By AARON BRACY
Stop. Just stop. For a second.
Think about how you have become what you have become. To whom are you thankful? For what?
Who are you? Why are you?
Easy questions. Or are they?
Do you remember the little child inside of you? What comes to mind?
Carl Jones remembers. Those tears. Flowing hard. Four years old. Confused, sad, worried.
Carl Jones Sr. remembers, too. His tears. Like his only son, flowing. Young man. Hurt, maybe. But loving.
Ayesha Brooks also remembers. The distance. The separation. Young woman. Hurt, maybe. But loving.
And, basketball. Always, basketball. His refuge. As an infant. As a boy. As a teen. And now.
The setting will be raucous, noisy, excited. Carl Jones, Saint Joseph’s senior guard who goes by “Tay,” a shortened version of his middle name, Devonte, will take the court on Thursday in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. It could be the final time pulling that Crimson and Gray jersey over his slender 5-foot-11, 160-pound frame when the Hawks match up against Xavier in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Win or lose, hurt or happy, Tay will exit the court and likely into the St. Joe’s record books, needing just six points to move into third all-time on the school’s scoring charts. A record-setting career? How did he get here?
To whom are you thankful?
For Jones, the answer indeed is easy: To a dad, a mom and a ball.
The young boy, four years old, was being jockeyed back and forth between his never-married and recently separated parents. Going to and fro, not knowing why, Tay finally broke down.
That night changed everything for the boy.
“I remember that night,” Tay said recently. “I had came from my mom’s house to my dad’s house. I love my mom. I asked my dad why did I leave my mom’s, why can’t I see both of you at the same time and I just started crying.”
“I can remember like it was yesterday,” the elder Jones said. “He came in the house, he was crying and I asked him what was wrong. He told me I don’t want to go back and forth no more. I explained to him right there that I don’t think we’re going to be together, but I’ll honestly tell you that you will never have a problem between either situation as far as arguments or us fighting. We’re going to take care of you and I promise you that.”
A heavy, but direct message for a young boy. Relieved, Tay got it.
“He just explained it to me and I don’t know how at a young age I understood what he was saying, but I understood what he was saying,” Tay said. “It helped me, from there on. I don’t know if they were closer because of it, because I was crying. I think my dad might have even been crying because of the situation we were in at the time. They just broke up or something. We were going through a lot. From that point, everything was smooth from there.”
Statistically, Jones’ situation wasn’t surprising. His hometown of Cleveland features one of the highest single-parent rates in the country, sadly affecting 59 percent of children. Growing up in the Miles section of the city, Jones needn’t look far to see kids who couldn’t come home to mommy and daddy. But where Jones’ case tangents – and largely what has made him who he is – isn’t just the fact that both of his parents were there for him in spite of their separation, it was the enormous heaping of love, encouragement and protection showered about their son.
“Our common goal was to make sure he had everything he needs,” Tay’s mom, Ayesha Brooks, said of her and his dad. “We never became selfish with that. Both of us always understood that he was important and it was important to give him everything that he needed. It was easy because we kept everything about Tay. Whatever me and his dad went through, we put that to the side.
“I just wanted to let him know that you can be a good parent and still not be together. We always tried to keep that promise and not let it affect him.”
Said Tay, “It made me feel real good. It made me feel like they were together still. Whenever I needed them, I had them. It was never a problem.”
A Dad’s Tough Love
Standing no taller than his son, Tay’s father never was much of a basketball player. Tough though. Really tough. The gridiron was his competitive choice, and dad took a football mentality to raising his son.
Jones Sr. said he always gave Tay a choice whether he wanted to play sports. If the answer was affirmative, and with basketball it always was a resounding “Yes!”, there was only one way.
“I would always be hard on him and I would never let him give up on anything, even if it was going bad,” Jones Sr. said. “He’s been through a lot. If he wants me to stop, he can stop. I told him if he doesn’t want to play sports no more, you don’t have to. But if you want to be the best you want to be, I have to do it. That’s where he gets that mental toughness.
“Push him around and then help him get back up. Just not let him settle or quit.”
Figuring height wasn’t in the genes, Jones Sr. knew Tay would face bigger, stronger competition. Besides toughening him mentally, Tay’s dad taught him how to practically overcome his size deficiency. Watch again, as you have the last four years on Hawk Hill, as Jones drives the lane on Thursday against guys almost a foot taller than him.
And do it fearlessly, successfully.
Know why? Dad had him practice driving the lane while defending with a broomstick. The extended broomstick was the hand of the taller, stronger defender and dad’s own muscled body was the cement block to get past.
“He would rough me up so I would be ready when the time comes,” Tay said. “He did a lot of little stuff that amounted to a lot. He’s not even good at basketball. He would just foul me, throw me on the ground. It would never be easy. He taught me not to quit.”
Those taller defenders? Cake compared to dad and his broomstick.
“He loved that drill,” Jones Sr. said. “Once he got to a certain size, they’re not going to be able to swat the ball anymore. He wasn’t really frustrated or anything.”
Tough? Yes. But out of love, only love. Tay knows. Yes, he knows.
“He do everything for me,” Tay said of his father. “He always helps me with everything. He’s always been in my corner since I was real little.”
“I tell him,” Jones Sr. said, “I know sometimes I’m hard on you, but I’ve never told you nothing wrong or make you do nothing wrong. He understands that.”
A Mom’s Encouraging Love
What is a parent? To their kids, everything of course.
Really, it is indefinable. As any parent can attest, it is equally exciting and frightening, wanting to see your son or daughter be the best he or she can be.
So, how do you do it? Countless words and theory have espoused the secrets. There is no right way. No secrets.
But, the thought here, is Brooks’ handling of Tay is as close as it gets to right.
She left the toughening, which she appreciated, to his father. Hers was a different kind of love.
An encouraging love.
“His dad is really like that person, I’m not going to say really be hard on him, help him be the man,” she said. “And I try to give him that other balance, to stay in touch with his feelings and who he is. I don’t put a lot of pressure about basketball on him. If he wants to talk about it, he can talk about it. I just want him to be the best person he can be and be true to who he is.
“I just always tell him that whatever his dream is, whatever it is that he imagines, that he can do that. Only he can do that. He needs to work hard for that. Don’t let nothing come in between what his dream is. His ultimate dream, of course, is to go to the NBA. Everything he does needs to focus on attaining that dream. I always have to remind him.”
Whatever it is that he imagines, that he can do that.
Wow. How lucky, Tay. How lucky you are.
To reach his dreams, mom knew it would take more than dad’s tough love and her encouragement. Both needed to be protectors, as well.
As in many inner-cities, crime unfortunately is a way of life. Cleveland is worse than most, recently ranking as the second-poorest and ninth-most violent among big U.S. cities.
Hold onto that dream, she told her boy. The ball will keep you out of trouble.
Tay never got in trouble with the law, focusing his efforts on gaining a better handle and jumper rather than drugs, guns and no-good.
And he always had mom in his ear.
“You have to remember what you want,” Brooks would tell Tay. “Out in the streets and certain people…I always tried to tell him, ‘Your dream is not everybody’s dream. You have to protect yourself because it’s very bad.’ He sacrificed. He didn’t have regular summers because he was always at camp or AAU. His friends got to hang out. He couldn’t do that because he wanted something greater later in life. He was willing to make that sacrifice.
“Constantly remind him that one bad decision can change your life. A lot of times he does see people he played with in AAU and high school and they didn’t do so well. They have gotten in trouble and now their lives are on a whole different path because of their bad decisions. You have to try to surround yourselves with people who have your best interests and that’s what I tell him. If it don’t seem right, then it’s probably not right.”
Brooks knows that many in Cleveland don’t make it out – or worse. It’s why she is so proud of her son and why she is so thankful for basketball.
“I’m sure (basketball) saved him from a lot of things. Truly,” Brooks said. “I honestly think the court is like his safe haven. That’s where he’s most comfortable. He’s comfortable. He’s safe. Nobody, we can’t touch that. It’s like he gets on the court and he’s in a zone, in a whole nother world.”
As now, the court was his haven then, the ball his constant companion. He dribbled it through the streets of Cleveland and then just across the city border in Garfield Heights, where he moved in with mom to finish his high school career at the town’s high school.
It was there that an assistant coach told Hawks coach Phil Martelli of a fireplug scorer. That coach? Former St. Joe’s big man Harold Rasul, better known, appropriately, during his time in the late ’90s on Hawk Hill as “Cleve.”
“He called Coach Martelli and said, ‘I got you one,’” Jones Sr. said of Rasul.
Boy Or Man
If only we listened to everything our parents said. It’s not that easy of course. Live and learn we must do. Mistakes we must make.
Tay has made them at St. Joe’s. A three-game suspension to start the season, a benching midway through. More petty trouble that didn’t pull him off the court.
Still, encouraging love.
“Just remind him we all make mistakes,” said Brooks, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C. with Tay’s 12-year-old sister, Mya. “Any mistake he makes is going to be personified. Everybody’s watching. You have to be more careful. He is young and he’s learning life. But we all going to make mistakes. You hope and pray you don’t. If they just listen to everything you say, you can save them from so much. But it don’t happen that way, unfortunately.”
Still, tough love.
“The mistakes that he makes, ‘Hey man, if you make those mistakes, that’s on you,’” Jones Sr. said. “I’m going to be here for you but you have to learn through the mistakes that you make. I am blessed with the mistakes he made and had a chance to learn from him. I like the fact he got suspended and had to pay for the stuff he did. He put himself in the predicament. It’s just hard. He’s growing.”
Letting go hasn’t been easy for either dad or mom. But Jones Sr. says one of the reasons they settled on St. Joe’s over 30 Division I choices was the family atmosphere, figuring there Tay would develop from a boy into a man.
“They’ve done a wonderful job preparing him as far as being a man,” Jones Sr. said of Martelli and his coaching staff. “I take my hat off to him. It’s hard for me to give my son to a group of men and I take my hat off to the coaching staff at St. Joe’s University.
“That’s the best part of it. It’s about winning but it’s about building character also. If you’re doing something wrong, you don’t need to be rewarded. I’m not going to stand up for you if you’re wrong. Make sure you understand what you did. Coach Martelli wants him to understand that.”
Martelli said his relationship with Jones Sr. is as strong as any parent of a player he’s coached. Now in his 18th season at the helm, Martelli, himself a father of three, admires Jones Sr.
“The dad has always listened and then responded in an appropriate fashion,” Martelli said. “He’s willing to ask questions and he’s willing to hear the tough answers. A lot of people will ask you a question hoping you’re going to answer in a certain way and hoping the answer will make them comfortable. His dad will ask a question, listen to the answer and you always get the sense, ‘Yeah, I got it.’
“He’s always been thankful and appreciative, thanks for taking a chance and helping him grow. I’m big in recruiting on I don’t want their son unless there’s a partnership I don’t want their son. I say to Tay, ‘You know what, you’re a lucky guy because you have a righteous dad.”
In the end, both Martelli and Jones Sr. want the best for Tay. On and off the court.
“I want him to be a man more than anything,” Jones Sr. said. “Our relationship (with Martelli) is good because he always tells me the relationship he has with Tay is because of me. Most kids in D-1 don’t have a relationship. I’m going to be fair. There have been challenges. I think he’s maturing as a person and a man.”
Martelli has seen improvement in Tay.
“The areas where he’s improved is in one-on-one settings, he gets it,” Martelli said. “He’s not afraid to hear criticism. You can feel with your eyes that he wants your approval, he wants to get it right.”
But, like any coach, Martelli wants more.
“You’d like it to be not just incremental growth but exponential growth,” Martelli said. “He’s inched along. That’s the way I would describe it.”
Like all parents, Tay’s know he is not without flaws. They also know, more than anyone, how far he has come.
“He’s still young and there’s always going to be things he don’t understand,” Brooks said. “I want him to stay true to who he is and always work on his dream and his passion. I’m just proud because he set a goal for himself and I think he’s accomplished it, especially for a black male. There are so many other things he could be doing. So many sacrifices he’s made. And I’m proud that he’s closer to it. Every day he works toward the goal he’s trying to achieve and I’m proud of that.”
Said Jones Sr., “He’s a great kid. I’m proud to be his dad. He’s just a great person once you know who he is. I’m proud of the steps he’s taken as far as manhood.”
There are more steps to be taken. On the court, Jones would like to heighten his legacy with a run in the A-10 tourney. After that, a pro career hopefully. Down the road, coming back to finish a degree that won’t be completed in May.
“It’s real important,” Jones said of making his parents proud. “They gave me the opportunities I got right now so I want to make them as proud as possible for giving me everything they gave me.”
“I think about it a lot,” Tay added of completing his degree. “My dad, he don’t care if I make a million, he just want me to graduate from college. That’s it. That’s the most important thing to him. I’m definitely going to come back and finish.”
Mom, too, knows the ball, one day, will stop bouncing.
“I know there is going to be a life after basketball no matter what,” she said, “so I just want him to be the best person he can be.”
It will be a person built on tough, encouraging love.
Who are you? Why are you?
For Carl “Tay” Jones, the answers are easy.
A dad, a mom and a ball.
“This,” Martelli said, “is as much an acclimation a dad and mom loving their son and not just liking him because he played basketball.”