Marion Jones: I've Paid My Debt, Now It's Time to Move Forward
These days, Marion Jones says she is channeling the words of Satchel Paige and is not looking back.
Still, if you've lived the life Jones has lived and been the places she's been, including prison, you can't help but play the "what if" game, and wonder how life would have gone if not for a decision or two.
In the case of Jones, the opportunity to wonder what might have been had she continued playing basketball rather than becoming the fastest woman on Earth.
"I always wonder where would you be now, but everybody does that," Jones told FanHouse Thursday night. "You always ask yourself, 'Where would I have been if I had made just a different choice.' I certainly wonder if I'd still be playing. I wonder a lot of things. 'Would I have my family?' It's interesting."
Now, the 5-10 Jones, who started at point guard as a freshman on the North Carolina team that won the national championship in 1994, is attempting a comeback to the sport she says was always her first love as a member of the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA.
And while she is trying to reconnect with the skills that brought her success on the basketball court, Jones is doing her best to put distance between herself and the steroid scandal that cost her five Olympic medals and six months of freedom.
"I have been through quite a lot over the past few years," said Jones in a 30-minute phone interview from her home in Austin, Tex., where she lives with her husband Obadele Thompson and her three children.
"I'm at a point where I'm saying that I paid my price, paid my debt and I'm looking forward now. That, to me, is the most important thing."
And, Jones stresses, this is no lark, no publicity-seeking stunt staged to get her name back into the limelight. She is a serious athlete, trying to get back into the sport she received a scholarship for, at its highest level and 13 years after she last played competitively.
"It's important to distinguish that I am not just Molly Homemaker who decided, 'Hey, I want to play basketball. Let me just train and try to make a spot on a WNBA team.' Let's get that out of the equation," Jones said.
"Yes, I have been removed from the sport for 13 years and removed from competitive play. But that does not mean in any way that I have been sitting on my bottom for 13 years and not doing a single thing."
Indeed, the world knows what Jones has been doing for most of the last 13 years, namely winning world championships in the 100 and 200 meters and placing as high as second in the long jump in international competitions.
Alas, the world also knows about the steroid scandal that caused the International Olympic Committee to strip her of the three gold and two bronze medals she won in Sydney in 2000.
The world also knows about the six months she served in a prison in 2008 for lying to federal grand juries about her connection to BALCO, a San Francisco area lab that distributed performance-enhancing drugs to high profile athletes.
Jones knows that scandal questions will follow her at each WNBA stop this summer, and she is looking forward to that in the same way that a patient with a cavity looks forward to root canal.
But the chance to return to competitive athletics as well as the opportunity to be a good news messenger were more important, in the end, to Jones than the downside of facing hecklers and the media.
"I think this will give me an opportunity to really share my story, share my message. And what's that message? It's the idea of giving people hope, telling people that there are second chances out there."
"I am a prime example of somebody who has made some mistakes. It's no secret. We've all made them. But you get down to the point: What do you do afterward? I certainly could have decided that I'm going to be a mom and a wife and a significant contributor to society and probably lived a satisfying life."
"I think I've been given some talent. I really wanted to be able to share all of this on a much larger scale."
Jones signed a contract this week with the Shock, relocated from Detroit, after working out last weekend with Tulsa coach Nolan Richardson.
Jones said she began working out in earnest with Olaf Lange, an assistant coach with the San Antonio Silver Stars last summer in an attempt to play in the WNBA.
She began training a month after giving birth to her third child and contacted a number of teams as well as league officials to see if she would be eligible.
Jones said she tried out in December for Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler and was scheduled to have more workouts until she injured her ankle at the beginning of January.
When Richardson was hired to coach the Shock, Jones said she thought they would be a good fit, since his "40 minutes of hell" up-tempo style of pressure was similar to what she had played at North Carolina.
She said she visited with Richardson three weeks ago, but didn't work out then because of her ankle injury. Richardson told her she could come back once she healed and Jones tried out last Saturday.
Though Jones' signing is admittedly an eye opener, given her extended time away from the game, there is little gamble for Richardson, who has not coached in the United States since he was fired as the Arkansas men's coach in 2002.
The Shock, who were sold to Oklahoma investors who moved the franchise from Detroit, where it won three championships, had only seven players under contract before Jones' signing.
Neither Katie Smith nor Deanna Nolan, the two best Shock players, will be accompanying the team to Tulsa, as Smith is believed poised to sign with the Washington Mystics, while Nolan has told Richardson that she will sit out this season.
And while Jones will bring some needed attention to the Shock, Tulsa is a small enough media market that she will likely face scrutiny only when the Shock are on the road in big cities like New York and Los Angeles.
Jones is sensitive to the notion advanced on some bulletin boards that her signing is a detriment to the image of the league, beyond her steroid notoriety.
The thinking goes that if a player, even one as gifted as Jones, can step into the WNBA 13 years after her last basketball performance and with no professional experience to boot, the league must be more gimmick than substance.
That's not at all the case, says Jones.
"I don't think it (her signing) says anything negative about the league," Jones said. "It comes down to, if you can play, you play, regardless of the fact that my name is Marion Jones. If I can play, I can play."
"It's not like these teams have 17 or 18 spots on their bench and they can bring in individuals simply for marketing. You can't do that. You have 11 spots on your team. Everybody has to be able to play. There are people who will argue this point, but it comes down to 11 spots is not a lot of players."
Jones said she has been surprised by the number of people who have expressed surprise that she is playing basketball since FanHouse first reported in November about her workouts.
She says that some of her best memories at Chapel Hill were around basketball. She fondly recalls the hours after the Tar Heels won the 1994 title over Louisiana Tech on a buzzer-beating, 3-pointer by Charlotte Smith.
"We had to be at school the next day, so we got on the bus and went back to campus," Jones said with a laugh. "We were in our dorms that night, but we didn't get much sleep."
And basketball at Carolina wasn't an indulgence. Jones was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference's 50-year Anniversary team, despite only playing three years. Jones averaged 16.8 points per game -- third in the program's history – and still remains in the top seven all-time in North Carolina history in assists, blocks and steals.
It was in the latter category where she made her reputation.
"She was just so quick,' said Agnus Berenato, who, at the time was the head coach at Georgia Tech. "If she picked you at three-quarter court or at the 3-point line, within two steps, she was 12 feet ahead of anyone and it was a wide open lay-up."
Berenato, who now coaches at Pittsburgh, has no doubt that Jones will succeed in Tulsa.
"She's dedicated and she's a hard worker. She's going to pick up her game," Berenato said. "You don't lose it. She'll polish her game and just her quickness alone will allow her to get the first step and anyone who has the first step has an advantage in basketball."
Jones says she is under no illusions that her comeback will be easy. Much has changed in women's basketball since she left and she's not the only player in the game with great speed.
But, for Jones, never looking back means never running away from a fight, especially one you believe you can win.
"It's something that I look forward to sharing with my kids and grandkids that I had the opportunity to play in the women's professional basketball league and it wasn't a league that was soft or slow or weak at all," Jones said.
"These are prime-time, world-class athletes that I'll be competing against. I very much look forward to the challenge."