Commentary

The second coming of Marion Jones

There is joy in her voice, spring in her step and fun in her life for the first time in years

Originally Published: March 24, 2010
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Of course, she watched. Like the rest of us, she watched as the joke-gone-terribly-wrong (and his inability to let it go) backfired on Gilbert Arenas -- figuratively, of course. Now, after he showed an illegal firearm to a teammate in the locker room, the fallen All-Star's season, image and freedom, and perhaps his $111 million contract, are up in smoke. Arenas was sentenced to a month in a halfway house and 400 hours of community service on the weapons charge in D.C. Superior Court on Friday.

She also watched as Tiger Woods' multiple marital transgressions caused an image/personal life/financial implosion the likes of which sports has never seen.

Marion Jones, once the world's fastest woman and one of the most decorated track and field stars in Olympic history, was transfixed. Not so much as a voyeur, but because she'd been there. Right where they were.

"Everyone knows my story," she said, speaking from her home in Austin, Texas.

[+] EnlargeMarion Jones and Nolan Richardson
AP Photo/Shane BevelMarion Jones' new coach is Nolan Richardson, with his "Forty Minutes of Hell" approach to the game.

Indeed, like Arenas, Woods and too many others, Jones made the wrong decisions (lying) at the absolute wrong times. In her case, she lied to two federal grand juries. It's been almost 17 months since she was released from prison after serving a six-month sentence, the result of a plea deal stemming from her longtime denial about using steroids. Beyond the time served, Jones, who won five medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, forfeited all her medals and millions in prize money dating back to September of that year.

Right where they were. Yet she has not spoken to Woods, nor to Arenas. But she shares their journey -- from the pedestal to the pits -- and is eager to share her "lessons learned" with any and everyone.

"How different am I?" she said, repeating my question regarding how she had changed because of her experiences. "Where do I start?

"I don't have all the answers now. But while I was away for six months, I had a lot of time to reflect and ask, 'Why?' I wish I had really stopped; and with everything going on in my life -- the winning, the magazine covers, the money -- [I wish] I had really stopped for one second, assessed the situation and spoken to someone.

"I learned you have to open yourself to people you trust, people with life experience, people who will give it to you straight -- not just pat you on the back -- and say: 'What you're doing is not right.'

"Now, when I'm about to make a tough decision, before I do something that will have a major impact on my life, I take a break, think and seek the advice of people I know and trust.

"Now, those are the type of people I listen to."

There's a joy in Jones' voice that, understandably, has not been there for years. It was widely reported that her travails left her broke. Now?

"I'm doing well," she said, without further illumination on her sources of income. She's married to Obadele Thompson, a former Olympic sprinter and medalist, and she had a third child last year.

"I'm really happy where I am spiritually, in life, emotionally. When you have so much taken away -- and I'm not just talking about your children -- every little thing that happens thereafter becomes so much more meaningful. I take nothing for granted."

Each day, the painful effects of her past give way to sweat and sore muscles. Earlier this month, the 34-year-old signed with the WNBA's Tulsa Shock (ex of Detroit), returning to a sport she has not played competitively since 1997, when she last played for the North Carolina Tar Heels. As a freshman, she helped the team win the 1994 NCAA title.

Her signing was generally welcomed, though there remain some who feel Jones' transgressions -- they involved the most dreaded word in sports: steroids -- should keep her out of any competitive arena.

That's nonsense. Jones has every right to earn a living, just as everyone else does who has paid his or her dues. She stood up, admitted her crimes and is now trying to put the pieces back together -- one crossover move at a time.

For the record, she was not tested for drugs before she signed with Tulsa, and she will be subject to the same testing procedures as every other NBA player -- as many as three random tests per year. "She's not worried about it at all," said Rich Nichols, her long-time attorney. "She welcomes it."

Moreover, what would be gained if she slinked away into ignominy? What would we learn beyond what we already know? (Don't lie to a grand jury!) Instead, her return gives us a chance to see that life can be lived beyond the pits in our own journey.

And she wants to show us how. Jones looks upon her return to competitive sports as much more than a chance to sweat again. It's an opportunity to share a message.

[+] EnlargeJones
AP Photo/Jason DeCrowShe had very little to smile about after her January 2008 sentencing for lying about her steroids use.

"I've been blessed with a second chance, a shining example of second chances," she said. "I want to encourage people young and old to stop, take a break and make good choices and decisions in their lives."

A 6-foot guard, she works out for three-plus hours three times each week in San Antonio (90 miles from her home) under the tutelage of San Antonio Silver Stars assistant Olaf Lange. The sessions include an hour of "skills" drills (ballhandling, shooting off screens, one-dribble step-backs, etc.), a 90-minute scrimmage with several Silver Stars and guys from the area, and then weights with trainer Tonya Holley.

"The sweating, pushing your body where it thinks it shouldn't go, that's what I love the most," she said.

When the WNBA season kicks off in May, don't expect to see the same slim (though jacked) Jones who blistered tracks around the globe. Basketball is a physical game, so she has tried to add muscle.

"I have to have a little more meat on me," she said with a laugh. "I'm naturally thin so [adding weight] has been a bit of a struggle."

You'll see it on her shoulders and arms.

"They're a bit more developed," she said. "But not too much."

Most important, she's trying to revive the skills that led her to be a third-round selection by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2003 WNBA draft.

"For the first few months, it was just about getting back in basketball shape," she said. "Now, I'm getting there with my skills. I'm playing pickup ball and I'm starting to feel the kind of excitement when I played college ball. It's fun."

That word -- "fun" -- hasn't applied lately in any context involving her own life. "It's been a little while," she said. "It's nice to be pursuing something I am passionate about and is challenging to me, and enjoying it."

Jones
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesIn 1994, she helped North Carolina to the national title. But Jones hasn't played competitive hoops in 13 years.

Does any passion for track remain? Would she consider a return to sport she dominated? "I'm on to a new chapter," she said.

She chose Tulsa because of the up-tempo, defensive-oriented system used by first-year coach Nolan ("Forty Minutes of Hell") Richardson, and because of its proximity to her home.

"There are so many 'new' factors," she said. "It's not only new for me, but the team is new to Tulsa, Coach Richardson is new to women's basketball and even the BOK Center [the team's home arena] is new. It's a good fit."

Jones is under no illusions about the challenge she faces, playing with and against players years younger. This will be hard, and she could fail. Not one of her college teammates is still active in the sport.

Still, she says, "I can't wait."

"It's about basketball but it's bigger than that. I want to focus on the passion of competing and how my playing is impacting the lives of others. That's what I want this whole journey to be about.

"Oh, I want to win. I'm an extremely competitive person. But I also hope what I'm doing inspires and motivates others who need a second chance. It's about what you do with them. Things happen; but regardless, you have to move forward and make positive choices," she said.

I know of at least two athletes who would do well to heed that advice.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

MORE COMMENTARY »

Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com