Tyus Jones remembers a time in his life when it was all about basketball.
Growing up in a household where basketball was a family affair, it was impossible for it not to be. His mother, Debbie, was the point guard at Devils Lake High School on a team that won a North Dakota state championship in 1981. His older brother Jadee played collegiately at Furman and Minnesota State Mankato, and his younger brother Tre won two state titles for Apple Valley High School (Minn.) before joining Duke as one of the most celebrated freshman classes in college basketball history. Jones himself was a national title winner, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in his one season at Duke before being drafted by the Timberwolves in 2015.
For Jones, now a point guard with the Memphis Grizzlies, the game was all he could talk about. All he could think about. All he could dream about.
Until one phone call changed everything.
Jones was at home beside his fiancée when he received a FaceTime request from his mother. “Do you have a minute to talk?” he remembers her asking. Debbie then delivered the news. She had found a lump on her right breast and went in for a checkup just as a precaution. She had undergone numerous tests for several weeks, unsure of what the problem was.
On Jan. 14, 2019, she received the diagnosis: Breast cancer.
“My heart stopped,” says Jones. “The word cancer is so powerful that anytime you hear it, your heart sinks. My mom is my everything, my world. For her to tell me she had breast cancer, those were just words you never want to hear.”
Jones’s world was shaken, but his faith never wavered. The 23-year-old knew what his mother was made of, staying steadfast in his belief that she would continue to serve as the inspiration she’s always been to him and his family. When Jones first had aspirations of playing basketball professionally, it was Debbie who told him that no goal was too big or too unrealistic. His mother was now the one facing the biggest battle of her life, and Jones made it his responsibility to remind her that this, too, could be overcome.
For the first time in over two decades, basketball took a backseat.
“Without my mom, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Jones said. “This was a wakeup call and a change in perspective where now, it was all about her. She came first. Family was the only thing I focused on.”
His mother began chemotherapy shortly after the diagnosis, and the early results were promising. Debbie remained upbeat and positive. She responded well to treatment and, despite experiencing a few bouts of nausea, remained healthy and active.
But the battle didn’t come without its personal challenges for Jones. Then with the Timberwolves, Jones was navigating a chaotic season that included the firing of coach Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler’s trade demand. The fourth-year guard had missed 13 games with a sprained ankle and shot 18% from 3-point range in his first nine games back.
Something wasn’t right, and Debbie could sense it.
After initially intending to keep her condition private in hopes of helping Jones focus on his game, Debbie realized that maintaining the secret was stifling him instead.
“It weighed heavy on all of us,” Jones said, reflecting back. “When your mom is diagnosed with cancer, it’s all you can think about for 24 hours of every single day. And she never wanted to make it about her, so she decided to deal with it out of the spotlight.”
Soon after, though, Debbie realized that she didn’t need to. That there was nothing shameful about her diagnosis. That she could, with her sons’ help, encourage others in their own battles.
With their mother’s blessing, Jones and his brothers collaborated on the wording of their announcement and posted it to Instagram on March 7. The ensuing reaction made all the difference.
During April 7’s contest against the Thunder, the Timberwolves decided to wear white t-shirts with pink lettering on the front and on the back, a pink ribbon separating the letters D and J in support of Jones’s mother. Karl-Anthony Towns commissioned the shoe artist Kickstradomis to customize shoes for the players to wear in the game, and the shirts and shoes were later auctioned off to raise money for breast cancer awareness. The team also provided the Jones family a suite for the game with pink flowers on the table.
“The amount of love and encouragement and support that she got was amazing,” Jones said. “To know my teammates, coaches and friends were all there for her, praying for her, that was big for me to continue to do what I love.”
It helped Debbie move forward in her fight, too. Every kind gesture and every act of love made it possible for her to push through the second round of chemotherapy, withstand her five weeks of radiation and “wake up every day with a smile on her face.”
“She’s Superwoman,” Jones said. “She’s the toughest, strongest person I know. Anyone who knows her knows that if there was anyone who could handle this and beat it, it’s her.”
That’s exactly what Debbie did. After nine months of cancer treatment, on Oct. 5, the final test results came back clear. The fight was over. Debbie was cancer free.
And while the battle may have ended, Jones knows his family’s experience will be something he never forgets. He’ll continue to educate others, partnering with the American Cancer Society to promote the #RealMenWearPink campaign during the month of October. He’ll help raise funds and work to support cancer research efforts. And he’ll do it all because he knows now there’s more to the world than just the court. More to treasure than just a team.
More to life than just basketball.
“My mom’s fight with cancer really put everything into perspective,” Jones said. “It’s a crazy event that you’re never expecting, but it showed me that, as invested as you are in sports, there are things in life that are way bigger. Family is one of those things. And that’s the real blessing. That’s what’s really important.”