Kentucky home for Jones
LEXINGTON, Ky. – The moment he picked up the phone, Kentucky coach John Calipari could sense Terrence Jones was crying.
Less than an hour earlier, during a press conference at Jefferson High School in Portland, Ore., the 6-foot-9 Jones had revealed his plans to sign a basketball scholarship with the University of Washington.
All along, though, something didn’t feel right for Jones. He liked Washington – but he didn’t love it. Not like he loved Kentucky.
So as his friends and family celebrated in the gym after his announcement, Jones retreated to a quiet corner and called Orlando Antigua, a Kentucky assistant who was with Calipari.
Antigua answered and then passed the phone to the Wildcats’ head coach.
“He told me, ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake,’” Calipari said earlier this week. “He was obviously crying. He said, ‘I can’t believe I did this. I don’t know what I was thinking.’”
Luckily for Jones it wasn’t too late. Because he didn’t sign a letter of intent with Washington that day, there was nothing binding Jones to the Huskies’ program. Jones spent the next few weeks gathering his thoughts and then did what he wished he would’ve from the get-go.
He became a Kentucky Wildcat.
Reclining in a leather chair in Kentucky’s athletic offices five months later, Jones – a potential first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft – said he couldn’t be happier with his decision.
“I’m so glad,” he said, “that I stopped listening to other people and started listening to myself. This is where I’m supposed to be.”
Jones admits his fascination with Kentucky centered mostly on Calipari. Jones was a ninth-grader when he first watched Calipari stalk the sidelines at his former school, Memphis. He said he fell in love with Calipari’s dribble-drive offense and the freedom it gives athletic players to create their own shots.
“It’s a ballhandlers dream,” Jones said. “Your coach trusts you to make decisions and to try to make something happen. If something breaks down, you just pass it off to the next guy and he has the chance to do the same thing.
“The more I watched it, the more I thought, ‘That looks like so much fun.’”
So impressed was Jones that, as a 15-year-old, he logged onto Memphis’ website in hopes of contacting Calipari. He said he found the main number to the school’s athletic department and called several times. Eventually, though, Jones grew frustrated with the automated menus and voice prompts.
“I just gave up,” he said.
No matter. Within a few years, Calipari was the one attempting to contact Jones after watching the forward dominate his opponents on the AAU circuit. Jones said he’ll never forget how excited he was when Calipari first expressed interest in his services.
“The [recruiting] dead period had just ended, and it was the first day coaches could call players,” Jones said. “I turned on my phone and it said I had 20 new messages. I started going through all of them real fast, but I stopped once I heard [Calipari’s] voice. I definitely called him right back.”
Unlike most high school seniors, Jones didn’t sign a national letter of intent during the 2009 fall signing period, opting instead to wait until the spring. That gave him time to monitor the other schools he was considering. Kansas, Oklahoma, UCLA and Oregon were on the list, but in the end it came down to the Kentucky and Washington.
Jones – the 13th-ranked player in the Class of 2010 by Rivals.com – had become even more enamored with the Wildcats after they posted a 35-3 record in Calipari’s first season. Still, he was torn because his closest friends and family members wanted him to stay close to home and attend Washington, which was fresh off its second Pac-10 championship in three years.
Another factor was that Terrence Ross, Jones’ close friend and high school teammate, was also signing with Washington.
On April 30, Jones called a press conference to announce his college intentions. It’s a move he now said he regrets.
“I didn’t have a decision made yet,” he said, “but, at the same time, I was ready to be done with it. It was a confusing situation. It’s something I felt I was put on the spot to do. I wasn’t ready to do that.”
Jones lined up the hats of the schools he was considering on the table before him and then picked up the one with the Washington logo. Those in attendance cheered as Jones slipped the cap onto his head, but his mother realized something wasn’t right.
“My mother felt that I didn’t want to go to Washington and that I wanted to go to Kentucky,” Jones said. “She thought I was scared. She said, ‘I don’t think you want to go to Washington. You need to quit listening to other people.’ It was definitely the hardest decision I’ve ever had to go through in my life.”
Jones said he phoned Washington coach Lorenzo Romar after the press conference to let him know his decision wasn’t final. He then called Calipari, who had been shocked to hear that Jones had committed to the Huskies.
“We had been told he was coming [to Kentucky],” Calipari said. “I was at a function and someone called and said he picked Washington. I said, ‘What? How did that happen?’”
When Jones called Antigua about an hour later, Calipari was still agitated.
“Orlando said, ‘It’s Terrence,’ and tried to hand me the phone,” Calipari said. “I said, ‘Just wish him good luck. What does he need to tell me?’ But Orlando said he really needed to talk to me, so I got on the phone. He said he had made a mistake and then said, ‘Will you still have me?’ Of course I said yes.”
Nearly three weeks later, on May 20, Kentucky announced that Jones had faxed his signed financial aid agreement to Lexington.
Within hours, Jones said people began calling his phone from blocked numbers and leaving hateful voicemail messages. His Facebook wall became littered with comments from angry Washington fans, and vulgar, anonymous letters arrived each day at his home.
“Everyone was telling me what a bad person I was for what I did,” Jones said. “I didn’t respond. They don’t know me. They don’t know anything about me and what happened with my decision. There was nothing I could say to persuade them from thinking I’m a bad person. I did what I did.”
While Jones may have upset some folks in the Pacific Northwest, he couldn’t be any more loved at Kentucky, where trips to dinner or strolls through campus are often interrupted by requests for pictures or autographs.
Even though he’s known most of his teammates for only a few months, Jones refers to the Wildcats as his “brothers” and talks about how appreciative he is that Calipari “has his back.” Jones’ love of all things Lexington is reflected in some of his recent Twitter posts.
“My rhyme of the day: super lucky to be playing at Kentucky,” he tweeted on Oct. 4. Six days earlier he wrote, “I’m in class with about 300 ppl thanking god for putting me in this situation blessed yes I am.”
Jones’ most telling message of all, though, came while he was on a trip home to Portland two months ago. On Aug. 19, Jones tweeted: “I miss my teammates already I’m almost ready for lex again.”
Yes, even though he’s nearly 2,400 miles away from home, Jones couldn’t feel more at peace.
“Being away from home isn’t as tough when I’m with my teammates,” he said. “I don’t feel far from home. I look at this as another home.”
Calipari and the Wildcats are glad Jones is in such high spirits considering he’ll play a vital role for a Kentucky team that lost all but two of its regular rotation players (Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins) from last season’s Elite Eight squad.
Even if freshman Enes Kanter is ruled ineligible, Jones is one of three newcomers likely to start for Kentucky.
Jones is extremely versatile for his height and weight (230 pounds). When he’s not posting up a smaller player in the paint, Jones can be found handling the ball on the perimeter, where he has the ability to connect from both long and mid-range.
Jones said he should be able to “exploit mismatches.” Calipari agreed.
“He’s a vital part of what we’re going to do this year,” Calipari said. “Defensively, rebounding the ball … he’s going to have to be big. We need him to make some shots. I’m a little worried right now. He’s going to have to shoot the ball better than he has in the few practices we’ve had.
“All freshmen have trouble playing hard enough. They don’t compete at the level they need to. They never finish a full possession. They think, ‘I can stop right here,’ while the other team is grinding and grinding. We’ll lose games early. There’s definitely a lot of work to be done.”
True, but Calipari is regarded as one of the best in the country at coaching younger players who have no intentions of staying in school longer than a year or two. Kentucky had arguably the best team in the country for most of last season despite the fact that four of its top seven players were freshmen.
“Coach Cal’s teams are always well-prepared,” said Jones, 18. “Youth isn’t a problem for him. He’s proven that.”
Kentucky had five players – including all four of those freshmen – selected in the first round of last year’s NBA draft. If Jones has the season coaches think he’s capable of, that trend could continue this summer.
Not that Jones is willing to talk about it.
“I never set individual goals,” he said. “I just don’t feel it’s an individual game. It’s a team game. It says Kentucky on the scoreboard. Whatever comes with how hard I play – it’ll just come. I don’t look that far ahead.
“I’m just happy to be here.”