Before Denise Jones could distinguish herself by starting in a men's college basketball game for the Paul Smith's College Bobcats in late March, the team first had to find a jersey that would fit Jones, a 5-foot-4 senior guard.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Paul Smith's College, located in upstate Paul Smiths, New York, canceled its women's basketball season, while the men's season was limited to two games. Josh Clemens, the Bobcats' men's basketball coach, invited Jones to play for the team to honor her senior season.
"It's not something we'd look to do with everybody," Clemens said. "I personally felt like I owed it to Denise. ... I was glad to let her get her senior spotlight."
Clemens received approval from the athletic directors of both schools and the opposing head coach before approaching Jones with a proposal to play against Word of Life Bible Institute.
The president of Paul Smith's College permitted the basketball team to start its season on March 22, and the school was able to schedule two games against Word of Life. The Bobcats won the first game 64-63. Jones started in the second game, a 91-77 loss.
Jones found it fitting that her undergraduate basketball career ended in a similar way to how her love for the sport developed. She grew up "playing with the guys" in the Bronx. She says her true love for basketball started by practicing every Saturday with her uncle, brother and late coach. She started to take it really seriously in her sophomore year of high school. She then caught the attention of Clemens, who also helps with the women's team at Paul Smith's.
Paul Smith's basketball program was restarted in 2014 after facing financial hardships, and was only a few years removed from its reactivation when Jones arrived. She made an immediate impact with the program by becoming the only freshman starter on the team, and she has been a captain since her sophomore season.
So Jones had certainly earned her impromptu senior send-off.
"I was grateful that [Clemens] thought of me to play as the only girl on his team," said Jones, who will continue her education and athletic career in Europe at the Olympic Management Institute in Rome next year. "It's bigger than basketball; it's a big family."