PHILADELPHIA – For many, March Madness is an adrenaline rush, a thrill, a tension they crave all year long.
For Josh Jones, March Madness can be terrifying.
The Creighton playmaker had to quit the game of basketball in December because of a heart condition known as an atrial flutter. But even though he's not playing anymore, he lives in constant worry that his heart will start to beat too fast and he won't be able to do anything to stop it. That fear creeps up on him during every close game, and Friday's second-round, 67-63 win over Cincinnati was a very close game.
"My greatest fear," Jones said after the final horn, "is dying suddenly. And nobody being able to help."
On December 6, while warming up for a game at Nebraska, Jones got dizzy and found himself experiencing tunnel vision. He passed out at midcourt. Doctors said his heart was pounding at 200 beats per minute. Twelve days later, he underwent a procedure to correct it, yet he was told not to do any strenuous activity for at least six months. A three-time state champion guard went from sixth-man on a tourney-bound team to not being able to walk at a brisk pace. He couldn't even do a push-up. As desperately as he wanted to keep his career going, he knew he had to protect his life. So he stopped playing.
Jones spent a week deciding whether to join his team on this trip to Philadelphia. He knew there would be tense moments. He knew his heart rate would pick up. He knew that would make him nervous, and make his heart beat even faster.
He came anyway. Doctors cleared him, putting him through a battery of tests which accelerated his heart rate but not abnormally so. That helped ease his mind. That, plus the fact that he's arguably just as loved by teammates and fans as NBA-bound star Doug McDermott. Jones still considers himself a leader, just not on the court. "I'm a spark," he says.
So Friday, before tipoff here, he made a mental note of where the EMTs were stationed. If he started to get dizzy, he would run over to them. That's his normal pregame routine now: take a seat, find the medics.
Sure enough, Friday's game was close. The biggest lead was eight points, when McDermott scored a layup with under nine minutes to go. But for most of the 40 minutes, the teams were within a basket or two.
As the Creighton lead narrowed, Jones shuffled in his chair behind the school band, constantly checking his pulse, drinking water, listening to his heartbeat and trying to tune out the drama of an exciting game. His mind darted between longing to help his team win and longing to keep himself calm. In conference tournament games earlier this month, he rushed to and from the court, resting in the concourse and then revving back up out in the arena.
"I'm scared," he said.
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You wouldn't know it by being around him. Jones has a camera-ready smile and a happy demeanor. He wants to be a motivational speaker; he's getting good practice telling his story. Watching the end of Friday's game with him was like watching with an old friend. He gestures, he cheers, he pumps a fist, he commentates. Inside, though, there's always the fear.
Jones' father died of an enlarged heart when he was 17, a month after Josh won his second state title at his Omaha, Neb., high school. Jones thought of quitting then, with so much of his love for the game suddenly gone. He carried on, though, and ended up suffering from an infected valve in 2007. It felt like the flu, but it continued for months until it got to the point where he started hallucinating.
"I was dying slowly," he said. "I just didn't know it."
Jones needed a five-and-a-half hour open-heart surgery to replace the faulty valve. An eight-inch scar on his chest serves as a constant reminder. His heart, like his dad's, is enlarged. He says he'll need another open-heart surgery at some point in the future to adjust a valve. He just doesn't know when, and he doesn't know if it will solve the problem over the long term. His next appointment, which he put off to come here, is in April.
"The biggest thing is perseverance," Jones said. "My character is what will define me."
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All the senior can do is wait and pray and, yes, worry. Jones says he's had several panic attacks since passing out in December. He goes to the hospital and explains his situation. He smiles constantly, partly to calm others' nerves and partly to calm his own. Stress is a compounding problem: show a little of it and a little more will come back straight to you. Jones can't afford that.
He tries to be in the company of others as much as he can these days, just in case. He sleeps at his girlfriend's house, or relaxes with teammates until late at night. Sometimes he's afraid to go to sleep, though he doesn't tell anyone to stay up with him. The shadow of what's happened before stays with him all day, every day.
Yet something else is with him too: this singular chance to see his friends in the tournament. Duke is the school he grew up dreaming of attending, and on Sunday he'll have a front-row seat to see his team try to take them down to advance to the Sweet 16. His heart issue may last awhile, sadly. His team's moment, however, will not. "I feel like I have a calling," Jones said, "to be here for everybody else."
With less than a minute to go in Friday's win, Jones jumped up from his seat. "This anxiety is getting to me," he said. He sidled down his row and walked toward the bench as time ticked down. Cincinnati's last shot missed, and Creighton grabbed the last rebound. Game over. Jones grinned and hustled to join his teammates in the congratulatory handshake line. The team was OK, and Josh was OK.
In the locker room after, he sat with the other Bluejays as they ate and laughed and talked about the weekend. He was very much a part of the team, as he was before all this happened. Then he stood and started to leave. He ran into one of the coaches, who nodded at him.
"You glad you came?" the coach said.
"Oh yeah," Jones said. "Oh yeah."
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