TULSA, Okla. _ I know the “big story” to a lot of people about the Tulsa Shock’s opener Saturday was the saga of Marion Jones. But I have to admit that, truth be told, it wasn’t actually in the top five things I was most intrigued about going into this game. Still, I guess I found that I did have some thoughts on Jones when the game was over.
It’s not that I don’t understand the interest in Jones, of course. The story will be told and retold and retold again this season. At least for the first half of the season, reporters in each city the Shock visits will converge on Jones. She’ll talk about her mistakes, her hope for redemption, her desire to help the team however she can.
I don’t know if Jones is truly just a way for Tulsa to drum up interest. It’s easy to suggest she is. But I doubt it’s as cut-and-dried and calculating as that. Certainly, the Shock saw her presence giving the franchise more coverage (again, at least initially). But I also believe sometimes it’s hard when you really want something to be true to actually be able to see if it is or not.
In other words, coach Nolan Richardson and the Shock brass surely want this to be a legitimate feel-good story about an athlete who rose from disgrace and, essentially, ex-communication in one sport to a legitimate contribution in another sport. They want Jones to have the chance to prove that she is a legendarily great athlete. So great, that she could step back at age 34 into competitive basketball after 13 years away, giving birth to three children and going through scandal, prison and financial ruin.
What we saw in the Shock’s opener against Minnesota didn’t really tell us much. Jones was in the game, an 80-74 Shock loss, for just over 3 minutes. She didn’t take a shot, or get a rebound or an assist. She played defense, made a pass or two and committed a foul.
She looked lean and athletic, but wasn’t on the court long enough for anyone to really make much of a judgment on her current basketball ability. Although, perhaps that fact alone – her brief playing time – was itself a judgment.
It was essentially very much what I – and I’d guess a lot of observers of women’s hoops – would have expected. I can’t imagine anybody who follows the sport realistically thought that Jones could step back in right away and be noticeably effective.
There’s a kind of unquenchable optimist in me, though, that keeps me from saying, “This is never going to work.” I may mostly believe that in my heart, because I know just how hard it is to play with any effectiveness in the WNBA. It’s damn hard; the league has some of the best women’s athletes in the world. Yet something keeps me from just writing off Jones.
Still, I obviously have some discomfort with this story. We in the media have spent a lot of time on Jones over the years, and this “redemption” tour seems a bit like a warmed-over meal with little taste left. If Jones can find a way to be effective in basketball games, that adds flavor to it. If she isn’t, then it’s just a lot of smoke, ultimately, with no fire.
Also, this all reminds me of how, as a reporter who’s covered track and swimming and other Olympic sports in which performance-enhancing drug use has been rampant in the past, I struggle with how cynical we are almost by mandate. No reporter wants to look like Pollyanna, and so every one assumes the worst about those sports. It’s been proven right too many times.
And so we usually do think the worst. However, we don’t write that if we have no proof.
I wrote many stories about Jones over the years, wondering if one day they would basically prove hollow. And I feel some of them were. Sure, they’re lost in cyberspace along with a billion-trillion-zillion other stories. But I still know I wrote them.
However, I also know that Jones really was a great athlete, one of the most talented we’ve ever had in women’s sports. I watched her a lot, actually, when she was a basketball player at UNC, where she won a championship as a freshman. That’s the saddest part: the PEDs scandal, the perjury charges, the loss of medals – all of that obscures the truly great, multi-dimensional athlete Jones was.
I talked with Jones’ former college basketball coach, Sylvia Hatchell, last season about Jones’ potential to come back as a hoops player. Hatchell thought if anyone could do it in the face of so many obstacles, Jones could. She also said, “You know, Marion was never a bad person. But she always made bad choices about whom she trusted.”
That may assign more “victimhood” to Jones than we should be comfortable with, but I basically agree with Hatchell. I’ve always liked Jones. (I think many folks in the media did _ although some really didn’t, and still don’t.) But I always thought that she tried to put up a “front” more confident and secure than the person she really was inside. That would explain why she tended to surround herself with bullies or sycophants, and turned away from people who did truly care about her but would tell her things she didn’t want to hear.
There’s nothing unusual about that, though – it’s a path that many people who come into fame/wealth/celebrity often end up taking. And it usually hurts them.
It hurt Jones a lot. Much more than some athletes in other sports. Jones was like “Moby Dick” to anti-doping agencies, and I feel they “celebrated” her demise too zealously. But in the end, she made the mistakes. She had to pay a heavy, heavy price.
This may sound odd … but there’s a review of “The Wizard of Oz” that sticks with me, where the reviewer talks about wishing he could go back in time and say to the teen-aged Judy Garland while she was making that movie, “Life is about to get very rough for you. If you can, save yourself.” Knowing, unfortunately, that even with such warnings, the triumphs and tragedies of Garland’s life/career probably would have happened anyway.
I’ve mentioned before I sometimes think of an afternoon in July 1994, when I was talking to Marion Jones at the U.S. Olympic Festival in St. Louis. She was saying she wasn’t sure if she would pick track or basketball, ultimately, to focus on, but whatever the decision was, she was sure it would be best for her. She was still a teen-ager then, supremely confident after an amazing freshman year at UNC, and her future couldn’t have looked more positive.
Obviously, I didn’t know then where she’d be 16 years later. But like the film reviewer, I find myself wishing I could have warned her, “Please beware of what’s to come.”
Then again, some people who were close to her tried to do that when things started to get alarming in her life. And it was no use. The saga of Marion Jones was to be of the highest highs and lowest lows. I’m not trying to “absolve” her of what she did or make excuses for it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not sad about it and wish it wouldn’t have happened.
And now, she’s trying to salvage the ending of her athletic career with an upbeat feeling. Honestly, I hope she does it in some way. Even if it’s not with a lot of playing success in the WNBA, perhaps it will be simply by trying.