One can't deny Marion Jones' resilience
It was just a regular afternoon this past summer, in a gym at the University of Tulsa, where you might have mistaken Marion Jones for somebody whose life hadn't completely collapsed.
She was laughing and enjoying the camaraderie, just another basketball player in her workout shorts and jersey, goofing around after practice was over.
"Those are the moments I really cherished, where I wasn't in the spotlight," Jones said recently as she discussed her new book, "On the Right Track," and "Marion Jones: Press Pause," the "30 for 30" documentary about her that will debut Tuesday on ESPN (8 p.m. ET). "At games, I didn't get a lot of playing time, but I'd still be the story too much of the time. I'd be sitting on the bench for 38 minutes, but the camera would keep coming back to me.
"But there were moments with my teammates that I really, really loved. The reason I got back into the game is I wanted to see if I could still realize my potential there. I feel more at peace in my life now. I don't know if, in terms of basketball, I'm yet at that point."
Basketball, which at the beginning of the public's awareness of Jones' phenomenal athleticism seemed equally as important as track, went away in the decade-plus when she had her rise and fall as a world-class sprinter and long jumper.
Jones won a national championship with North Carolina in 1994, and few may remember her role in the crucial sequence at the end of that final against Louisiana Tech. Jones, a freshman point guard, tied up the game with seven-tenths of a second left and Carolina trailing by two points. Then, on the final possession of the game, teammate Charlotte Smith hit the 3-pointer that won the title for the Tar Heels.
Over the years, Jones would speak of basketball fondly, like an old friend she meant to reconnect with someday, although she wasn't sure when. At the 2002 USA Track Championships, she whimsically suggested that perhaps after the 2008 Olympics, she would return to hoops and give the WNBA a shot. Back then, it seemed like a pleasant fantasy, something that probably wouldn't happen, but if it did, it would be just for fun after Jones had triumphantly exited from what she planned to be her final Olympics.
Instead, while the Beijing Games took place in August 2008, Jones was finishing her six-month prison term for lying to investigators about using performance-enhancing drugs and her knowledge of former companion Tim Montgomery's role in a check-fraud scam.
By that point, she already had to surrender her five medals from the 2000 Olympics and had become a persona non grata in the world of track and field.
When a tearful Jones was shown on television after her sentencing, filmmaker John Singleton watched and got upset himself. He thought Jones was being overly punished for sins that plague the spectrum of elite athletics and she had become the prized scapegoat for a generalized frustration about the reality of the prevalence of performance-enhancing drug use.
Singleton, known for critically acclaimed films such as "Boyz n the Hood," "Poetic Justice" and "Higher Learning," wanted to tell the story of how Jones would rebound from losing so much.
In "Marion Jones: Press Pause," Singleton said a key focus would be on the moment when Jones had the chance to tell the truth to federal investigators but didn't, and how much her life changed based on that decision.
"I wanted to represent the journey that she is on now," said Singleton, who, like Jones, is a Los Angeles native. "People may know about the journey that already happened. After she got out of prison, she was very positive, very upbeat, looking ahead to the future.
"I just think there would be understanding about the reasons that she did what she did, and that just because a person does something wrong, it doesn't mean their life is over. It was an emotional thing for me, a labor of love."
The odds are that many observers have made up their minds about Jones by now. They may think her punishment was just, or that racism and sexism played roles in the hand she was dealt by the criminal justice system. Some, no doubt, will object to any suggestion that Jones' issues really boiled down to one moment. But regardless of your view of how Jones handled her athletic career and subsequent fall from grace, it's hard to deny her resilience.
Jones' time with the WNBA's Tulsa Shock this past summer wasn't always that much fun. There was criticism from the start that the team was giving a chance to someone who hadn't played competitive basketball for 13 years since her last season at North Carolina in 1997. Then the Shock struggled, finishing 6-28, and Jones averaged just 9.4 minutes of playing time. In each place the Shock visited, there was another reporter -- or group of them -- waiting to ask her about everything all over again.
Jones expected that, though, and handled it with the experience of someone who is used to the attention. In all, she said she got a huge amount of positive feedback from WNBA fans and fellow players, both her teammates and the opposition.
But her assessment of how she played? She was less satisfied with that.
"I didn't come close to reaching my potential," she said of her rookie WNBA season at age 34. "But I had really missed the game, and I was still interested in it. When I'd been submerged in track, the connections to basketball had faded away. And unless you had watched me back then, you probably didn't even know I had played basketball.
"But my passion and love for basketball hadn't diminished. I still followed the game, and I'd watch the WNBA. In the back of my mind, after I'd run for so long, I had always wondered, 'What if? What if I'd decided to just play basketball? How good could I have become?' It has been a humbling but enjoyable experience to come back. I plan and hope to do it again next season and hope to have a better result."
Jones turned 35 on Oct. 12, so her future in the WNBA -- even with the best of outcomes -- will be relatively short. She doesn't anticipate coaching in any sport, yet she won't rule it out.
It's difficult to imagine her ever reconciling with the track world and vice versa. And so it's somewhat ironic the road not taken -- basketball -- ended up being a path she came back to after all. Maybe that path will be the one that provides the closest thing Jones will experience to a happy ending in competitive athletics.
"It's all been a way for me to continue to heal," Jones said. "I know throughout this journey, I have hurt a lot of people. I want to help others, but I'm also trying to heal myself."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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