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