of that this year.”
* * *
The first time I met Josh, he was a high school senior with a fresh 8½-inch scar on his chest.
A few months earlier, bacteria infected his bloodstream and latched onto his heart’s aortic valve, nearly killing him. His doctor removed the valve and replaced it with cow pericardium.
“I just thought I had the flu,” Jones said. “Then boom, I’m under the knife.”
He recovered in time for a spectacular senior season. One night at Bellevue East, he made 10 3s and scored 41 points, a single-game school record. One night at Benson, I watched him dribble to himself around a defender’s back, flip a pass behind his back to a teammate, bury three 3s with his smooth left-handed stroke and soar for a fast-break dunk, drawing a foul. All in a four-minute span!
His teammate teased him after big performances: “Must be that cow.”
But it wasn’t just Josh’s talent that drew a crowd. His positive spirit seemed to spread like a good virus.
“When he walks into a gym, all eyes just go to him,” Central coach Eric Behrens said then. “That’s how it’s always been.”
Jones carried his bovine tissue to Creighton, where he helped the Jays win their first NCAA tournament game in 10 years — Jones blocked Alabama’s last-second 3-point attempt in 2012.
He had a tendency to drive coaches crazy, celebrating a dunk or a 3-pointer instead of sprinting back on defense. A team couldn’t function with 12 Josh Joneses, Behrens said. But one is perfect.
He should’ve finished his college career in the 2013 NCAA tournament. But eight games into his senior year, Jones returned to Lincoln for Creighton’s in-state rivalry game.
During pregame warmups, he blacked out and hit on the Devaney Center hardwood. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed an atrial flutter.
Just like that, he was done.
Jones played once more competitively that spring, a men’s city league game. One of his worst mistakes, he said. He pushed too hard and landed back in the hospital.
The past seven years, he’s endured two more open-heart surgeries, the latest in January 2019 when his wife was pregnant.
As the basketball world turned upside down Wednesday night, I thought of Jones and his heart. We hadn’t spoken in years, but I texted him and he called back quickly, like an old friend. I found a 30-year-old struggling to make peace with the news cycle.
He wasn’t 17 anymore. He was a husband, a father, a leader in his North Omaha neighborhood, where he’s a Salvation Army community center director. And he was terrified.
His son, Janoah, came down Tuesday with a 102-degree fever. Thank God it was just a stomach bug. Wednesday the NSAA and NCAA barred fans from March Madness, and Josh felt awful. For Central. For Millard North. For Bellevue West. For Creighton!
“You grow up your whole life to reach this stage,” Jones said.
But he also wanted to scold the skeptics who disrespected the dangers. He asked: What if you go to Pinnacle Bank Arena or the CHI Health Center and contract the virus? You might fight it off, but what if you return to your workplace and spread it to someone who can’t? Like him.
His heart condition makes him high-risk during a pandemic. If he got the coronavirus, Josh said, he doesn’t think he’d survive.
“Everybody’s always Superman until they get their Kryptonite.”
* * *
And yet ... what’s life without your routines and passions? Jones misses the game already.
The game he played growing up on 22nd Street, where his dad put up a backyard hoop and Josh emulated Kobe Bryant’s fadeaway jumpers.
The century-old, white house didn’t have heat, so Josh and his brother split logs for the wood-burning stoves. When Central High teachers smelled Josh’s clothes, they accused him of smoking cigarettes. No, it was just the stoves.
One night Josh was on his way out the door for a basketball game — he made varsity as a freshman — when his dad stopped him. You’re not going anywhere, he said. Josh had wood to chop. He called Coach Behrens in a panic and three teammates showed up to help finish his chores.
He made it in time for tipoff.
He was 16 when his dad died of an enlarged heart. The game pulled Josh through grief.
A year later, when endocarditis knocked him out of school for a month, the game motivated him to come back. It gave him a platform in North Omaha and local fame at Central and a scholarship to Creighton, where he got a free education.
Over and over, the game built his character — and revealed it.
In March 2010, an Omaha mom dropped off a birthday party invitation at the CU basketball offices because, well, you’ll do anything to make your 8-year-old happy. She was stunned when Josh showed up unannounced and challenged the kids in knockout.
“Basketball in the state of Nebraska has been like family to me,” Jones said. “For at least nine years of my life, I felt like everywhere I went, I was in a safe haven because I had basketball around me.”
Now he tries to create the safe haven for his neighborhood. He organized one of the city’s best adult leagues. He started a kids academy on Saturdays. His after-school program runs 3-5:30 p.m., and for 90 minutes they play dodgeball or flag football.
“But no matter how intense the game, we only play until 4:30,” Jones said. “Then we’re gonna get the basketballs out!”
At night, he sits down with his work and his basketball-crazy wife, Tanisha — “I found someone who shares my passion” — and he finds a game on TV. Basketball keeps his blood flowing. Basketball lifts his spirit.
He speaks my language. Maybe yours, too.
For 30 years, I’ve attended the boys state tournament with family and friends. And growing up, I stayed up late to watch NCAA games. Danny Manning over Oklahoma! Princeton over UCLA! As a high school senior, I lied about a lunch-hour fender bender so I could watch the end of Creighton-Auburn.
I’ve shared those traditions with my own son, who cried Thursday when I told him March Madness was canceled. Life is hard enough with good distractions. Now, at a time when we need it most, we have to go without? It doesn’t seem fair. To me or especially to Josh.
“It’s almost like I’m venting to you,” Jones said. “Because I’ve been trippin’ on the inside trying to make sense of what’s going on.”
Basketball is not life. Jones makes that point clear. But life has featured basketball for a long, long time.
Jones lost the game once at Central. He lost it again at Creighton. But this week was even harder, he said, because he can’t even be around the game. He can’t watch LeBron and Giannis, Kansas and Creighton, not even his North Omaha kids.
He didn’t go to work Friday. He canceled his leagues. He can’t take a chance.
“This situation makes me realize how much basketball means to me. How much I watch it. How much I think about it. How much I talk about it.
“My vice, it ain’t there no more! I gotta figure out something else to do! ... They even canceled NASCAR! This thing is serious.”
And he desperately wants people to take it that way. But he doesn’t know how this crisis ends. Or when it ends.
In the meantime, he intends to dust off his trophies and open up his scrapbooks. Reminisce a bit. Watch old clips of Kobe and pull up old Creighton games — he still loves watching the 2014 win at Villanova.
He’s already making mental plans to celebrate basketball and the Omahans who love it.
“I got some ideas I’m already cooking up for the city,” he said.
When this is all over, Jones said, he’s going to appreciate the game even more.
Until then, he’s focused on a smaller project in the basement. Josh knows the pitfalls of living vicariously through a child, but when your 10-month-old is wearing 3T clothes and shoots left-handed swishes into the Fisher-Price hoop, how can a dad not start dreaming?