I’m in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area for the next several days to see some games and work on stories. It was out here, of course, that Marion Jones was last a “real” basketball player, competing for North Carolina.
There has been a lot of chatter this week after news broke that Jones was working out in San Antonio with the hopes of returning to hoops and regaining her athletic reputation, which was left in tatters after she finally admitted steroid use, was stripped of her 2000 Olympic track and field medals and served time in prison for perjury.
I’ll offer some more thoughts on Jones’ pursuit in a later blog. Suffice to say, the idea of a 34-year-old mother of three who hasn’t played competitive hoops in more than a decade being able to earn a WNBA roster spot is far-fetched. Even if that woman was, at one time, perhaps the top female athlete on the planet.
But here, I want to look back on what Jones did as a hoops player. Because I’ve always wondered what would have happened if she had been slightly less gifted as a runner and instead stayed with basketball.
She would have been in a different athletic realm in the hoops world. But would she still have made as many bad decisions both in her personal life and professional associations? Would she still have ended up in some way involved in performance-enhancing drugs?
There’s no way to know, of course. She would have been far less famous without track … but maybe hoops would have proven to be a better path. (Which raises the question of how much PEDs are actually used in hoops, and I don’t think anyone has a good handle on that. We know from a long, sad history that there has been rampant use of them in track and field. But that sport also has been more vigilant about drug testing than many other sports have been.)
I lived in Virginia in the 1990s during the time that Jones was with the Tar Heels, so I saw her play hoops many times in person. One of the funniest things was watching Jones when she would steal the ball from someone and head for the basket.
For just a second or so, the opponents would make the usual effort to chase her. Then you would always see that look of resignation cross their faces: “Oh, yeah, that’s Marion Jones. Never mind.”
Even with the basketball, she was lightning-quick – much too fast for anyone to catch. And I swear, I don’t remember her ever missing one of those breakaway layups. Surely she probably did, at least one, but I can’t ever recall seeing it. She was sheer hell for foes in the passing lanes.
She had kind of a funky perimeter shot: not sure exactly how to describe it except it seemed she was more “pushing” her shot than shooting it. But her basketball instincts were terrific and her mechanics improved in the time she was at UNC.
Gail Goestenkors, then coach as Duke, once described Jones as someone who came into college as a great athlete but was learning to be a great basketball player. Jones left the sport before those lessons were complete. But she did make a mark on the UNC program.
After watching the Tar Heels in 1993, and knowing this athletic phenom Jones was coming in for the next season, I felt sure that North Carolina would win the championship in ’94. Indeed, the only team that “solved” North Carolina that 1993-94 season was Virginia _ the Cavaliers won both regular-season games with the Tar Heels. However, their third meeting – in the ACC tournament final – was a blowout victory by UNC.
In the NCAA tournament, UNC had to overcome the fact that Charlotte Smith didn’t play in the Sweet 16 against Vanderbilt because she was suspended for that game for having thrown a punch in the Tar Heels’ second-round win over Old Dominion.
Then UNC beat UConn in the season before “Husky Mania” truly took off. (The next season, UConn would go undefeated and forever change the women’s hoops world.) At the Final Four in Richmond, Va., the Tar Heels beat Purdue in the semifinals, prompting much praise for Jones from then-Boilermakers coach Lin Dunn.
As for the final against Louisiana Tech, most remember, of course, Smith’s winning 3-pointer. And they might even remember Stephanie Lawrence made the pass to Smith after calling timeout because the original play call – a lob to Sylvia Crawley – was covered.
But it was Jones who’d been on the floor in the pileup grabbing for the loose ball after Tonya Sampson had missed what would have been a game-typing basket for the Heels. On the tie-up, the possession arrow was pointed in UNC’s favor with seven-tenths of a second left and the Heels trailing 59-57 … and you know the rest.
Jones was one of the first people then in another pileup: this one in celebration of Smith’s shot and a national championship. If you could freeze-frame that moment for Jones, it was one of sheer joy and endless possibility. She was just 18, a college freshman and already one of the best female athletes in the world.
She would play the 1994-95 hoops season, redshirt in 1995-96 (when she dealt with a broken bone in her left foot twice) and then finish her basketball career in 1996-97. UNC was a No. 1 seed in the ’97 NCAA tournament but was upset by George Washington in the Sweet 16.
Jones could have come back for one more season – and possibly helped derail Tennessee’s perfect ’98 campaign – but she bypassed her final year of basketball eligibility. However, even then, as she looked ahead to the 2000 Olympics, Jones still described herself as a basketball player as much as a runner.
But track – offering greater fame and money – took her away from hoops. Track was her chance to be transcendent _ and she was. She still talked about basketball, though. At the U.S. outdoor track championships several years back – before the BALCO scandal blew up – I asked Jones her thoughts on the WNBA. And her eyes lit up; she spoke about her love for hoops and her desire, even then, to maybe still give pro basketball a chance.
Her plans at that time, she said, were to compete in track through the 2008 Beijing Olympics, then see if maybe there was still any chance for her in hoops. It sounded to me like kind of a nice fantasy for a superstar, but figured by that point, she’d be far past the point of seriously trying it. Of course, when she said that, she wasn’t envisioning that one day she’d need athletic salvation.
Another time I talked to Jones comes to mind, too. That was in the summer of 1994, when the USOC still had something called the U.S. Olympic festival. That year, it was in St. Louis, and I went there to do several basketball stories. It was a few months after the Tar Heels had won the NCAA title.
Jones was playing basketball at the festival, and I asked if she felt like she’d have to chose one sport or the other eventually. She figured that she would, and said the decision would be based on whatever was truly best for her.
I doubt that she could have rationally made the choice to forego track for basketball – she was too good at track and there was much more money there, since she was a sprinter.
But I still think about how her life/legacy may have been different if basketball had been her better sport and the one she spent her prime participating in.