Reginald Jones already has been saved from the streets once. Now he is trying to make this second chance stick.
At 39 years old, he is back in school and back on the basketball court. The young coaching staff at Fisk University believes the 6-foot-9 Jones is just the big man they need to turn the small NAIA program around. For Jones, he is hopeful the private, historically black institution will turn his life around.
“I know this was out of my league when the door opened here. It was out of my control,” Jones said. “I don’t know nobody here. Something special is going to happen here.”
Jones never thought he would be on the hardwood again, especially at Fisk, which makes the short trip to Tennessee State on Wednesday.
In fact, college basketball — or organized basketball of any kind — never seemed to be in the plans for Jones. He never made it out of high school in Asheboro, N.C., kicked out as a freshman for selling drugs. He stayed on that path for a while, well into his 30s. Jones, however, longed for change.
“I wanted help, out of the dope game,” he said. “I wanted help to better my life. I was tired of living life like, ‘Wow, man, I got to keep watching out for the cops, watching out for people trying to rob me.’ So I was like, ‘Please God, show me want you want me to do.’ So he put me around some people. They mentored me.”
Though he never played on a middle school or high school team, Jones frequented the street ball circuit, playing in “ ’hood tournaments” in Charlotte and Greensboro.
After one game in 2005, he was approached by Luscious Hailey, a former college player, who offered to mentor Jones and prepare him for college basketball. Hesitant at first, Jones agreed, and the two trained for the next six months.
Unknown to Jones, Hailey was good friends with Allen Sharpe, who played at Lipscomb University from 1996-2000. At the time, Hailey was a first-year head coach at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala. Sharpe’s father, Gary, coached Hailey at a junior college in Florida. Sharpe described Hailey, a former Middle Tennessee State standout, as “good as gold.” Thus, he took his advice and watched Jones play.
“He was dunking it, tearing it down, running the floor,” said Sharpe, who now coaches at Division II Arkansas-Monticello. “Are you kidding? This guy is 33 years old and he can still run like that?”
Sharpe offered Jones a full scholarship on two conditions — he stopped using profanity and quit doing drugs. According to the records, Jones scored 20 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in just nine games over two years. Sharpe said his lack of knowledge of organized basketball hurt his chances of picking up minutes on a team that was ranked fifth nationally in 2006-07.
Discipline issues did arise, which eventually resulted in a suspension. He recalled a night before a game in which he went out partying and drinking with a girl. On their way home, he was pulled over and arrested for being under the influences of alcohol and drugs.
Jones maintains he did not smoke marijuana that night — “We were looking for some. But we didn’t find it,” he said — and was not drunk at the time. According to him, they spent 12 hours in jail before the charges were dropped.
“He saw me and a white girl riding at 12 o’clock at night and he wanted to make a statement,” Jones said.
Still, Sharpe doesn’t have regrets about signing Jones, who talks fondly of his time at Wallace State.
“If I hadn’t signed him who knows where he would be? He might not even be living if I hadn’t signed him,” Sharpe said. “There are no regrets on my end. I think the world of him. I think that Reggie genuinely has a great heart and wants to do the right thing.”
Jones graduated from Wallace State with a certificate in heating and air conditioning in the spring of 2007. He then moved to Huntsville, hoping to land a full-time job.
The next four years, however, he struggled financially. He bounced around to minimum wage jobs, never staying at one longer than six months. He believes his past probably haunted him, with three felony counts on his record — he had started selling drugs when he was 13. Jones said he was in jail three times for a total of 10 years, the first when he was 17 and the last in 2004.
He also blamed himself for his shortcomings.
“I don’t think the economy had anything to do with it,” he said. “I think it was just Reginald being stupid. The last time I was in school [at Wallace State], I had enough money that I could have saved money and bettered myself. But I wanted to splurge. Stupid.”
Three months ago, right after he was fired from a grocery store position, he caught another break. He crossed paths at a basketball gym with Sylvester Leslie whose former college teammate, Rod Ramzy, had just taken a job as an assistant coach at Fisk. Ramzy was in search for a big body and brought Jones up for a tryout.
“We could tell he was out of shape and he hadn’t played in a while,” Ramzy said. “But the size of him, in our conference [Gulf Coast Atlantic Conference] there are not many guys his size. We weren’t really concerned about the skill level. It would take some time to get that back. That same day I went ahead and put his information in for the NAIA. ... It worked out.”
Jones lives in an apartment near TSU and said he is still scraping by, searching for a bigger support system and longing to raise a family.
“Hopefully it will change where I can live, I can be comfortable with life,” Jones said. “Not have to go to school and say, ‘Dang, man, I need some gas money. Dang, man, I need some food.’ They feed me here. But after practice at night, I’m like, ‘Dang what am I going to eat?’
“… I struggled for five years of my life, dude. That freaking hurt. A grown man barely can take care of himself. Imagine if I had kids and spouse to take care of?”
In four years, he wants those worries to be a thing of the past. His goal is to graduate in 2015 and become a music producer. His teammates say it isn’t just talk, that Jones truly wants to change.
“He is giving 110 percent [in class] at the age of 39. That baffles me,” junior guard Myles Carroll said with a laugh. “He wants to overcome the adversity and prove people wrong. He is a real cool guy.”
As for his presence on the basketball court, he has made one start in Fisk’s first three games. Against Trevecca Nazarene last week, he attempted just one shot and had one rebound as early foul trouble limited him to six minutes.
His coaches said they’ll need more out of him to reach their goal of double-digit wins after going 3-27 last year. Jones thinks a turnaround is inevitable if a freshman- and sophomore-laden squad can change their attitudes.
“They got the mindset where they can do it by themselves, and when they don’t do it, they get frustrated,” Jones said. “Our body language kills us sometimes.”
Jones’ age doesn’t seem to be an issue — with his teammates or coaches. Watkins is 41 and Ramzy and Smith are both in their late 30s. But that won’t stop Ramzy from chewing out Jones and holding him accountable.
Jones likes it that way. He wants to be a leader but he also doesn’t feel entitled to anything.
After all, this is his second second chance.
“He is really looking to learn,” Watkins said. “He still kind of acts like he is one of the younger kids. He is not one who needs special privileges. He wants to make his own way. He wants to prove to everybody that he can fit in, he can compete. It really helped some of our younger kids, showing them what work ethic is.”