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CU's Jones, Wichita's Hall know value of heart

Josh Jones and Carl Hall have a more literal grasp than most on playing each game like their last.

Josh Jones came into Koch Arena just as Carl Hall was leaving, wounded hearts passing in the January night.


"How's your thumb?" asked Jones, Creighton's senior guard.


"I'm cool," replied Hall, Wichita State's senior forward.


"Are you playing tonight?" Jones asked.


"Yeah, I'm going to play," Hall said, nodding and wiggling the right thumb he'd broken just a month earlier.


At the same time, Hall grasped the elephant in the room with both ears. He was in uniform. Jones was not.


"I hope you're cool with your heart situation," the Shocker forward said.


"Yeah, man. Thanks."


"I understand," Hall said, softly. "I understand. I feel you."


*****


Josh Jones will always have a special place in his heart for Carl Hall, just a little northwest of that tiny scar. Once a cardiac kid, always a cardiac kid.


"For him to still compete with the risk shows how much he loves the game," says Jones, whose Bluejays (23-7, 12-5 Missouri Valley) host Wichita State (24-6, 12-5) Saturday in a winner-take-all showdown — for the MVC's regular-season title, and, if reports that Creighton is ear-marked for the Big East/Catholic 7 are true, final bragging rights. "And I have a personal respect on a different level for him, because it's a scary thing."


Back at ya.


"Oh, man," Hall says of Jones, the Jays' 6-foot-2 sparkplug. "I kind of hurt when I had to miss the middle part of my senior season (because of the thumb). I don't even imagine missing the end."


Ballers. Seniors. Survivors.


"There's not a day that goes by where, in the back of my mind," Jones continues, "I'm not thinking about what happened in the past."


In 2007, Jones, then a high school senior, underwent open-heart surgery in Omaha.  In 2007, Hall, then three games into his freshman campaign at Middle Georgia College, fainted during a pickup game because of a neurocardiogenic syncope, or a sudden drop in blood pressure.


In layman's terms, there are times Jones' heart beats too fast. In layman's terms, there are times when Hall's heart beats too slowly.


Two months ago, Jones elected to retire from basketball, to leave the sport he loved because playing might kill him.


Hall gave up basketball, too, for a time — only to come back because not playing was killing him.


"I'm kind of hard-headed," chuckles Hall, a 6-foot-8 Georgia native who averages 12.3 points and seven rebounds per contest. "My mom calls me ‘hard-headed.' I'm the type of person, (that) when I do something, I learn to live with the decision I made."


*****


Whereas Jones' journey has been well-documented — the surgeries, the comeback, the fainting spell at rival Nebraska, the tests, the retirement — Hall has kept his heart history a little closer, shall we say, to the chest.


"I didn't remember it happening," the Shockers' big man says of the first fainting spell, which took place during a practice while he was still a prep. "They said I just passed out when I was running."


It would happen five more times over the next four years — usually before, after or during a basketball game. After the second collapse, the one at Middle Georgia, Hall sought the counsel of a cardiologist. He failed a stress test, and was advised to hang ‘em up.


Hall moved back home, glumly, and worked the graveyard shift at Lithonia Lighting from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., to help support himself.


He would continue classes at Middle Georgia, but his heart wasn't into the coursework. Or, for that matter, much of anything else.


"I knew I was going to start playing basketball again," Hall says. "I just didn't know when. I just kept praying about it and it just happened, you know?"


It also helped that medication had contributed to make the fainting incidents fewer and farther between. In 2009, the doctors revised their recommendation on hoops from no chance to a cautious maybe.


"If it was me, I wouldn't play," the physician said. "You can play if you want, but if I were in this situation, I wouldn't. But if you can live with that situation …"


As hope goes, it was a sliver. If that.


Hall ran with it.


"If I died playing basketball, at least I would die doing something I loved," Hall says. "I took that chance, and it worked out great for me. It only made me stronger."


*****


At last count, Hall figures it’s been at least two years since he last passed out, for basketball reasons or otherwise.


"Two years this month,” he says, proudly.


Hall’s learned when to push the pedal to the floor and when to ease off the gas. He even reached a truce with Wichita coach Gregg Marshall, who’s as demanding as they come, especially at practice. Trust me, Coach. Trust me to know myself, and I’ll leave everything on the court when it's game day.


Marshall kept his word. So did Hall. Last season, his first since transferring in from Northwest Florida State, the burly forward was named the MVC’s Newcomer of the Year, averaging 8.4 points and 5.0 boards. This year, despite missing seven games, Hall’s accounted for six double-doubles — including 17 points and 13 rebounds in the Shockers’ 67-64 win over Creighton down in Wichita back on Jan. 19.


"That's crazy," offers Jones, who plans to meet with Hall again before the rematch at Qwest Center Omaha. "I passed out one time (in Lincoln, on Dec. 6), and that was enough for me, in my reality."


Jones' reality includes spending the last month on the Jays' bench, traveling with the team — one part sounding board, one part counselor, one part inspiration. He's slated to graduate in the spring, and has a documentary film on his life in the works that he's going to try to shop around. He wants to write a book, too, if time allows.


One of the more affable players in the Valley, Jones has rarely met a microphone he didn't like; he's thought about a career in coaching, public speaking — heck, even broadcasting. If you bring the pulpit, brother, he'll bring the goods.


"Things have been a blessing," says Jones, who averaged 7.0 points and 2.4 rebounds off the bench through Creighton's first eight games. "One door closes and another door opens, and I have tons of opportunities.


"All my life, I've been faced (up) against adversity, and adversity has been my fuel to perseverance. It (didn't) matter if my team was the far worst team in the entire nation. I think that the impossible is nothing if you just believe. Because that's what made me a success. They're dealing these cards, you can't do anything about that. You've got to adapt. I was a fifth-year senior coming off the bench. I adapted to that … I feel your character is not shown in a moment of glory, but in the midst of adversity."


Ballers. Seniors. Survivors. Brothers.


"I don't know how severe (Hall's) situation was," Jones says. "I don't judge him. That's for him. I pray for people like him, who play the game, who compete.


"This is bigger than basketball, you know? It's life."


Carl Hall? Playing every game like it could be his last? Oh, yeah. Josh Jones understands. Completely.


You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com