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.
“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.