Surgery, loss can’t dampen spirit of CU’s Jones

He remembers Nebraska fans giving him hell again, the serve and volley
of the usual grief. The Omaha kid, back in Lincoln, always trying to get
the last word. In high school, Josh Jones had won three state titles at
the Devaney Center. Technically, it was the Cornhuskers’ building, but
it was also his house.
 
“It’s kind of an in-state thing,”
Creighton’s senior guard explains. “I’m kind of jawing with the fans,
and just doing my mental preparations for the game, (and) my heart
starts, like, speeding up, the way (it goes when) I get excited.”
 
He remembers getting light-headed in layup lines. He remembers his eyesight going funny. He remembers feeling slightly dizzy.
 
“I hit a layup and took a jump shot,” Jones recalls. “After that, I woke up on the ground, basically.”
 
On
Dec. 6, before his 16th-ranked Bluejays were to face rival Nebraska,
Jones experienced an atrial flutter. Basically, his heart had suddenly,
unexpectedly pushed the gas pedal all the way to the floor.
 
Jones’
ticker was chugging at roughly 300 beats per minute, or four or five
times faster than it should’ve been. Trainers and medics rushed to his
side.
 
“The thing about it is, what was going on with me could’ve
happened even at home, or driving in the car,” he says now. Then he
pauses. “It’s not even athletic-related. That’s what’s scary about it.”
 

 
The
voice is quiet and thoughtful, sometimes quaking. Over the past few
weeks, life has left Josh Jones playing scared, like sunshine that can’t
shake the clouds. It’s turned a confident young man to doubt, reduced a
chronic chatterbox to reflective silence.
 
Last week: His aunt died. Brain tumor.
 
This week: Heart procedure. Merry Christmas.
 
“Watching
my auntie pass away, man, was a reassurance of how precious life is,”
says Jones, who had a radio frequency ablation on his heart Tuesday at
an Omaha hospital in an attempt to get it back to a normal rhythm. “The
more I see things that go on within my life … the less I think about
basketball right now and more (about) my health. I want to live as long
as possible. Every minute. This is all about me living right now.”
 
It’s
the cruelest of ironies, isn’t it? Here’s this kid with so much heart,
born with one that keeps failing him. During his senior season at Omaha
Central High School, he’d undergone surgery to address infective
endocarditis, a bacterial infection; doctors replaced his aortic valve
with one formed from cow tissue. Before long, he was cleared to continue
playing, advised that the risk of a malfunction was small.
 
Over
the past five years, the 6-foot-2 Jones had been checked by physicians
countless times, just to be safe — even as recently as Nov. 9. A career
37.6 percent shooter from beyond the arc, he’s built a rep around the
Missouri Valley Conference for instant offense and boundless swagger —
locals refer to him as “The Legend” — while averaging 4.9 points per
contest. Last winter, it was Jones who nailed the game-winner in
overtime against Evansville, and Jones who had a hand up to force a
last-second air ball by Alabama, propelling the Jays past the Crimson
Tide in the NCAA tournament. A season ago, he was the first man off the
bench in 13 games; Creighton won 12 of those contests.
 
“So much
of who Josh was when he was playing and when he first got to Creighton
was about Josh the basketball player,” Jays coach Greg McDermott says.
“It could very well be that he’s cleared to play in four to six weeks.
But if that’s not what he chooses to do, I wouldn’t blame him. Neither
would anyone else.”
 

 
The voice chokes up again. It
wasn’t the unconsciousness in Lincoln, the uncertainty, the mess of
cords and wires, the stretcher, the panicked looks from teammates that
kept him up at night. No. What kept him up was wondering what he was
going to tell his mother, Desiree.
 
“Devastating,” Josh says of
the eventual phone call, and the awful exposition that followed.
“Because she thought back, all the way to 2007. I almost could have
potentially lost my life. So that was her initial thought.”
 
Painful
memories returned, in trickles and floods. Josh’s father, John Jones
Sr., had died in 2006 of an enlarged heart, a loss that would unravel a
close-knit family, thread by thread.
 
“You’ve only got one dad.
You’ve only got one mom,” Josh’s older brother John had said when he
heard about Dec. 6. “And you’ve only got one life.”
 
Then he wept.
 
John told him he loved him.
 
McDermott did, too.
 
“‘Your
life is far more precious than this simple game of basketball,'” Jones
says of his coach’s attempts at perspective. “And everything else was,
you know, just reassurance that I’m going to be OK.
 
“This is bigger. This is about life, and being a man, and being a human being. It’s bigger than just the game of basketball.”
 

 
The
voice shifts gears. For all the pain it’s caused, Josh doesn’t mind
talking about his heart. Not really. He knows it backward and forward by
now, speaks of it like a troubled old friend, albeit one that’s
constantly throwing his best-laid plans into a blender.

“Let me
tell you something: Personally, when your life is on the line, you’re
going to research it, too, to find out what’s the best way to live
possible,” he says. “I do all the research . . . to make sure I have the
best possible chance.”

Partly out of curiosity, partly as a
coping mechanism, Jones has read up on cardiology. A lot. He’s a
self-taught expert on the heart, especially the ones that gave out on
basketball stars such as Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers. For example, he
notes, Gathers’ problems stemmed from the lower ventricle chamber;
Josh’s issues have come in the upper, or atrial, chamber.

“So I’m well-educated with everything that’s going on,” he says. “It’s scary. Point-blank, I’ll tell you, it’s scary.”

When
it comes to matters of the heart, nothing is promised, and nothing is
routine. Tuesday’s ablation was originally scheduled to take just three
hours; instead, it wound up taking nine. Jones was released around noon
on Wednesday, but not before he entertained teammates and his coach from
his hospital bed, The Legend at rest.

Sort of.

“He was
Josh, he talked a mile a minute,” McDermott says. “And gave me a lesson
on the anatomy of the heart and how everything works.”

Jones is
slated to return for a follow-up visit Thursday, with more tests lined up next month. Even if the heart is strong enough for him to suit up,
Josh can’t say for sure what’ll happen next — basketball, as you might
imagine, hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of his mind lately. Rather
than fly west with Creighton during its visit to Berkeley, Calif., last
weekend, Jones remained in Omaha to comfort grieving family members.
 
“His
approach to this has been unbelievably mature,” McDermott says. “He’s
got great perspective. Probably, in large part, because of everything
he’s been through.”
 
Jones is wise beyond his years, 23 going on
48. He’s slated to graduate in May with a degree in public relations.
He’s kicked around a future in motivational speaking, coaching or even
private business, any pulpit to spread the gospel of a glass half-full.
 
“I’m just thankful,” The Legend says, “that I was in the right place at the right time.”
 
One dad. One mom. One life. And you better believe Josh Jones plans on making that last one count.
 
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com