OMAHA, Neb. -- This was a slump that could make an entire city yearn for spring football. It was the kind of month that can try the patience of a priest, make a 90-year-old lady stop dancing and force even the die-hards to abandon their preseason ambitions and mumble the letters N-I-T.
It was the last Saturday of a long February in Omaha, and Josh Jones was forcing down a steak dinner at a local watering hole while his Creighton basketball team played a BracketBusters game on the high-def TVs around him. In a few minutes, the Bluejays would lose again, their fourth defeat in six games. In a few hours, Jones would be in the emergency room because his heart was beating too fast again.
He'd wear a monitor for a day, which Jones shrugged off because it's only the size of an iPod. But it is a big deal when you're 23 years old and go to bed at night wondering if you'll wake up in the morning. If there was a message he could impart to his teammates in these final weeks of the season, it was to relax and enjoy it, because Jones knows better than anyone how fleeting these moments can be.
Four months ago, Jones was a senior guard on a nationally ranked team running through pregame warm-ups when he passed out on the floor, right in front of the scorer's table. He was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition and will never play college basketball again.
On paper, maybe it would seem a stretch to point to his absence as a big reason for the Jays' struggles in February. He was the team's sixth man, a 6-foot-2 kid from Omaha with neither the star power of All-American Doug McDermott nor the upside of sophomore point guard Austin Chatman. Jones was a swashbuckler, the kind of player who could make a coach smile and pull his hair out all in a 30-second span. He made ill-advised shots and risky passes. Even his hairstyle was on the edge. On a few occasions, Jones was politely encouraged to lose his Mohawk, which didn't exactly fit with a Jesuit campus made up of future doctors, lawyers and civic leaders. (One of Creighton's most notable superfans, by the way, is a 90-year-old grandma whose dancing is featured prominently on the video scoreboard.)
But Jones kept the Mohawk, because he was bold, confident and a risk taker. And that's exactly what the Bluejays needed.
He'd sent them some group texts that morning of Feb. 23 before the BracketBusters game against Saint Mary's, just to get them fired up. Jones was always good at that.
I love you guys. We can only conquer together.
He shifted his eyes to the floor as another game got away from his team.
"I wish," Jones said, "I could rip my shirt off and jump into the TV."
Who knows how it happens? How a team looks hapless and scared in February, with players ready to turn in their uniforms, and then two weeks later is red-hot and full of swagger, hoisting a Missouri Valley Conference championship trophy, NCAA tournament-bound? It's basketball.
The fine print in the back of future media guides will say that Creighton did everything it was supposed to in 2012-13. It won its conference; it made it to the NCAA tournament. It will not tell of the agonizing journey it took to get here. Josh Jones experienced it from the least enviable of places, on benches and in front of TVs.
He sent a text from St. Louis on Sunday morning, hours before the conference championship game. He told a reporter that the team's turnaround is simple. Creighton faced adversity head-on, just like he did with his heart ailment. Good teams, close teams, find a way to get things done.
But in late February, coach Greg McDermott offered a different diagnosis. He said the Jays were too nice. (Translation: soft.) Someday, being nice will be a great quality, McDermott said. They'll be fantastic fathers and husbands and professionals.
Whatever they were, Jones knew they'd figure everything out. He'd show up to practice and try to loosen them up with some humor. He sent Bible scripture passages and group texts before games he couldn't make.
"I know their hearts," he said.
Basketball is a fragile game, an intricate puzzle, and at a mid-major school, you rarely get complete pieces. Take one piece away, and it alters the picture. Jones wasn't a 20-points-a-night scorer. He was a shot of vitamin B-12. He treated every game, every practice, as if it were his last. He did not whine about mundane things such as lifting weights, running lines or signing an autograph for a 6-year-old. He considered himself lucky that a kid from a poor neighborhood in north Omaha could earn a scholarship at a place like Creighton. And be the first one in his family to go to college.
"You see so many kids who go to practice and can't wait to get it over," said Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen. "Josh has never been that way with anything. Not with class, not with work, not with basketball. Josh brought an energy to practice every day and an enthusiasm that carried others with him. He's someone I think people subconsciously identify with because there's such a joy in competing and a joy in living.
"Isn't that a great way to live your life?"
Jones' last game, on Dec. 6, was one of the most highly anticipated nights of his life. The Bluejays, ranked 16th at the time, were playing Nebraska at the Bob Devaney Sports Center, which is about to be replaced with a new arena in Lincoln. The old gym held so many fond memories for Jones. He won three state championships there for Omaha Central High School, earning the nickname "The Legend."
Jones, a fifth-year senior at Creighton, always made a point to remind his college teammates of his high school glory. He did it in a half-kidding, half-serious way, in a way that made his confidence always seem endearing. In warm-ups that night of Dec. 6, he playfully talked smack to some Huskers fans, even as his heart felt as if it might explode.
It started on the bus ride. Jones felt dizzy and nauseated. Too amped for the game, he figured. He closed his eyes and took a nap. But when the team pulled into Lincoln, he felt worse. He took a hot shower, which didn't help, and dressed. He took a layup and a jump shot during warm-ups, and his vision started to narrow. When he passed out, the few people who saw it figured he was joking around. Especially when he picked himself up and tried to stretch.
But Jones' heart was racing. Doctors said it was pounding at least 200 beats a minute -- more than three times the heart rate of an average well-conditioned athlete. Jones was taken to a Lincoln hospital, and stayed overnight. He eventually was diagnosed with an atrial flutter, a short-circuiting that causes the heart to beat faster. On Dec.18, Jones underwent a procedure that determined he actually had four short circuits. He also had an enlarged heart. Jones' dad, John Sr., died of an enlarged heart in 2006.
Josh took a few days to let the diagnosis soak in. And then the free-spirited guard who thrived off of taking risks decided basketball wasn't worth his life.
"Josh is a fearless guy," said Dr. Douglas Ramos, Creighton's team physician. "I mean, with the game on the line, in pressure situations, Josh is not afraid of any shot, and he takes that same fearlessness into life. Josh isn't afraid of life without basketball. Does he like it? I'm sure he hates it. But Josh is one tough cookie.
"As good as a basketball player as Josh was and as much as an inspiration he was to our team on the basketball court, there is so much more Josh can do in our community."
Jones knows the decision, in some ways, was moot. Doctors weren't going to clear him to play in the final months of his eligibility. Coaches weren't going to watch him run up and down the court knowing everything about his past.
This wasn't the first time Jones had dealt with heart problems. The summer before his senior year of high school, after he'd committed to Creighton, Jones became very sick. He had flulike symptoms for a month. He was freezing, and wore a sweatshirt and a skullcap in the dead of August. He crawled to the refrigerator one day to get a pitcher of water and poured it on the floor. "I was delusional," he said.
Jones was diagnosed with infective endocarditis, and underwent emergency open-heart surgery. His aortic valve was replaced by one formed from cow tissue. The operation left him with an 8½-inch scar on his chest. But Jones was back playing basketball within a few months.
Perhaps in some ways, Jones always felt that anything he received after that was a bonus. He was not like most of the other students at Creighton. He grew up just a couple of miles from campus, but drove down plenty of rutted roads to get there. His dad dropped out of school at the age of 13. Even back then, John Jones Sr. was trying to provide for his family. He worked construction and any odd job he could. He once lost three fingers in a work accident, and drove himself 25 miles to the hospital.
John Sr. was sick for much of Josh's childhood. But he never stopped working. Josh wonders if his dad worked himself to death. He used to always tell Josh that no matter what happened to him, "take care of your mom."
Josh knows he gets his leadership from John Sr. When he was alive, the family had food and clothes and everything it needed. When he died, the Joneses struggled. They had two wood-burning stoves in their house to keep warm, but ran out of wood one winter.
"We slept in our coats for a week every day," Jones said. "And I said, 'Never again.'
"I'm destined to take care of my family. That's my ultimate goal."
Whatever he was dealing with at home, Jones never took it to the basketball court. He was always positive, Omaha Central coach Eric Behrens says, always the one who lightened up practices.
Jones loves to talk to anyone. He has no filter. When Jones was a freshman, Behrens used to take the team to Kansas City on weekends for a fall league. On one trip, Jones decided to ride in the front with his coach while some teammates slept in the back. The ride home was somewhere around 2 hours and 45 minutes, and Jones talked the entire time.
"He talked about everything," Behrens said. "His dog that had three legs, his dog that had one eye I think I said five words. But you never seem to get bored with his conversations.
"He's a really charismatic kid. He has a ton of positive energy. Basketball is a long season, but it didn't seem like a grind to him. He was somebody who made practice fun every day."
Behrens, who still talks to Jones quite a bit, can't help but worry about him sometimes. He knows Jones has good doctors who will take care of him. He sees the happy face Jones puts on in public, and wonders what's really going on in his head when he's alone.
"Oh, I think it's hard," Behrens said. "I don't think he tells people how hard it is for him. Basketball has been a big part of his life since he was 8 or 9 years old, and it's hard to all of the sudden to be in a position where something you've always done comes to an end and it's out of your control.
"The way he grew up probably prepared him very well for this. He just got used to dealing with adversity."
When Jones ran with his Creighton teammates last summer, he felt tired and out of shape. He didn't think much of it; he figured he just had to work harder. The Jays were coming off a big season. They advanced to the second round of the 2012 NCAA tournament (not counting the play-in game), where they lost to top-seeded North Carolina. They returned most of their starters from that squad, including McDermott.
Jones had an echocardiogram and full cardiac evaluation at the start of the season, less than a month before he passed out at Nebraska. He checked out fine, Dr. Ramos said. When he struggled and didn't feel like himself, he didn't think much of it. He was young and invincible. A little more than a week before the Nebraska game, in a loss to Boise State, Jones knew he was a step behind. "I couldn't guard anyone to save my life," he said. He figured it would go away. He was used to dealing with fatigue since the summer.
Jones will undergo more tests in a few months to determine whether his heart was enlarged because of the rigors of college basketball. He still lives with several teammates, including McDermott, but his life, at least in season, is much different from theirs. He has to limit his activity. He has to worry about his heart beating too fast.
But on Sunday afternoon in St. Louis, all of that was forgotten for a few minutes. Wichita State's last-chance 3-point attempt clanked off the rim, and Jones stormed the court and celebrated with his teammates. He was hoisted into the air. He wore a white championship T-shirt and ball cap, just like the rest of them.
In the toughest days of February, his teammates would say that having Jones around helped them. "Anytime we're tired or having a rough day at practice," senior guard Grant Gibbs said, "you think about how bad he wants to be out on the floor. It kind of re-motivates you to play a little harder and play for Josh."
And Jones' motivation stretches far beyond the Creighton campus. He'll graduate this spring with a degree in public relations. He'll make the rounds to local schools to tell his story. Jones recently went to Fort Calhoun High, roughly a 20-minute drive from Omaha, for a "Red Out" night for the American Heart Association. He announced the starting lineups for the girls' basketball game, talked to kids and signed autographs for 40 minutes until everyone was gone.
Jones can't leave. Just like that little freshman who wouldn't stop yapping on the ride back from Kansas City, Jones wants to keep talking. About sticking a season out, no matter how hard that season is. About making the best out of a situation and being there for his mom, his little brothers and a whole city.
Back in December, when Jones found out he couldn't play anymore, he considered cutting off his Mohawk. Coach McDermott, of all people, encouraged him to keep it. Jones was still a part of the team. And there was no reason to mess with what had worked for so long.
"I feel like everything happens for a reason," he said. "I mean, I'm not playing anymore, but basketball was a foundation and introduction to who Josh Jones is. Now it's time to do his work. It's time to inspire and motivate and be a role model to other people."