Commentary

Grandson of Jonestown founder is making a name for himself

Updated: November 18, 2008, 3:43 PM ET
By Jon Fish and Chris Connelly | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: This story, which has been updated, originally appeared in October 2007.

It is early February 2007, and basketball has brought Rob Jones and his father, Jim Jones Jr., to senior night at San Francisco's Archbishop Riordan High School. Rob is the best high school basketball player in the Bay Area. He's 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds -- a forward with strength and quickness.

"His 'Wow!' factor is rebounding and positioning down low," says his coach, Rich Forslund. "He dominates at the high school level down there. Virtually anybody he plays, he gives them grief."

And this night is no exception: Rob racks up 30 points and 17 rebounds.

"It was his time, it was his moment," his father says with pride. "He made sure everybody knew it."

Rob's success holds special meaning for his father. Years ago, he also had a basketball team, a team he loved and will never forget.

"I wouldn't be talking to you if it wasn't for basketball," Jim Jones Jr. says. "It spared my life."

The words are not an empty cliché. They are true. Basketball kept this family alive, and now Rob and basketball are helping restore honor to the family name.

Why? Because the name "Jones" can be found in the history books and in news coverage from three decades ago, linked to an infamous place called Jonestown. There, in November 1978, more than 900 men, women and children died in a mass suicide orchestrated by the Rev. Jim Jones, founder and leader of Jonestown -- and the grandfather of Rob Jones.

Jim Jones Jr.
FBIThe Jonestown basketball team played on a court built in the compound on a platform floor in a place originally intended to be a storehouse.
"I'll be walking through the hallways at school and people will say, 'We talked about you in … history class,'" Rob says. "I just say, 'Yeah, that's my grandfather,' and kinda walk away with a smile."

But that hasn't kept Rob from taking time to ponder his grandfather.

"I was walking through Borders and they had '101 Most Infamous Criminals in U.S. History' or something, and you open it up … to Jim Jones Sr.," Rob says. "It just kind of blows you away that he was that big of a character in United States history."

That history began after stops in Indiana and rural Northern California, when the Rev. Jones landed in San Francisco. There, in the mid-1970s, he used social activism, radicalized rhetoric and elements of old-time religion, like purported acts of faith healing, to whip the multicultural congregation of Peoples Temple into a fervor. He was undeniably charismatic, and manipulative.

"My father was a master of finding what was most important to you [and] finding a way to make you believe he was giving it to you," says Stephan Jones, 49, the biological son of the Rev. Jones. "I know that's how I was worked."

Jim Jones Jr.
FBIThe Rev. Jim Jones moved his followers from the United States to Guyana, where he built Jonestown.
The Rev. Jones became a political force in San Francisco politics. Yet when questions were raised about abuses within Peoples Temple, he moved his flock to South America and created a would-be utopia -- Jonestown -- in the jungles of Guyana, which neighbors Venezuela.

"I believed. I believed we could change the world," says Jim Jr., 48, who was the first black child in Indiana state history to be adopted by a white couple: the Rev. Jim and Marceline Jones.

But when the Rev. Jones arrived in Guyana for good in August 1977, some who already were there felt the magnetism that had created Peoples Temple was devolving into paranoia and madness.

"When Dad got down there," Stephan says, "work immediately went from being a means of production to a means of control … the atmosphere was immediately oppressive."

Jonestown was accessible only by boat or plane, a big change for people like Johnny Cobb who were accustomed to San Francisco.

"You know, you don't have the fast-food places to go to," Cobb says. "You don't have this corner store to go to. No television. … Within two months you find yourself reading more books. Start doing other things. Playing sports again."

So a basketball hoop was erected in the encampment, built on a platform floor in a place originally intended to be a storehouse. For the young men who played there, the game became a kind of organized defiance against the Rev. Jones.

"I remember, even in Jonestown, basketball being such a release," Stephan says, "a place to go to let go of all of our frustration and rage …. It was a borderline rebellious act for us to play organized ball. We always felt guilty."

A Guyanese government official offered them a chance to compete in a tournament against the region's national teams in the capital city of Georgetown, a two-hour plane ride away. The Rev. Jones agreed to let the team go, seizing a chance to get some good publicity for Peoples Temple.

"You have the opportunity to make or break Jonestown," the Rev. Jones told them in an address that, like almost all of his other utterances, was captured on audiotape. "…Your winning of the game is essential, but it's how you play that game, 'cause a lot of people are gonna be watching. You can do tremendous PR for us."

Explains Stephan: "We were the 'crazy Americans in the jungle,' so they thought we could bridge that through sport."

By now it was late summer of 1978, and Jim Jr., then 18, was dispatched to Georgetown where he would spend three months helping set up the tournament.

"I went into Georgetown to learn public relations -- black son, black country, great idea," Jim Jr. says. "It was good PR for Jonestown, and it was a way for me and my brothers to play ball. I mean, that was the genesis: We wanted to play ball."

On Nov. 7, 1978, one day after the team arrived in Georgetown, there was news from California. Then-U.S. Rep. Leo J. Ryan Jr. (D-Calif.) announced he would travel to Jonestown with former Peoples Temples members who had left the camp. He intended to investigate accounts of followers being held against their will and reports of suicide drills.

Stephan imagined what that news meant: "It was ugly when the congressman was coming and … it couldn't be a good thing to bring the U.S. government and the press and defectors down at the same time -- the three things my father hated most."

Ryan arrived in Guyana on Nov. 15. That day, at Peoples Temple headquarters in Georgetown, the Rev. Jones' voice came over the ham radio. He demanded that the players return to Jonestown immediately. But they refused.

"We were wanting to stay and play and enjoy each other and enjoy the freedom," Stephan says. "What made him mad is then Mom got on and she tried talking -- and I knew exactly what was happening. I said, 'Mom, you don't have to talk for him,' which I knew just sent him through the roof."

Meanwhile, at the National Sports Hall, the basketball tournament was in progress.

"We played the Guyanese the first day, and honestly, we got blown out by 30," Jim Jr. says.

The teams played another tournament game two days later and lost by 10 points. That same night, Ryan had arrived in Jonestown, and Peoples Temple threw a party in the area known as the pavilion. There was music and singing, and Ryan addressed the crowd.

The Jonestown Massacre
David Hume Kennerly/Getty ImagesMore than 900 men, women and children died during the Jonestown mass suicide orchestrated by Peoples Temple leader the Rev. Jones.
"I think you know that I'm here to find out more about questions that have been raised about your operation here," Ryan said. "But I can tell you right now that from the few conversations with folks here already this evening, that whatever the comments are, there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life."

The pavilion erupted into joyful delirium. Wild cheering and applause filled the space. Scores of young faces -- men and women of every color, adults and children -- beamed. Less than 24 hours later, nearly everyone in the room would be dead.

The next day, Nov. 18, Ryan invited anyone who wanted to leave Jonestown with him to do so. More than a dozen followed. At the pavilion, there were scenes of rage and anguish. Families could be seen splitting apart on the spot amid bitter recriminations.

Ryan and his delegation left Jonestown. They were driven six miles to a dirt landing strip. As they were about to board their planes, a tractor pulled up alongside the landing strip and members of the Peoples Temple got out, aimed their rifles and opened fire.

Five people died, among them Ryan and NBC cameraman Bob Brown, whose camera was still rolling when he was shot and killed. Some of the victims were shot at point-blank range. An apocalypse had been set into motion.

Back in Georgetown, most members of the basketball team were spending their day off at a movie, "Company of Killers." Jim Jr. got a horrifying message from his father over the ham radio.

"He was telling me … what happened to the congressman," he recalls, "that we would be blamed for people wanting to leave and the injustices against Peoples Temple. He said that people were gonna lay their lives down, that they were gonna commit revolutionary suicide. It still echoes in my head how I argued with my father … like, 'Why are we doing this? Isn't there another way?'"

The hours that followed were a blur of frantic movement and increasing desperation all over the capital city as members of the basketball team pleaded with authorities to get to Jonestown immediately.

"They heard that there was some shootings going on," Cobb says. "We were like, 'Go get there right away. Get people there. Go, go, go.'"

"We ran to the embassy … to see if we could fly out there to stop it," Jim Jr. says. "But at this point the mechanism had started."

At Jonestown, a vat of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid was being prepared. Mothers were instructed to bring their children forward first. The last audiotape from Jonestown captured the unimaginable horror, as the Rev. Jones beckoned his followers to the grave.

"Look, children, it's just something to put you to rest," he said amid sounds of wailing and lamentation. "Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, please. Mother, please, please, please. Don't -- don't do this. Don't do this. Lay down your life with your child …"

When it was over, more than 900 people were dead. The Rev. Jones was dead from a gunshot. The players on the basketball team had lost everyone they loved. Jim Jr. had lost his parents, his wife and their unborn child.

"That moment is a moment that you don't wish upon anybody," he says, "because everything that you live for in 18 years is gone."

Today, the ever-indifferent jungle engulfs the place once known as Jonestown. Daisies sprout among the weeds in what's left of the clearing.

Jim Jones Jr.
FBIFor Jim Jones Jr. and his teammates, playing basketball was a kind of defiance against the Rev. Jones.
Playing basketball had kept the players on the team away from the horror. It had saved their lives. But they felt their presence in Jonestown on that day might have changes things -- and their guilt was overwhelming.

"For many years, I had a hard time dealing with that," Jim Jr. says. "The survivor guilt. Why did I survive? I blamed basketball, 'If I wasn't selfish playing basketball, maybe I could have made a difference.'"

Jim Jr. returned to San Francisco, eventually married again, had three boys and put his life back together. But he avoided the game he had always enjoyed, until his eldest son brought it back.

"It wasn't until Robert showed an interest that I started coaching him," Jim Jr. says. "And I've developed a love for it again."

"I thank God every day," Rob says. "I'm a real lucky man just to have a father and that he's there supporting me in whatever I do, no matter what."

"When I first saw the article, 'Jones leads Riordan to the top,' I just paused initially," Jim Jr. says. "Our family name in the paper -- Jones leading anybody -- was leading them to not a very positive outcome. It just gave me a swell of pride that here's a Jones leading an organization or a program in a very positive direction."

Says Rob: "I'm proud just to do what I do and give the family a good name. That's probably been one of the greater feelings I've had in my life."

After graduating from Riordan, Rob chose to play college basketball for the University of San Diego, where he's currently a sophomore. In his freshman season, Rob averaged 9.0 points and 5.8 rebounds. He hit a huge bucket late in the Toreros' overtime upset win against Connecticut in the NCAA tournament.

"I was known in basketball gyms as the son of the infamous Jim Jones," Jim Jr. says. "Now I'm known as the father of Rob Jones. That's a good feeling."

Jon Fish is a producer and Chris Connelly is a reporter for ESPN's "Outside the Lines."

Chris Connelly

Essayist and Reporter