August 23, 2012

You can get from New Rochelle to Harlem in 25 minutes. Head to the station off North Ave, just over a mile from Iona's campus, and catch the Metro North train heading south to the city, which rides the tracks past fence-topped, stone-slab walls and the stops dotting southern Westchester County until it skims through the Bronx and across the East River, turns down Park Avenue, and settles above East 125th Street. From there, it takes another 15 minutes to walk west to St. Nicholas Terrace, where Lamont "MoMo" Jones grew up, and 15 to walk south to see his grandmother.

This is an easy trip, which is important to Jones, and a big reason why when he left the Pac-12 showcase of Arizona last summer to play closer to home, he settled on a school of roughly 3,200 students in the suburb that served as setting for The Dick Van Dyke Show. As he reclines in a swivel chair in a windowless room of Iona's athletics office one recent August afternoon, eyes half-open after a long night caring for his infant son, Jones is steadfast in assessing his choice to go from starting point guard on an Elite Eight team to newcomer at a MAAC school with only sporadic postseason berths in its history. "It was the best decision," Jones says. "I don't think anything went wrong. Everything went as planned."

The everything: One of the Gaels' best seasons, a 25-8 run that included a regular season conference title, rare votes in the AP poll, their league's second-ever at-large NCAA tournament berth, and Iona's first tourney bid since 2006 and fifth in the last 27 years. For Jones individually, there was a second-team all-MAAC selection on the back of 15.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.2 steals per game, highlighted by a 43-point outburst against Canisius in February. And most importantly, a year with his family in the stands at every home game and just a short trip away otherwise -- a year he emerged from with a clearer mind and as a first-time father.

"It was a rebuilding year for myself," says Jones. "I just had so much hate in my body. I wanted to be close to home, but I also felt like, why am I still in school? I felt like I should've been to where I wanted to go -- in the NBA -- so coming here was just like OK, I'm mad I'm still in school and I wanna prove everybody wrong."

The decision for Jones to leave Arizona came fast, in the middle of a phone conversation with his grandmother in May 2011. The two had long been close, Jones being her eldest grandson and, along with his mother, a co-tenant in her apartment for a period when he was younger. Jones knew she was sick, battling Hepatitis C, but it was her sobbing as she told him the seriousness of her situation that he realized how much she and the rest of his family needed him, and how much he needed them. "It was just like, I could either stay here and let my family fall apart, or I could come home and try to help the situation," Jones says. He hung up and called his mother, Jeneen Fuller, to tell her he was coming home, then went upstairs to inform his coaches.

As soon as word got out, the gossiping began, not only about where the 6-foot former four-star recruit would end up but why he was packing his bags in the first place. The transfer blindsided just about everyone, not least of which Jones' own family, coming as it did on the heels of the Wildcats' deep tournament run. Jones had already been a face of amateur basketball transience, twice switching high schools and decommitting from three colleges for various reasons. Now there were rumors that he left Arizona rather than share minutes with incoming point guard Josiah Turner, that he had a poor relationship with coach Sean Miller, or that he was simply a coward. Jones heard every whisper, whether through hundreds of social media messages or the texts and phone calls that prompted him to change his number.

He lined up a tour of schools in the New York area -- St. John's, his presumed landing spot, was ruled out by the NCAA -- but canceled the remaining stops after visiting Iona, lured by coach Tim Cluess' confidence in his burgeoning program and frank personality, as well as the coach's propensity for having fun and, Jones says, "talking junk like I talk junk." Cluess knew of Jones's nomadic past, which, coupled with the potential egoistic baggage of going from a perennial power-conference contender to the MAAC, gave him some pause about possibly disrupting a team poised for a conference title run and already led by a pair of all-conference seniors, guard Scott Machado and forward Mike Glover.

But Jones already knew both New York natives. Glover had been one of the biggest lobbyists on the Gaels' behalf, and Jones gladly deferred to playing off the ball when Machado won the point guard spot. Machado ended up leading the nation in assists with 9.9 per game; even while primarily playing the two in Cluess's uptempo attack, Jones averaged a half assist more than he had while running the point at Arizona.

"We were kind of anticipating it to be a high-maintenance situation," Cluess says, "and it never turned out to be that. It turned out to be one of the easiest players that I've had to deal with." That is, until Cluess benched Jones midseason for not shooting enough. Shortly thereafter came Jones' 43-point explosion.

From her apartment not far from Central Park's northeast corner, Jones' grandmother followed the action, recording his games on DVR and then studying them all over again. They served as fodder for conversation whenever Jones would stop by, sometimes catching her in the midst of a repeat viewing. His visits were the same as always, just a couple hours with him on an ottoman and her in a rocking chair, chatting and joking, and in that normalcy (and her continued health) Jones found the comfort he'd come home for.

"She's not miserable, she's not crying," Jones says. "She's a happy soul and that's all I've ever wanted."

Jones' family grew in May, a week after the spring semester's final exams, when his fiancee of 19 months, Janay Ryals, gave birth to their son, Jace' Denim Jones. And so Jones has spent his final college summer learning to be a father, getting up to feed his son when he awakes from spurts of sleep and drawing inspiration from the boy sleeping at the foot of the bed in his off-campus apartment he shares with Ryals.

"If we don't win or I don't put up the numbers I need to," Jones says of this coming season, "if I don't run this team how I need to run it, if I don't get this team to where we need to or should be, then I'm not only failing myself but I'm failing my son."

Just about everyone Jones knows wants to see his baby, but Jones is sure to have them visit New Rochelle rather than bring Jace' to Harlem. His feelings about his neighborhood are complicated. It is the place that shaped him, home not only to friends and family but also the courts where his flashlight-toting mother would bring him to shoot free throws at 3 a.m. and the apartment building staircase he'd sprint up because a neighbor told him he'd never be able to dunk otherwise. But it's also home to the spot by the chain-link fence where his father was shot and killed when Jones was nine years old and the streets he would walk in fear after dark.

He dreams of building a community center and trying to help the area become a better place than the one he knows. And he hopes to help his own family get out of there for good and help them travel to see the country like he has. He envisions his mother in a house with rooms to decorate and a kitchen full of utensils in a neighborhood devoid of gunshots, where she might step outside into the fresh air and complain for the first time that things are too quiet.

But first there is his senior season to worry about, the one Jones refers to as an audition for his future. He says he found closure on the Arizona chapter of his life on a trip to Tucson to visit his godfather, Wildcats assistant Emanuel "Book" Richardson. There he had a "heart-to-heart" with Miller and caught up with the former teammates he still refers to as brothers. He may no longer be angry but his aplomb is intact ("This year coming up will be a year where I could potentially blow up") and he vows to remain a chatterbox on the floor. He will return to the point, promising to provide for others even as the Gaels' biggest scoring threat. This summer he mostly avoided the concrete-court games that have troubled his knees in recent years and spent hours working to shift the release of his jumper from in front to the right of his head in order to stop fading away on shots. "He has turned into a tremendous leader," Cluess adds. "His work ethic has gone through the roof."

Jones knows that both Iona's prospects in the MAAC and whatever professional opportunities may await him and his family depend on it. "It's a big year for me," he says. "There is no partying. There is no fun. It's just straight business. That's it. Nothing else. It's not just about me."

Yet even a focused Jones has plenty to look forward to. His family and friends will be at the Hynes Athletic Center for every home game. He will continue to speak with his grandmother everyday, visiting her as often as he can, and he'll follow the basketball career of his younger sister, Ashley Sims, as she moves to a school in Massachusetts. Next month Jace' can begin eating baby food, and Jones can't wait to turn his son into a second-generation sneakerhead -- he already bought him a tiny pair of Jordan 12s. The new father is getting better at the little things: changing diapers, softening his naturally deep voice into baby talk. And now, when Jace' bursts into tears, Jones tries resisting the urge to rush to his side and comfort him in his arms, lest he never learn to fall asleep on his own. He is learning to instead let his son cry a bit first, to give him just a little distance. He says that's been the hardest part.

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