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Perspective | He had a heart attack and cancer, but he’ll leave basketball with a smile

Perspective | He had a heart attack and cancer, but he’ll leave basketball with a smile

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Jeff Jones — or JJ, as those who know him well call him — was a standout point guard at Virginia, the youngest coach in ACC history at his alma mater, the first man to lead American to the NCAA tournament and a successful coach for 10-plus seasons at Old Dominion.

Jones, 63, won 560 games before announcing Monday he was retiring after dealing with myriad health issues. He took Virginia to the Elite Eight in 1995 — upsetting No. 1 seed Kansas in the Sweet 16 before losing to Arkansas, the defending national champion, in the Midwest Region final. All three schools he coached made it to the NCAA tournament at least once — an impressive résumé.

For all of his accomplishments, though, my most vivid memory of Jones is in the moments following American’s 52-46 victory over Colgate in the 2008 Patriot League final.

American had never reached the Division I tournament, even in the glory days of Kermit Washington. It had come close under Jones — losing the conference tournament title game in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

Before the 2008 game, I sat with Jones in the hallway outside the locker room. “I know what this game means to the school,” he said. “We’ve been close but haven’t gotten there. I actually feel more pressure right now than before we played Arkansas in the Elite Eight.”

The Eagles rallied from a four-point second-half deficit to win, and while the overjoyed students cut down the nets and celebrated with the players, Jones sat on the bench holding the towel he often carried, trying to hide his tears.

“I’ve been in basketball for a long time,” he said. “But I think this is the best moment I’ve ever had.”

That was quite a statement.

Jones grew up in Owensboro, Ky., and was the kind of point guard every big-time program wanted to recruit. His decision came down to Virginia and North Carolina, and he finally chose the Cavaliers, much to Dean Smith’s dismay.

“One of my biggest recruiting disappointments ever,” Smith said later. “He was exactly the kind of kid I know I would have loved to coach.”

Jones was a four-year starter at Virginia and was on the Ralph Sampson-led Final Four team in 1981.

He went to work for Virginia’s Terry Holland after graduating and, when Holland’s health forced him to retire in 1990, Jones succeeded him at just 29. In his first five seasons, he averaged 21 wins, made four NCAA tournaments and won the NIT in 1992, the one season Virginia didn’t make the field.

Two losing seasons in the next three years got him fired because Virginia people had come to take NCAA bids for granted. That was a difficult time in Jones’s life; he and his first wife were going through a divorce.

Two years later, he was hired at American, which needed a complete rebuild. Around that time, he remarried; his second wife, Danielle — DJ — was a top editor at National Journal and then Politico.

His success at American led him to Old Dominion, where he had four 20-win seasons.

The only thing that really slowed him down was his health. He had a perennial in-season cough, which is why he always had that large towel next to him on the bench. He is being treated for cancer for the fourth time. And, on Dec. 20, with Old Dominion in Honolulu preparing for the Diamond Head Classic, he suffered a heart attack that forced him to turn the coaching reins to longtime assistant Kieran Donohue.

When I talked to him Monday and asked how he was doing, he said: “I’m great — really. I feel good, but I just felt like it was time to get away from the stress that’s part of coaching.”

That’s the thing about JJ — he never let you see him sweat.

While he was in college, his parents divorced. When Holland was asked if he thought the divorce might affect his point guard’s play, he shook his head. “I don’t think it will,” he said. “JJ is a rock.”

Years later, when we discussed that time in his life, JJ laughed. “I was a complete mess,” he said. “I felt like my whole world had collapsed.”

He has now dealt with good seasons and bad, with cancer and a heart attack. But he is never anything but upbeat. The only thing I’ve ever heard him complain about is poor officiating or his team’s lousy play.

He has a temper. Once, when Virginia played at Maryland, he broke his hand after putting it through a blackboard in frustration. Years later, the Eagles beat Maryland early in the season that ended in the 2008 NCAA tournament. After that game, I asked Gary Williams if he would consider playing at American, the school that had given him his first head coaching job.

“No way,” Williams answered. “Not as long as Jeff’s coaching there. They’re too good. That game was supposed to be a win.”

JJ has been a head coach since 1990. He’s entitled to a break, especially given the new pressures of college coaching.

“It’s a mess,” he said Monday. “[That] stuff I won’t miss at all. I miss the competition. But I’ll be fine. I’m excited about what comes next.”

Of course he’ll be fine. JJ is a rock.

And college basketball will miss him — a lot.

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