INDIANAPOLIS – Verdell Jones Jr. sounded remarkably chipper Friday night.
Jones and his wife, Sheila, were in the car westbound on Interstate 74, hustling away from an awful two days at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and toward a high school playoff game for son Clayton back home in Champaign, Ill.
They had seen the college basketball career of their oldest son, Verdell III, shockingly end when he crumpled to the court Thursday with a torn ACL. Then they had watched the Indiana Hoosiers lose without "V," as they call him, to Wisconsin on Friday.
V's injury had suddenly, cruelly ended a lifetime father-son journey – one that began at age 4 on the playground at Westview Elementary School near the Jones' house. In the evenings, the two would head to the playground to plot the future.
"Me and little V and a ball and a dream," Verdell Jr. said as he drove. "It was a great time."
With his father's tutelage, the dream had grown over the years. Verdell Jr. kept working out – hour after hour, day after day, year after year – and his game kept improving. Ultimately, V became a standout on the AAU team his dad coached, and earned a scholarship to perennial power Indiana.
Now, in a twist of fate and ligament, all that was done. The final payoff, a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, was taken from V and the man who honed his game. But Verdell Jr. refused to indulge in a pity party.
"We can get so caught up in the game itself, we forget we're dealing with people," he said. "And people have lives. Things come into our lives to give us perspective."
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In the 24 hours after V got hurt, one thing in particular came into the Jones' life to give them perspective. It was a call from a friend who had lost a child at age 18.
"We can get a knee fixed," Verdell Jr. said. "He's going to be healthy. There are so many things that could be so much worse.
"The reality is we're people of faith. We just go back to our anchor. That's Jesus. That's what real life is all about. It has made this thing a lot easier to go through."
Easier, but not easy. Thursday night had been emotional – not just for the Joneses but for everyone associated with Indiana basketball.
When Jones' knee buckled against Penn State, more than 17,000 people went silent. While medical staff and coach Tom Crean rushed out to Jones as he writhed on the court, his teammates could not concentrate on what the assistant coaches were saying in the sideline huddle. They kept looking at Jones, concern evident on their faces.
When he was helped off the court without putting any weight on his right leg, everyone feared the worst. When Crean went to do his postgame radio show after the Indiana victory and was in tears on the air, the worst fears seemed justified. And when the announcement came Friday morning – torn ACL, done for the season – the worst fears were realized.
Jones entered the arena Friday on crutches. During the Wisconsin game, he sat behind the team bench instead of on it. He stood up to exhort his teammates, and chimed in during the timeouts.
"He was very engaged," Indiana assistant Tim Buckley said.
Engaged but ultimately powerless to help the Hoosiers against the Badgers.
"It's very disappointing for him and for our team," Buckley said. "But sometimes the things we go through leading up to something like this helps you deal with it."
Verdell Jones III had been through plenty in his time at Indiana.
As part of Crean's first freshman class, he came in with visions of restoring a tattered and tainted program to prominence. It was a harder restoration project than anyone had imagined.
Indiana lost 25 games that first season, winning just once after Dec. 10. The following season, the Hoosiers lost 21 times, and only won a single game after Jan. 21. Last season, there were 20 defeats, including a nine-game losing streak to end the season.
This season, at last, there was team success. Indiana is 25-8 and going to the Big Dance. But in order to make it happen, Jones had to surrender part of his starring role; after averaging in double figures in each of his first three seasons, his scoring average dipped to 7.5 this season.
Jones lived with it because the payoff was coming. He'd finally get to play in the NCAA tournament, part of the playground dream he and his father concocted so many years earlier.
And now he won't. It's not fair, but it's not fatal, either. Verdell Jones Jr. wants you to remember that.
"We had to ask, 'What can we learn from this situation?' " he said. "We learned that so many other things are more important. Our litmus test as parents is not how many points he scored, but what kind of man are we producing. What kind of husband will he be to our future daughter-in-law? What kind of father will he be to his children?
"We're proud of him. It's been a blessing and a joy to observe him grow into the young man he's become."
And no knee injury can take that away.
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