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The Fast Lane Marion Jones is the best female sprinter on the planet, a rising star in the long jump and a world-class point guard--and she hasn't even hit her stride yet

June 29, 1998
June 29, 1998

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June 29, 1998

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The Fast Lane Marion Jones is the best female sprinter on the planet, a rising star in the long jump and a world-class point guard--and she hasn't even hit her stride yet

She lay on the living room floor of her family's Los Angeles
house in 1981, watching the royal wedding of Charles and Diana
on television. Marion Jones was five years old, a little girl
creating her own vision from the pictures on the screen. "They
have a red carpet to walk on, because they're special people,"
she chirped to her mother and her brother. "When will they roll
out a red carpet for me?"

This is an article from the June 29, 1998 issue Original Layout

They're in the process even now. The rug is thick and plush,
unfurling toward the millennium. In the autumn of 2000, Jones
could--no, plans to--win five gold medals at the Sydney
Olympics, having by then, at the doddering age of 25, run faster
and jumped farther than any other woman in history. She might
then (or later, but eventually) switch from track and field to
basketball and resume playing the sport in which she scored
1,716 points in three years at North Carolina. "As an elite
two-sport athlete, she would be in a class by herself at that
point," says Gary Cavalli, president of the pro American
Basketball League. To each of these endeavors Jones would bring
a charm on which marketing campaigns can be built.

To review: Win five golds, eclipse Florence Griffith Joyner and
Jackie Joyner-Kersee in the record book, rescue track and field
from oblivion, then nurture another sport by feeding Chamique
from the point and maybe winning a few championships. This is
heavy lifting, a job with few candidates. "I'll say this," says
Dennis Craddock, who coached Jones during her moonlighting track
seasons at North Carolina. "You don't put limits on what Marion
Jones can do. In anything. Period." When Jones is finished, it
might be fair to ask whether the best athlete in the world wears
a jockstrap.

In the insular world of track and field, Jones's potential has
long been known. An erstwhile California high school prodigy,
Jones returned to the sport full time last year for the first
time since 1993 (having forgone her final year of basketball
eligibility with the Tar Heels) and stunned even her believers
by winning the U.S. and world 100-meter titles and running 10.76
seconds for the 100, equaling the fifth-fastest time in
history--all after one spring's crash training with a new coach.
"We all knew she was fast, but we also knew it takes years to
reach a high level," says U.S. sprinter Inger Miller, who ran
with Jones on the gold-medal-winning 4x100 relay at last
summer's world championships in Athens. "Everyone was shocked
how quickly she hit those times."

On May 13 of this year, with a winter of training behind her,
Jones ran 10.71, in Chengdu, China, the fastest 100 by any woman
other than Flo-Jo. On May 31, at the Prefontaine Classic, she
long-jumped a world-leading 23'11 1/4". At last week's national
championships she became the first woman in 50 years to win
three individual events--the 100, 200 and long jump--and she
matched her 10.71 in the 100. "What she's getting ready to do is
going to blow everybody's mind," says sprint coach John Smith, a
1972 U.S. Olympian in the 400 meters. "We're talking about 10.50
or better for the 100, 21-flat for the 200 [Griffith Joyner's
world records are 10.49 and 21.34] and, in the long jump, at
least 25 feet [Galina Chistyakova's world standard is 24'8 1/4";
Joyner-Kersee's U.S. mark is 24'7"]. I mean, as fast as she
is--and she can dunk a basketball."

It's true, she can. "She's done it in practice, she's done it in
warmups before a game," says North Carolina women's basketball
coach Sylvia Hatchell. For the Tar Heels, Jones did much more
than dunk. In her three years as starting point guard, North
Carolina went 92-10, didn't lose an Atlantic Coast Conference
tournament game and won the 1994 NCAA championship. At 5'10",
155 pounds, Jones brought explosiveness and speed to her
position. "She intimidates when she walks on the court," says
Hatchell. "And she brings everybody on her team up to her level,
because she refuses to drop to someone else's. There's not a pro
league in the world that wouldn't take her in a heartbeat."

This is how she affects others: In the 1996-97 basketball
season, Jones's backcourt partner was sophomore Jessica Gaspar.
In the second round of the NCAA tournament, as Carolina was
eliminating Michigan State, Gaspar tore the anterior cruciate
ligament in her left knee while slicing to the basket after
receiving a pass from Jones. Gaspar didn't know for certain that
Jones would give up her final year of eligibility, but she
suspected it. "The first thing I thought was that this was the
last pass I'd ever get from Marion," says Gaspar. "That hurt
more than blowing out my knee, because I knew my knee would
heal, but I wasn't ever going to play with Marion again."

Last summer, Jones soared to the top of the track and field
world--supplanting Gail Devers and Merlene Ottey as the fastest
woman in the world--even though her decisions to stop playing
basketball and to marry 29-year-old shot-putter C.J. Hunter left
her feeling unwanted by the North Carolina athletic community
that she had so spectacularly represented and by her mother,
whom she did not see for almost a year.

"I was not surprised by her performance," says Marion Toler,
Jones's 52-year-old mother. "She was angry at people, at Coach
Hatchell, at Coach Craddock, probably at me. She has always put
critical articles in her scrapbook to motivate herself, and she
excels in situations like this. There was a lot more at work
last summer than fast-twitch fibers."

On the night of her 100-meter gold medal run in Athens, Jones
stood outside the stadium in darkness and said, "As long as
you're running fast, life is good." It's her mantra, her
motivation and her escape.

They have lived a very long 22 years as mother and daughter.
Toler came to the U.S. in 1968 at age 22 from her native Belize.
She had previously spent two years at a secretarial school in
London and spent two more in New York. She was briefly married
and bore a child, Jones's half brother, Albert Kelly. After
moving to Los Angeles in '71, she met and married George Jones,
a union that lasted four years and produced one child, a girl
born in '75 and named for her mother.

In 1983 the family moved from L.A. to Palmdale, a small desert
city 50 miles to the north, and Marion married Ira Toler. While
Marion Toler worked as a legal secretary, Ira played Mr. Mom to
the children and became especially close to the girl known to
her family and friends then--and to many of them now--as Little
Marion. When Ira died of a stroke in '87, it was devastating to
both Marions. "Ira was always there for my sister," says Kelly,
now 27. "He talked to her, answered her questions, helped her
with homework, took her to tee-ball games. Then he was gone."

As Little Marion grew, her drive became voracious. Kids on the
block called her Hard Nails for her stoicism and spunk. "I had
no use for dolls or any girl things or even girlfriends," says
Marion, who loved snakes and wasn't afraid of the dark. Marion
Toler, who had grown up with a father of Victorian
sensibilities, understood that if she raised her daughter the
way she had been raised, she would risk losing her. "She was the
type of child who would say, 'If I don't get this or that, I'm
going to jump off this ledge,'" Toler says. "If I said, 'Go
ahead, jump,' she would have. I knew that she would defy me,
test me, and there were many rebellions. But I decided that she
was special, that I had to find a way to nurture these
qualities, not beat them out of her."

The daughter's success and happiness became the mother's quest.
Toler moved the family from Palmdale southwest to the suburban
Los Angeles town of Sherman Oaks so Marion could attend
Pinecrest Junior High. Before Marion's ninth-grade year, Toler
and her children moved again, to the Ventura County town of
Camarillo, and Marion attended Rio Mesa High. Two years later
they moved once more, so Marion could attend and play basketball
at nearby Thousand Oaks High. Toler worked two jobs one summer
so Marion could go to Asia with a California all-star basketball
team. In 1992 Toler enlisted Elliott Mason, who had once trained
with five-time Olympian Evelyn Ashford, to coach Marion in her
attempt to make that year's U.S. sprint team. (Jones missed by
.07 when she finished fourth in the 200 and declined a spot as a
4x100 relay alternate because, she says, "when people come to
see my gold medals, I want to be able to say I ran for them.")

Marion was a woman among little girls in high school. As a
sophomore, she was the fastest in the U.S. at 100, 200 and 400
meters; as a junior she ran 22.58 for the 200, a national
scholastic record that still stands. In basketball she twice
took Thousand Oaks High to the regional championship game. How
the soccer coach let her escape is a mystery.

Jones's self-reliance deepened as she grew. When her mother
moved with her to Chapel Hill when she matriculated at North
Carolina in 1993, Jones felt claustrophobic. "I had always been
independent," says Jones, "but when I went to college, that was
multiplied 10 times. My mother and I butted heads, a lot."

Toler says, "I wasn't trying to control her, I just wanted to
watch her play ball."

Jones went to North Carolina on a basketball scholarship, with
plans to run some track. "I loved track, and I wanted to keep it
like that," she says. "So many young runners get burned out. I
figured I'd do both, but in the beginning, I needed discipline,
and the Carolina basketball program is very structured." Her
basketball career was brilliant. It began with her standing at
the top of the key--"Frozen," she says--when Charlotte Smith hit
the three-pointer that gave the Tar Heels the 1994 national
title and ended with a No. 1 seeding in the '97 NCAA tournament.
(The Tar Heels were upset in the round of 16 by George
Washington.)

Jones competed for two years in college track, always short of
fitness, trying to sprint with a basketball body (as a full-time
track athlete, her weight has dropped to a sinewy 148). In 1996
she had planned to redshirt in basketball and compete in the
Atlanta Olympics. Had she not twice broken a bone in her left
foot, derailing that dream, she might already have several medals.

It was in Chapel Hill that she met Hunter, who had won a bronze
medal at the 1995 worlds. Hunter, seven years Jones's senior,
was working as a throws coach under Craddock but resigned when
he began going out with Jones in early '96, because university
rules forbade coach-athlete dating. "Easy call," says Hunter. By
the spring of that year, they were engaged.

Many people in the Tar Heels community were displeased that
Jones and Hunter had paired up, and they blamed Hunter's
influence for Jones's decision to forgo her last season of
basketball and track eligibility. "There are a lot of people who
care about Marion who feel that C.J. is not good for her," says
Hatchell, voicing an opinion that Jones and Hunter have often
heard.

Hunter comes with some baggage. He's the divorced father of two
children and filed for bankruptcy five years ago. He's large and
menacing and very economical with words. Says Jeff Madden, a
former North Carolina strength coach and the man who introduced
Jones to Hunter, "People are intimidated by him because he's
blunt." This blunt: "People who criticize us don't give a damn
about Marion," Hunter says. "Hatchell was thinking about her own
team." (Point of fact: Hatchell's 1997-98 team had Tennessee
down by 12 points with seven minutes to go in the Elite Eight,
without Jones. With her, Carolina might have won another
national title.) As to the notion that he is piggybacking on
Jones's fame or wealth, consider that Hunter was an elite,
world-class athlete before Jones was, and he is currently ranked
No. 2 in the U.S. in the shot. His Nike contract came first. "If
I'm so bad for Marion, look what's happened since we met," says
Hunter. "She had her best academic year, and she's become one of
the most popular athletes in the world."

Jones stopped training at North Carolina, and she and Hunter
closed the circle tightly around themselves. "When you try to
keep two people apart, what happens?" asks Hunter. "They get
closer." In Jones's last basketball season, Hunter sat in the
stands through every practice and monitored every interview. He
set her up with his agent, Charlie Wells, and a coach, Trevor
Graham. On the European summer circuit they are inseparable and,
often, invisible. "You almost never see Marion outside of her
room on the circuit, and if you do, she's with C.J.," says Miller.

Where others saw seclusion, Jones and Hunter felt something
else. "I've never in my life had somebody whom I could tell
everything to," says Jones. "Now I can. I have a companion." She
also has what her mother once was: a shadow to her every move.
She also appears to have bliss.

Joyner-Kersee, into whose shoes Jones is stepping (as the best
female track and field athlete in the world and as a two-sport
star), has observed this soap opera from afar. She knows that
the comparisons between her and Jones don't end with sports but
extend to their relationships with men who have taken charge of
their personal and professional lives. "There are plenty of
people who have never liked me and Bobby together," says
Joyner-Kersee of her husband and longtime coach. "It doesn't
matter. Marion and C.J. are a partnership. It's their life, and
outsiders don't matter."

Toler is one who has been pushed to the outside. She hosted a
graduation party for her daughter on May 11, 1997, then didn't
hear a word from her until a phone call just before Christmas,
although Jones sent postcards from Europe last summer. "We're
not close," Jones said in early April. "We're not on the best of
terms."

It's true that Toler is apprehensive about the impending
nuptials, scheduled for Oct. 3, but this is hardly unprecedented
for a mother-in-law-to-be. "I can't say this is how I wanted it
to be for my daughter," says Toler. "A divorced man with two
children. Is C.J. right for her? I pray that he is. She is in a
little girl's world, with her audience and her celebrity, and my
take is that she is looking for her daddy. C.J. comes across as
a protector, but in truth, nobody can protect you until you grow
up."

Their new four-bedroom house sits at the end of a cul-de-sac in
the upscale neighborhood of Apex, midway between Raleigh and
Chapel Hill. There's a hoop in the driveway, where Marion can
crush C.J. in games of H-O-R-S-E and where C.J. can back Marion
down and post her up. When C.J. returns from his workout this
afternoon, Marion is flopped on the couch watching The People's
Court. They live the streamlined existence of full-time athletes
pulling down more than $1 million a year in prize money and
endorsements. A typical day at home, says C.J., is "training, a
nap and Judge Judy."

On occasion they socialize with C.J.'s coach, Brian Blutreich,
and his wife, or with some of Jones's former basketball
teammates. More often they stay home and challenge each other in
video games. They recently bought a women's college basketball
game, but neither is allowed to play as North Carolina, and
Tennessee might as well not be on the disc. "No orange in this
house," says Marion. C.J.'s passion is Notre Dame football, and
he keeps dozens of game tapes in the family room. There's a
sense of satisfaction in the air, a feeling that C.J. and Marion
describe with a catchphrase: "What a difference a year makes."

In the spring of 1997, after deciding to turn pro, Jones needed
a plan. Initially, she intended to run a little track, then play
in either the ABL or WNBA. First, though, she needed a coach.
Hunter had been working with her, but, he says, "that's the same
as saying she wasn't being coached at all."

One day, as Hunter worked with Jones at North Carolina State,
Graham stood on the other side of the track, watching. A silver
medalist on Jamaica's 4x400-meter 1988 Olympic relay team,
Graham was now trying to build a coaching franchise by working
with the likes of former world 400-meter champion Antonio
Pettigrew and devouring manuals on technique. "Here I'm getting
all this knowledge," Graham says, "and I just needed a great
sprinter so I could teach it."

Looking across the track that morning, Graham was thunderstruck.
"I thought, Oh, my god, Marion Jones," he says. It was as if
Graham were a physics tutor and little Stephen Hawking had
walked into his classroom. When Hunter called out, "Trev, what
do you think?" Graham replied, "Mind if I fix something?" He
made one small adjustment, then another, and Jones instantly ran
faster and smoother. "It was, like, automatic results," she
says. "That had never happened to me. Trevor changed little
things, like the angle of my blocks or the way I carried one
arm, and I improved immediately."

Pre-Graham, Jones had run a wind-aided 11.51 at the Florida
Relays. Three weeks later she ran a legal 11.37 (and long-jumped
21'8"), followed in succession by a wind-aided 11.19 and 10.97.
The phone started ringing with offers from meet promoters in
Europe. Basketball was dead for 1997, buried beneath the sudden
possibility of a cascade of gold medals and world records, and
far greater earning power than the WNBA or ABL could offer.

"I don't know what she can't do," says Joyner-Kersee. "She's
gifted and she's mentally tough. She can own everything from the
400 on down, plus the long jump."

Most intriguing will be her assault on Flo-Jo's records in the
100 and 200, marks viewed with reverence--and suspicion--in
track and field. The suspicion stems from the near-certainty
that Griffith Joyner's 10.49 in the 100 at the 1988 Olympic
trials was heavily wind-aided and from the fact that all her
best times were run in a one-season flash of brilliance that she
never again approached. Jones is the first woman in a decade to
regard Griffith Joyner's times as being within reach. "The
majority of women in sprinting have acted like those records can
never be broken," says Jones. "So they haven't pressed to go
fast. I'm 22 years old; I'm going to get faster. Before my
career is over, I will attempt to run faster than any woman has
ever run and jump farther than any woman has ever jumped."

As she ascends, Jones can broaden the appeal of her sport with a
smile and a sound bite. "She's like a movie star," says
Hatchell. "Whatever mood she's in, she can turn it on for the
cameras." Agent Brad Hunt says, "She has both athletic ability
and charisma. That's rare in track and field. It's what sets her
apart." Two of Hunt's clients, Michael Johnson and Gwen
Torrence, possessed consummate athletic skills but minimal
ebullience. The same was true of Carl Lewis. Jones's stage
presence will translate splendidly to her other beloved sport,
of which she says simply, "I'm a basketball player who has put
it off for a couple of years."

This is a huge job for one woman, with anger and rebellion as
her principal motivations. This spring the ice began to melt.
Toler returned to North Carolina for eye surgery in April, and
to her surprise, her daughter visited her every day then spent a
week at her mother's Houston home in May. After the reunion
Jones offered a new view of their relationship. "My mother and I
love each other very much," she said. "I'd do anything for her
and vice versa. If at the end of my life I can say that I was
just a quarter of the woman she has been, I will be satisfied."

On one of those days they spent together in North Carolina, they
took a ride in Marion's Jeep. As they rode, Marion handed her
mom a check. "A big check," says Toler, whose heart sank.
"Marion," she said, "I don't want your money, I just want a
relationship with you." Jones stared ahead, unflinching, until
tears, so rare for her, began to form in the corners of her
eyes. "Two tears fell," says Toler. "Bop, bop. Just two. Then
she said, 'Mom, I want you to have it.'"

A red carpet lies at Jones's feet, dotted now with tears.
Perhaps soon the fastest woman alive will run not from anger at
bitter coaches or lost fathers, but from the joy of speed and
transcendent physical gifts. Two tears. It is a start.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES [Marion Jones and tortoise at starting line in adjacent lanes on track]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES [Marion Jones]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES At last week's national championships she became the first woman in 50 years to win three individual events--the 100, the 200 and the long jump (above). [Marion Jones executing long jump]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES [Marion Jones and C.J. Hunter]
By the time Jones is finished, it might be fair to ask whether
the best athlete in the world wears a jockstrap.
"She has both athletic ability and charisma," says one sports
agent. "That's rare in track and field. It's what sets her apart."