Basketball For LifeMarch 8, 2014
Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Heather Rousseau
Jim Jones barely made it to half court.
He was only out there because the athletic director suggested he go and because the public address announcer’s declaration made his presence obligatory.
He raised one arm then the other, smiled, spun and walked toward someplace far more comfortable.
Jones is plenty content in a basketball gym. After all, he’s coached 1,106 games. But attention isn’t his thing. So on the night he won for the 700th time during a career spent in a profession that basically mandates, especially in our state, community-wide scrutiny, one of Indiana’s most revered coaches slipped out the side door as best he could.
Jim Jones’ Springs Valley Blackhawks had just won their sectional opener, and that trumped the personal milestone. So he headed back to the locker room to continue his 47th season coaching varsity boys basketball. It’s there he wants to be. He’s got an edge, even at 76 years old. But since 1962, a blend of humility and diligence have kept his mind fixed on the game he loves even if the body doesn’t always play along.
“Basketball is the greatest tool I can get my hands on to teach life,” says Jones, who ranks seventh on the state’s all-time list for victories. “Everything we do in basketball carries to life, your marriage, your business. It takes some teamwork, a little thought, work ethic. And the thing is, it’s fun.”
He didn’t figure the fun would last as long as it has.
Jones was a guidance counselor for years and retired from that in 2000. He left his last basketball job at Terre Haute North in 2008. He and his wife, Joyce, a former elementary school teacher, relocated to Jasper to be closer to their daughter, Jill Wigand, and their grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. For a few years, Jim and Joyce spent winters in Fort Myers, Fla. — their son, Tom, lives in Florida — and summers in southwestern Indiana like they’d always planned to do once Jim left the bench.
But when Springs Valley fired its coach in 2012, officials there wondered about the old coach.
Nostalgia helped lure Jones back to the place it all began.
The graduate of Oolitic High School near Bedford and son of a coach, Jones grew up in Greene County. He wanted to be a baseball player but had a knack for digesting basketball better than he swung the bat. He came to Springs Valley in 1960 and by 1962, he was coaching the boys varsity hoops squad. That first group didn’t have much — Jones lost his first five games and finished the season with just five victories — but French Lick and West Baden were basketball-crazy nonetheless.
The 1958 team advanced to the state finals and the locals expected repeated euphoria. Jones produced, leading the Blackhawks to five sectional crowns in 11 seasons, and the program rolled from the mid-1960s through 1986 never going more than four years without clinching sectional glory.
They’ve won just one sectional since. What’s worse, one time in the last 20 seasons has a season consisted of more victories than defeats.
Jones felt an urge, almost an responsibility, to turn back the clock.
“Everyone still loves basketball, but we’re not used to winning,” says Hunter Whitaker, a senior forward who’s lived in town all his life. “We’re all right with mediocrity. We’re guilty of it. We always thought we’d change it, but (nobody has).”
Jones is trying with a style that is both soothing and sour.
After a 67-46 January loss at Northeast Dubois he called for more accountability.
“Guys I have to count on, I can’t count on,” he told his team. “When you play the Little Sisters of the Poor, you’re all heroes. But we’re not playing the Little Sisters of the Poor. We’re playing a team that can win a sectional championship. Did we give it our best effort? If you can’t move your feet, you can’t play defense. If you don’t want to play, we’ll take our lumps. That, tonight, was a thrashing.”
In the same breath, he changed tone.
“We’ll be all right,” he continued. “We have to circle the wagons, get better. There’s no reason we can’t compete.”
He’s hardly overbearing even when he’s acerbic. He swears but only mildly. He’s loud, but that’s because gyms are noisy and his hearing has gone bad. His mouth often curls into a wry smile as he punctuates criticism. He recognizes he’s coaching at a school with only 299 students and the talent pool is sometimes eroded by jobs and girls and poor family life. He encountered similar hurdles first at Princeton for 11 years then at Terre Haute North for 23 seasons.
He moves slower than he did at those places — a hip replacement will do that — but he maintains both his standards and his methods.
“Kids will do what you ask them, what you tell them, what you let them and what you tolerate,” he says. “They know where the buttons are. They’re on that edge. It’s that way in the classroom, at home and on the basketball court.”
During one February practice, Jones instructed his team that only a certain sophomore was allowed to shoot during a particular drill. One pass into the drill, a senior lofted a shot. It wasn’t the only flub during a stretch that irritated Jones, mostly because multiple players were too casual in their reaction to mistakes. Some chatted. Some smiled. Jones told them to “stick your teenage attitude in your elbow.”
Then, he sent a sophomore to the top of the gym to run laps.
“Are you serious?” the young man whined.
Jones ignored the feedback and kept coaching until 15 minutes passed. He ordered the kid back to floor. Then, he veered into a monologue that was angry yet measured, exaggerated but pointed.
“You talk back here. Do you do that at school? At home?” he began. “Boy, I wish you could have met my father. You talk back to him, and he’d have kicked your (butt). Then you’d whine and call for help and he’d kick your (butt) again. Then after your help left, he’d kick your (butt) again.”
Jones has no doubt his players — and the world around them — have changed. He likes that the current generation is able to forget what happened one day and start fresh 24 hours later. He strives for patience in himself, his players and their families. He won’t brand this generation as loafers. But he’d like to see more initiative.
“Kids today don’t like to be placed in a situation where things are their fault, where they have to say they’re sorry,” he says. “Kids today have an answer for everything; we should just number our excuses.
“When you make mistakes, I expect them corrected. If I say something loudly at them, they droop down and take offense. On the court, I expect achievement and when you don’t get it, you’re probably going to get a little bit of wrath. Kids don’t handle adversity very well. That’s something we work on quite a bit.”
There are some Valley players who, when the school re-hired Jones, had never heard of their new coach. Some researched, found the list of accomplishments and guessed a guy with that many victories must be at least a little older than any of their previous coaches. They all call him old-school. They note that neither his flex offense nor his 2-3 matchup zone defense jibe with popular hoops culture. They recognize their input is not always welcome.
But the generation gap has not impeded progress.
In fact, they enjoy the novelty of it all. They joke about Jones being a grandpa off the court. He applauds himself over his newfound skill with electronic gadgets and watching game tapes on the Internet. Humor is part Jones’ approach. After the loss at Northeast Dubois, he told the team the next practice would require increased effort but “we’re not going to kill snakes.” When teams are bigger than Valley, “we just have to bite harder,” he says. And he compares playing more talented teams to running the Kentucky Derby with a mule; it’s his goal to discombobulate the thoroughbreds on the opposition. “Let’s hobble that (horse), blindfold it and put the jockey on backward. Now, we got a race.”
If the humor doesn’t win favor, Jones can mention that he coached Larry Bird. Jones stepped aside at Valley before Bird’s senior season but shuttled Bird to college visits and counseled him on his future.
They remain close. They exchange text messages on a weekly basis, Jones is welcome at Indiana Pacers practices (Bird is the team president) and Jones and his wife spend time with Bird and his wife on Bird’s ranch between Bloomington and Columbus. Jones wears a Boston Celtics ring from Bird.
Always ready to go fishing, Jones still uses the boat Bird gave him.
“For three years, he was the best player in the world,” Jones says. “That’s really hard for me to understand that I know a kid who was that good.”’
When Bird was only a 6-foot-1 sophomore recovering from a broken ankle, he was part of a Valley team that lost in the sectional. His take on why the Blackhawks lost: He didn’t play enough. Bird’s legendary competitiveness is probably innate, but it didn’t hurt that he spent time around Jones.
It’s that trait, says Valley assistant coach Butch Emmons, that has enabled Jones to connect with players for nearly five decades.
“He wants to beat you,” says Emmons, a student manager on Jones’ first team and veteran Valley teacher and administrator who left retirement to join Jones back on the sideline. “Off the court, he’s different. But between the lines, he wants to win over anything else. Kids are competitive. That spills from him to them.”
Jones’ home office in Jasper includes a computer where he watches tapes of opposing teams and his own. He has neatly-aligned folders for each foe and catalogs opponents’ scores, stats and tendencies.
He still hits the road to scout and works from both his house in Jasper and a friend’s home where he and Joyce sometimes stay in French Lick.
It’s clear the return to coaching was not a part-time gig. He’s spent the last two seasons shoulder-deep in the details.
Perhaps that’s why Jones sensed several players began Tuesday night’s sectional opener feeling anxious. They’d already closed their regular season with three consecutive victories, along the way inching toward that 700th triumph. When the Blackhawks’ lead ballooned to a comfortable margin late Tuesday, students began chanting “se-ven hun-dred!” After the game, a few folks wore shirts with “Jones 700” on the back. Players and fans from multiple teams patted the coach’s back.
What made Jones most proud was two things, and neither had to do with 700.
First, he breaks his career into snippets, noting that players remember only what they experienced.
Jones wants to make sure players take favorable memories from their time in his program. Only two coaches have ever won more than Jones’ 25 sectional championships, so a team enjoying at least a sliver of sectional success made him happy.
Of equal importance, he’d led Valley to back-to-back seasons of at least 10 wins. That hadn’t happened in more than 20 years. He’s maintained interest in the feeder program and Jones hopes JV coach Rick Scholl, a 49-year-old Mitchell native who flocked to Valley just to glean all he could from Jones, is the Blackhawks’ next varsity leader. Valley basketball still isn’t what it used to be, but it’s better today than it was two years ago.
“We’ve taken a step,” Emmons says. “Coach has helped.”
Jones’ future is uncertain. He and Joyce will soon flee to Florida for few weeks. He agreed to help at Valley for two seasons. He doubts if he can make it three because his wife deserves a real retirement and he’s simply getting older.
Whatever he does, he’ll do it without fanfare. If he does return, some young men will be better off for it. If this is it, he will be missed.
“The body says you’re done, but the mind will never say that,” Jones says. “I’m a lifer.
“Oh, I love basketball. People talk about (700) ... but to see kids become better players, better students of the game, accomplish things, that’s the reward. I hope it’s been as meaningful for the kids as it has been for me.”
Contact Jason Recker at firstname.lastname@example.org
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