- Adrian Wojnarowski
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Richard Jones' bedroom in his mother's little Charlestown, Mass., home is largely undisturbed, left the way it would've been waiting for him this week.
Every few days, Delta Grant dusts her son's basketball trophies on the window sill, runs her fingers over his prom king crown, and gently kisses his picture on the bureau. Her boy was supposed to come home with his basketball team today. Richard Jones was coming home for Christmas.
This was his game for Canisius College against Boston University on Thursday, the homecoming that the team captain's coach had promised when Mike MacDonald recruited Jones to Buffalo, N.Y. four years ago.
"He wouldn't stop talking about this game," she said softly on the phone. "He was so thrilled that everyone back home could come see him play here."
Yet, Grant spent Tuesday morning where she always spends all of her Tuesdays before leaving for her job at Filiene's Basement in downtown Boston. She visited her son's grave in Mattapan, longing over the tombstone she had engraved with her youngest child's smiling face. She thought the picture would make it easier to visit him, but it never does. Nothing makes it easier, and maybe nothing ever will.
"I always thought I would be flying up here for his graduation," she told MacDonald, when he had come to pick her up at the Buffalo airport this past May 7. "I never thought I'd be coming to bring him home for his funeral."
MacDonald had recruited the 6-foot-6 star of the Charlestown High School state champions, the best player on a team that won 57 of his final 58 high school basketball games. Jones started as a homesick kid struggling with basketball and books as a freshman. He transformed himself into a two-year starter and a Digital Media Arts major on course to graduate a semester early in December.
He was one of those kids who went to college, and found a whole world opening up for him. That basketball scholarship opened up a whole world beyond the gymnasium for Jones.
"One day, we're sitting down talking about whether he was going to pursue a double major or a graduate degree in his last semester, and the next, you're sitting in the coroner's office," MacDonald said. "You never come into this job thinking about something like this. They don't prepare you for this."
MacDonald had been conducting his sanctioned off-season workouts in the Koessler Athletic Center on May 5. Jones had just been flying through the air, dunking the ball. He had been laughing with his teammates. Richard Jones had been himself. And suddenly, he was making a move across the lane and he dropped.
Across the floor, MacDonald turned to see him face first on the court. For a moment, the coach thought Jones had tripped on a stray ball and was feigning embarrassment.
"I thought he would jump up, and do a dance move," MacDonald said. "I thought he would turn it into a funny moment, because that was him."
Only, the laughing had stopped with Jones. One of his teammates, Darnell Wilson, reached to Jones' side, asking, "You OK, Rich?" Wilson turned Jones over and everyone could see he had gone into convulsions. The coach rushed over, trying to keep him from swallowing his tongue. MacDonald yelled for one of the kids, Mike Hanley, to get a trainer, but Hanley stood there for a split second, frozen, unable to compute the words.
"GET THE TRAINER!" MacDonald screamed.
Both the trainer, Andy Smith, and his assistant were downstairs, conducting a seminar for student trainers. They hustled upstairs to find MacDonald cradling Jones' head, trying to keep it from banging on the floor. He was gasping air. The gym was so silent, except for that kid fighting for breaths. The trainers tried everything to save him before the ambulance arrived, but it was his heart. It had given out.
It wouldn't be long until MacDonald was making the longest walk of his life, down the flight of stairs into the Canisius locker room, where the Canisius players would gather to hear MacDonald break them the news.
The autopsy found that Jones had an enlarged heart. It was so ironic: About a week earlier, MacDonald was watching Jones work one-on-one with kids at the Special Olympics, and thinking what he always thought of Richard Jones. The kid had a big heart.
Canisius is a close-knit Jesuit school in downtown Buffalo, and word spread quickly. So did the grief. One of the baseball players, traveling with the team for a game at the University of Buffalo that afternoon, learned of Jones' death when instant messaged on his cell phone. The team climbed off the bus, and in full uniform, marched over to the chapel and conducted an impromptu service. Over 1,000 people packed the gym that Saturday night for a memorial service. MacDonald's eulogy moved the room to tears, perhaps the finest hour any college coach, anywhere, had in 2004.
Before Jones' death, MacDonald's wife, Maura, had commissioned her husband's player to draw him portraits of the couple's three boys for a Father's Day gift. He had asked for the MacDonalds' Christmas card photo to get the kids features just right. When Mike MacDonald was cleaning out Richard's dormitory room with Delta, they found a finished portrait of Patrick MacDonald, and a nearly completed drawing of Nicholas. He wanted to break down and cry right there, but tried to stay strong for the boy's mother. She gave MacDonald the pictures to bring home, and they're hanging in his kid's playroom.
MacDonald never considered calling Boston University's coach Dennis Wolff to push the game back a season, because Richard Jones still had a stall in the Canisius locker room and he was still such a part of this team.
"It will be emotional, but we want to play there," Canisius senior DeWitt Doss said.
Mostly, they thought this was the best way to honor his family. This wasn't just Richard's game, but a game for everyone back home who loved him. The players decided that they wouldn't make a side trip to the cemetery on the morning of the game Thursday, because it would be just too emotional within hours of playing B.U.
MacDonald plans to wake up early and visit on his own. As much as he tries to remember that smiling kid, too often he just finds himself flashing back to the May afternoon in the gym, and seeing the bottom of the kid's shoes.
Delta has Richard's art work hanging in her home, including a beautiful self-portrait he drew for his mother. When her son was young, he used to draw pictures of his classmates and they'd buy them for 50 cents or a dollar. Just several months ago, she was planning for next spring, about having two sons graduating college. Her oldest, Troy, 27, had gone back to school at Worcester State and neared his degree too.
"I worried they might be on the same day, and I'd have to choose one," she said.
Now, there will be no graduations in the spring. Richard is gone, and Troy has been so devastated over his brother's death, he dropped out of school. Troy promised his mother he would soon go back again, but there will be no ceremony in the spring.
For now, she clings tightly to the connection she still has to Richard. His teammates, and coach and classmates at Canisius have managed to make her feel a part of the senior year her son will never have. They send her cards and notes. MacDonald calls often. Richard's old roommate, Manny Jocobo, had a party on Richard's 22nd birthday in November at his off-campus apartment. He charged admission, and sent Mrs. Grant a check to deposit into Richard's memorial fund.
"I don't know them well, but I love them all," she said. "They're a part of Richard. They're a part of what I have left of him."
It's a tough time of the year to take a day off at Filiene's, but Delta wouldn't miss this basketball game on Thursday afternoon for the world. While Canisius isn't allowed to present her with an undergraduate degree for Richard, they've prepared a framed certificate honoring his progress toward a degree. MacDonald will present it in a pre-game ceremony.
"I'll be there to cheer them on," she promised.
After the game, Delta Grant will go home to that quiet little house in Charlestown, where the basketball trophies sit on the bedroom window sill, where no mother should ever have to spend Christmas without her baby boy.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com. His book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season With Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty can be pre-ordered prior to its February 2005 release.