When James Jones was named the head coach of Yale’s men’s basketball team in the spring of 1999, the task ahead of him was formidable. The program had just completed their seventh losing season in a row with a 4-22 record, which happened to be the worst ever in school history.
Yet at his introductory news conference, there was no trepidation in his voice. “You’re looking at the happiest man in America right now,” he told the assembled media in New Haven, Connecticut. “I have the opportunity to coach some of the greatest future leaders in America.”
It’s telling that he used the word ‘opportunity’. Where some would have seen the Yale job as a career dead-end with scant upside back then, Jones saw something else. He appreciated the blank slate that the job represented and the chance to conceive and build a winning entity of his own creation, grasping full well the challenges and obstacles that awaited him.
When a New York Times reporter asked him later that summer, months before holding his first official practice, if he felt any pressure to succeed, especially with being Yale’s first African-American head basketball coach, Jones said, “Pressure is a state of mind…I think they hired the best man for the job, the man they felt will give Yale its best shot at taking it to the next level. I don’t feel any pressure. I feel blessed to be where I am right now.”
Fifteen years later, he’s still in the same place, but Yale basketball is far removed from the moribund program it once was.
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In only his third year on the job in 2001-2002, he led the Bulldogs to their first Ivy League title since 1962-1963 and the school’s first postseason tournament victory ever in their 107-years of playing hoops.
Now in his 15th season, Jones is not only the longest tenured coach among those in the Ancient Eight, he’s one of the most successful throughout the entire rich history of the Ivy League.
Heading into this weekend’s road trip against Cornell and Columbia, he’s accumulated 203 overall victories as a head coach. After his first two years on the job, from that ’01-’02 season onward, the Bulldogs have never finished in the bottom half of the conference standings.
To many long-time observers who have witnessed the sheer dominance of Penn and Princeton throughout conference history, Jones’ reclamation project has been nothing short of miraculous. But little did they know that his life experience outside of basketball was rife with humble beginnings.
He was familiar with the concepts of starting over, celebrating in struggle while simultaneously believing, not merely hoping, but believing with every ounce of his fiber, that hard work and dedication brought a sincere promise of better days ahead.
And in a very tangible sense, he knew firsthand about having the strength to patiently nurse a bruised and pummeled entity back to, not only full health, but unexpected accomplishments. And it all started with his father, Herman.
Herman Jones, the grandson of a barber who doubled as a preacher, grew up in Orange, Texas, a small city of less than 20,000 people. Orange is a Gulf of Mexico deep water port, situated along the Sabine River near Louisiana, in the southeast region of the state. The area was once known for its shipbuilding and chemical plants. It was also known for the great coaches and athletes it produced, like Bum Phillips, R.C. Slocum and NFL Hall of Famer Bubba Smith.
“My dad played high school basketball, and he was a pretty good player back in the day,” said Jones.
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When Herman’s aunt and uncle decided to relocate from Texas to New York when he was a young man, he volunteered to ride along and help them with the move.
“My dad jumped in the car and once he got to New York, he decided that he wanted to stay there and start a new life,” said Jones. “My mother was pregnant with me at the time, and my dad found a job and saved up enough money for her to come up. He systematically saved enough money to send for every member of his family.”
Herman settled in Long Island and through his methodical, monetary frugality, sent enough cash back home for his extended family - parents, cousins, aunts and uncles – to join him in the Big Apple. Despite not having much when he arrived, he brought along something that would forever provide his wife and six children with a home, food and a great upbringing: an unparalleled work ethic.
“My dad is the hardest working person I ever met in my life,” said Jones. “He was a presser in a dry cleaner’s who worked on his feet all day. And he never took a day off from work, ever. I don’t ever remember him lying down on the couch. He was always doing something, trying to provide a great life for my brothers, sisters and my mom. I can’t thank him enough for what he provided for me and what he taught me, just with how he went about his day.”
With Herman’s busy work schedule, he wasn’t around to spend a lot of quality time with his kids. When he was able to toss a football or shoot some hoops with them, although those moments were brief and atypical, they took on a distinctive and memorable significance.
“He worked so hard to provide for us and something had to give,” said Jones. “And I guess that was the time he was able to spend with us and play with us when we were growing up. But those moments when he was able to, which were few and far between, were very special.”
Jones, however, never wanted for company. In addition to his siblings, there were many kids within a similar age range littered throughout his neighborhood. After school, and especially during summer breaks, they’d populate the grass fields, dirt diamonds and asphalt courts for exhaustive hours of play.
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“We had a great time growing up,” said Jones. “In addition to my brothers, there were about 50 kids within two years of my age who lived around me. So we were always playing something. The neighborhood junior high school was right around the corner from our house, and I remember all of us hopping the fence and playing basketball, soccer, football and baseball year-round. We were always outside, playing something.”
One summer day when he was eleven, that something included bicycle racing. Jones might have been lanky, but once he hopped on his bike, he wasn’t about fluidity and grace. His slender legs, pushing down hard on the pedals in powerful bursts, were able to generate a healthy swell of speed.
Racing his younger neighbor one day, Jones allowed the boy to get a head start. Within a few seconds, he was quickly tearing down the street at top speed. As his legs pumped away, the chain on his bike suddenly came off its sprocket and his foot slid off of the pedal.
When the rubber soles of his sneaker tapped against the concrete, as his hands impulsively gripped the handlebars even tighter, the back of the bike instantly elevated and sent him airborne, head-first and expeditiously, toward an unfortunately violent meeting with the concrete.
“I hit the ground face first,” said Jones. “It was a terrible accident, the worst I ever had.”
In addition to chipping some teeth, others punctured the inner lining of his mouth. Yet others were thrust further back into his gums. His chin, arms, shoulders, knees and shins suffered severe abrasions, with patches of his epidermis scraped clean away, as some folks would say, down to the white meat.
“I was lying down in the middle of the street and a neighbor, who saw the accident, came and asked me if I was ok,” said Jones. “As a kid, you want to be tough, jump up and say, ‘Yeah, I’m ok.’ I wanted to do that. But I said, “No, I am not ok.”
The neighbor tended to him until his parents came home from work. When Herman took a look at him, he simply said, “You’re ok.”
“That was some tough love,” said Jones. “They never took me to a doctor because we didn’t have extra money back then for stuff like that. I didn’t get my teeth fixed until I was a working adult.”
Once his body healed, Jones jumped right back into running around the neighborhood, playing whatever game was in season. He participated in every organized sport, but there was a magnetic pull toward basketball.
“Basketball was my first love,” said Jones. "I loved working at it, trying to get better and seeing myself improve.”
The competitive nature of the game, which appealed to him, was also something that festered in his home. With five siblings, including his brother Joe, who is Boston University's head basketball coach and 14 months younger, skirmishes and rivalries flourished in the household. James and Joe had more of a hate-hate relationship growing up, due to their excessive competitiveness.
As backcourt mates on the same high school team, with Joe running the point and James swinging between the shooting guard and small forward positions, things once got so heated between them that they got into a fight, on the court, during a game.
During school breaks, Herman insisted that his boys tag along and join him for long days of toil at the dry cleaner’s. The example of his searing work ethic, and the value he placed on the boys exerting their best efforts in any endeavor they undertook, rubbed off.
“You’d have to stand up all day, pressing clothes,” said Jones. “If it was hot outside, it felt like 125 degrees in the store. You got paid by the amount of work that you did. It was piece-work, so if you went to the bathroom or took a lunch break, you got paid less.”
When James began driving as a teenager, Herman also insisted that he drive his younger siblings to school, an arrangement that would infuriate him in the winter, as he shoveled snow away from his 1972 Duster while brothers Joe and John stood in the doorway and watched.
Despite his love of basketball, the game didn’t hold any immediate lure for Jones after he completed his four-year playing career at the State University of New York at Albany. He channeled his competitive drive, and his father’s work ethic, into the corporate arena after graduation.
Within a few years of receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in Communications, he was a rising executive account manager at the NCR Corporation in Albany, managing a $1.5 million sales territory.
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The lure of the game slowly crept back as Jones began competing in adult leagues and tournaments. He’d hit the asphalt courts with chain-link netting at Albany’s Rosemont Park, the outdoor hoops venue known in local parlance as ‘Brevator Street’, because the street bordered the park, where some of the area’s best players would congregate for intense full-court runs.
When his job transferred him to manage a sales territory in Westchester County, New York, he made sure to travel back to Albany for company staff meetings with his ball, shorts, sweats and sneakers in tow.
“I remember driving up early to go to these staff meetings so I could hit the courts at Brevator Street,” said Jones. “I’d be driving up the turnpike, changing in my car, just feeling excited about getting on the court and playing. In the summer, I’d be out there all day long, and the sweat and the salt would dry up all over my face.”
Yet coaching still wasn’t on his radar. His plan was to go back to school, get an M.B.A., and bring his smarts and salesmanship to the one place in the late 1980’s where the American Dream was flourishing, Wall Street. While the investment banking industry was churning out a stunning amount of overnight millionaires in the high-flying world of finance, Jones figured that lower Manhattan was his next destination.
His native city was sizzling at the time, with Knicks head coach Rick Pitino leading the franchise to a 52-win regular season. He did so while experimenting with the dynamic, two point guard combination of Brooklyn and Bronx natives Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland. They rocked the Madison Square Garden crowd while stylistically and metaphorically playing to the soundtrack of the classic hits being released at the time by Hip Hop artists like EPMD, Eric B and Rakim, Stetsasonic, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One.
But just as the direction and feel of Hip Hop was about to change with the ascension of groups like N.W.A., De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, along with the release of Public Enemy’s seminal album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the direction of Jones’ life was about to be significantly altered as well.
“My first thought was to go back to school, get my M.B.A. and work on Wall Street,” said Jones. “But then, just by chance, I learned that my alma mater was looking for an assistant men’s basketball coach. I felt somewhat stagnant in my job and starting thinking about it. So I applied for the job and got it.”
Despite a huge pay cut, he quickly found that he loved it.
“I was bit by the coaching bug, and by the realization of how special it was to do what I was doing,” he said.
After a five-year apprenticeship under his former coach at Albany, the legendary Dr. Richard Sauers, who is one of only seven college coaches to win more than 700 games, and earning a Master’s Degree in educational administration simultaneously, Jones moved on to work as an assistant coach at Yale from 1995-1997. He then went to Ohio University, where he worked as an assistant for two more years.
When he first accepted the Yale job, the lights in his office stayed on until the wee hours of the morning. With his wife remaining in Ohio with his young daughter while she completed her master’s degree, Jones poured all of his energy into his Yale basketball reclamation project.
With his successful sales background, he burned up the phone lines while presenting his vision and passion to the recruits that he aimed to lure to campus. Sleep did not come easy. His inner embers burned to bring Yale back to respectability, and then to a place where they could compete for a league championship every year.
“I had been an assistant coach here for two years previously and knew how special this place was,” said Jones. “I knew that if I couldn’t convince kids to come play for me, and if I couldn’t convince them that Yale was the place to go, I should be doing something else other than coaching.”
Within two years of his hire, Yale completed the transition from conference doormat to perennial championship contender. And when you watch the Bulldogs play, it’s easy to see why.
Jones’ teams are exceptionally well-coached. They move the ball with crisp precision on offense, probing the defense and patiently running through their offensive sets until a good shot presents itself. On defense, they communicate, play with aggression, box out and attack the glass with purpose.
The signs are also evident on the bench. The substitutes are all focused: concentrating, studying and watching the game, cheering for their teammates with enthusiasm. As he stands tall with regal posture, looking as if he just walked off of a Brooks Brothers photo shoot, Jones emanates an intense calm.
There is no yelling, no temper tantrums. When a player makes a mistake and comes out of the game, he looks them in the eye, makes his point and offers words of encouragement.
“Coach Jones is always composed and fully in charge of his team,” said Ed Breslin, the publishing industry veteran and author of numerous books, including his most recent, The Divine Nature Of Basketball, My Season Inside The Ivy League, which chronicles Yale’s 2011-2012 season from an insider’s perspective. “He is a very energetic and positive guy. He doesn’t indulge in negative thinking or self pity. As he says, his glass is not always half-full, it’s overflowing. He invests a sunny optimism and a can-do-attitude into his team. He’s just determined to do things properly, do them with enthusiasm and get the results that reward your effort. He puts sweat equity in, and expects accomplishment out.”
At Harvard on Saturday evening, February 8th, Yale walked into Levietes Pavilion, a place where they hadn’t won a game in four years and where the Crimson had been victorious in 20 consecutive games, and defeated them, 74-67, in front of a dazed and restless crowd. They held Harvard, a prolific offensive team, to 39% shooting, while also out-rebounding them by a margin of 38-24.
Justin Sears, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward from New Jersey and Armani Cotton, a 6-foot-7 guard from Manhattan, led the way as both players finished with double-doubles. Sears had 21 points and 10 rebounds while Cotton accumulated 13 and 10. Javier Duren, their 6-foot-4 point guard from St. Louis, chipped in with 15 points. The bench also impacted the game with 16 points and a rugged, collective defensive effort as Yale tied Harvard atop the league standings with the victory.
“We’re starting to move in the right direction,” said Jones, assessing his team’s development thus far this season. “When we’re at our best, and when I’m at my best, is when we work our butts off, when we defend the crap out of people and when we rebound the ball. Rebounding and defense needs to be who we are and we’re finally getting to that point, and I think our kids believe it.”
With his run of sustained excellence at Yale, he’s been approached on numerous occasions about other employment prospects: jobs at other schools in bigger conferences that can afford to pay him a hefty raise. Thus far, all of those inquiries have fallen on deaf ears.
For Jones, the reason why can be found hanging on the walls of his office in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, the cathedral-like, gothic marvel that was constructed by the prominent, early 20th Century architect John Russell Pope, who also designed the National Archives, National Gallery of Art and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., among other national treasures.
“In my office, I have a framed picture of every player that’s ever graduated for me,” said Jones. “I look at them quite often and it brings me great joy to think about what they’re all doing with their lives. That’s what makes what I do the best job in the world, the special lives of the people you come into contact with. The people that I come into contact with every day here is what makes Yale such a special place for me. I haven’t had a job opportunity presented to me that I think is anywhere near the opportunity I have right now.”
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“I am just so in awe of the kids that I coach," he said. "They have no idea how much I am in awe of how hard they work, how smart they are and what they’re capable of doing with their lives. The other jobs and schools might be calling and offering more dollars, but money has never really motivated me. I live in a nice- enough house. I have a nice-enough car. My kids go to private school. So I feel good about where I am.”
As the years and victories pile up, Jones is not about to think about his past accomplishments. There’s always work to do, a recruit to call, a team to scout and some endless thinking about ways that he can improve his team.
“After the second loss to Harvard two years ago, not 30 minutes after the horn had sounded, James was on the bus, already watching the video on his laptop, going back and forth and parsing the action, already thinking about and preparing for the next year’s game against Harvard,” said Breslin.
That work ethic was absorbed from a man pressing clothes in a dry cleaner’s many years back. And Jones also knows firsthand, that when you fall down and get hurt, the bruises will heal. And more games will beckon.