There are two men named Jones coaching Ivy League basketball,
brothers with trim physiques, shaved heads and scared-of-nothing
demeanors. James, who turns 40 on Feb. 20, is in his fifth year
at Yale, and Joe, 38, is the rookie coach at Columbia, and
they're so similar that even their father, Herman, can't keep the
two JJ's straight. Some Ivy observers have wondered if the
brothers are in cahoots, sharing secrets about plays and players
and helping each other in order to end the Penn-Princeton
stranglehold on Ancient Eight hoops. They don't know the Jones
James was working in his office in Payne Whitney Gymnasium, the
Gothic fortress for sports at Yale, last Thursday when his
cellphone rang. He looked at the caller I.D., saw it was Joe,
picked up the phone and said coldly, "Yo." In season, their
relationship is mostly by phone.
"Yo, James, how do you get to I-93?" Joe asked. He was driving to
New Hampshire, to scout a high school player the day before
Columbia played at Dartmouth. James wasn't about to log on to
MapQuest and sort it out for his brother.
"I don't know, man," James said. "I gotta go." He had Penn game
tape to watch. The Quakers, 14-0 in Ivy play last year, were
coming to Yale on Friday night.
Ivy League basketball is really about two things: finding legit
players with SAT scores well into in the four figures, and never
letting up in a short, fierce season. Win the title--claimed in
part or in whole by Penn or Princeton in 42 of the last 48
years--and you go straight to the NCAA tournament. (There is no
conference tournament.) Despite impressions that still linger
from the Bill Bradley era at Princeton 40 years ago, there's
nothing genteel about the Ivy League game, which is ultimately
why the Jones brothers are where they are. All they want to do is
win. Columbia lost all of its Ivy games last year, and the
well-liked coach, Armond Hill, was fired. Joe Jones came from
Villanova, where he was an assistant in charge of recruiting. He
beat out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bobby Hurley Jr., among others,
for the job.
People who know the brothers say that talking to one is pretty
much like talking to the other. The most obvious similarity is
their energy. The differences are subtle. "I manage my money
better," James says. "I saved money as an assistant coach making
$29,000 a year." Joe offers no argument. "I'm more of a taxi guy
than a subway guy," he says. He figures the money will come from
Both brothers are, at times, comically profane. Preparing the
Lions for the Dartmouth game, Joe said to his players, "I want
you to step on their d---s!" That is, rebound aggressively.
Revving up 6'6" guard Matt Minoff, the Yale captain, for Ivy
League play, James said to him, "You're gonna be a motherf-----!"
That is, a player who dominates games with his skill and
The bulk of the Ivy season is contested over six consecutive
weekends in the dead of winter, when teams play every Friday and
Saturday night. Last weekend, in the first full slate of Ivy
League play, the Bulldogs had their hands full: Penn on Friday,
Princeton on Saturday. Yale had already been defeated in its
first two Ivy games, upset losses to Brown. The Bulldogs needed
two wins to have any realistic chance of repeating their success
of 2001-02, when Yale, Penn and Princeton tied for first with
11-3 records. (In a playoff, Yale beat Princeton and then lost to
Penn, after which the Bulldogs received a bid to the NIT. In
their first postseason appearance in 40 years, they beat Rutgers
but lost to Tennessee Tech in the second round.) After playing
Dartmouth, Columbia had another road game, at Harvard on
Saturday. There was pressure, of a sort, on the Lions, too:
Before the season Joe had promised Ivy League victories, but
Columbia had opened inauspiciously, losing its first two games,
And so, in a league rooted in WASP privilege and power and
wealth, the central figures last weekend were the Jones brothers,
with their dark skin and working-class roots. The two seemed
right at home. James, especially, has the legacy thing down. He
reminds his recruits that George W. Bush went to Yale (class of
'68) and that Bill Clinton (law school '73) did too.
The journey the Jones brothers took to the Ivy League is an
episode from the American dream. Their father's grandfather,
Sydney, was a Louisiana minister who also worked in a barbershop.
Their parents moved to Long Island, N.Y., where Herman found work
in the dry cleaning business and mother Edna was a nurse. The
marriage ended in divorce when James was in seventh grade and Joe
in sixth. The boys, along with their younger brother, John, and
younger sister, Kizuwanda, moved with their father to
working-class Wheatley Heights and attended Half Hollow Hills
High West. A lot of their good friends were Jewish kids from
affluent Dix Hills who were the children of doctors and lawyers,
and James and Joe became comfortable in a mostly white
environment. It was at Half Hollow Hills that they first heard
about the Ivy League, and it was at Half Hollow Hills that they
first realized the value of education. James, a 6'1" shooting
guard-forward, went on to SUNY Albany, and Joe, a 6'2" point
guard, attended SUNY Oswego.
They received bachelor's degrees (both in communications),
followed by master's degrees (James in educational
administration, Joe in counseling). They started on the bottom
rungs of coaching as young single men; now they are at Division I
schools and are married with young daughters. There are 326 major
college positions in the nation and thousands of people who want
them. James and Joe are one of three active pairs of
head-coaching brothers in the college game (chart, left).
The Jones brothers warred constantly as kids, but today they are
each other's best friend, even if it doesn't always seem that
way. They play their roles. At certain times, on certain
subjects, the big brother is willing to help the little brother.
When Joe was preparing for an interview with Columbia's search
committee, James gave him some important advice: "They've got to
know that you know that the first thing you look at in a recruit
is his academic record."
Of the two, Joe is more the showman. He might have to be.
Columbia, in upper Manhattan on the edge of Harlem, is serious,
cerebral and political. Its best sport is fencing. Joe has been
seen handing out Columbia basketball T-shirts on campus. He has
left students voice mail, urging them to come to games. Before
the season opener against Army, he organized a Midnight Mania, a
glorified pep rally. Columbia doesn't do pep rallies. Some 1,500
kids showed up. "I'm going to say something bold," says Columbia
athletic director John Reeves. "We will win an Ivy League
basketball championship within three years."
James is a basketball obsessive who goes to sleep at 11 p.m. and
wakes up at 2 a.m. to watch a couple of hours of tape before
returning to bed. "Joe's going to sell New York City to his
recruits, but I tell my recruits, 'New York's a great place, but
it's only a train ride away,'" James says. "I tell them that if
they come to Yale, they become part of the Yale community and
that our network of alumni is like no place else's." Earlier in
his career he was a Bulldogs assistant. He's a believer.
Each brother knows what the other is up to. James knew which kid
Joe was going to see in New Hampshire. They can't help it. It's
in their blood. On Friday night Yale was in a dogfight with Penn.
Late in the second half, during a timeout, Curtis Wilson, a
Bulldogs assistant, leaned into his boss's ear and said, "I got
scores--you want 'em?"
"What'd they do?" James asked
"They waxed 'em," Wilson said. That is, the Lions had
unexpectedly pulverized Dartmouth 78-42.
Minutes later, it was big bro's turn. Yale beat favored Penn,
54-52, nailing two free throws at crunch time. When the game was
all noise and whistles and frenzy, James was at his most focused,
keeping careful track of the substitutions he wanted to make. A
half hour after the end of the Yale-Penn game, the brothers were
on their cellphones. "Your boys are going to have some bounce in
their step now," James told Joe. "You just might win two on the
On Saturday night at Harvard's Lavietes Pavilion the 2,195 seats
were half-filled and the atmosphere was quiet, except on the
floor. Watching Joe, you would have thought he was coaching in
the NCAA championship game. At halftime the Crimson was leading
36-31. The Columbia coach railed about one thing: rebounding. The
Lions were not stepping on the Harvard players', uh, manhood. But
they did in the second half and won 78-67. There was much
Joe wanted to call his brother but needed to know the
Princeton-Yale score before he did. One of his assistants told
him, "They lost by two." The Bulldogs had been nipped on a
three-point play with three seconds left. "Ugh!" Joe uttered.
Reaching for his phone, he said, "There's a younger-brother tone
for this." He called, got James's voice mail and, sounding like a
funeral-home director, extended his condolences. He concluded by
saying somberly, "We played well in the second half and won by
10, something like that." Later, while a busload of jubilant
Columbia players and coaches was chugging down I-95 back to New
York City and James was in his office, the brothers would have a
full reprise of their basketball weekend.
Neither would mention their next game, this Friday night, at
Payne Whitney, when Columbia visits Yale. The Joneses say they
will treat the game like any other. For the Bulldogs and the
Lions, the short, fierce Ivy League season concludes on March 6,
when Yale plays at Columbia. In all likelihood, that finale will
be for nothing more than pride--this year, anyhow. Still, it's a
new day in the Ivy League. The word is out: If you want to win
the league and get a ticket to the Big Dance, you need to get
past the Joneses.
Hoop Thoughts by Seth Davis, Grant Wahl's Mailbag and B.J.
Schecter's Marquee Matchup, each week at si.com.
Of the two, younger brother JOE IS MORE THE SHOWMAN. He might
have to be. Columbia is serious, cerebral and political. Its best
sport is fencing.
FRATERNAL ORDER OF COACHES
When Joe Jones got his first college head-coaching job this
season, he and sibling James became the latest brother act to
work the basketball sidelines. Here are some other brother
combinations (current coaches' statistics through Sunday).
SKINNY: This season LARRY, 63, hired HERB, 67, to be one of his
Pistons assistants; as the Nuggets' coach in the late '70s,
Larry went 4-2 against Herb, then Detroit's head man.
[SKINNY]: Sons of a coach (Jim), BILL, 45, is 56-74 in five
seasons at East Carolina; TOM, 36, has a 40-11 mark in two years
at College of Charleston.
[SKINNY]: Hall of Famer HANK and his Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma
State) teams bullied younger brother CLARENCE's Tulsa squads,
winning 16 of 20 meetings from 1949-50 through '59-60.
[SKINNY]: Irrepressible AL took MARQUETTE to the 1977 NCAA title;
older brother DICK was 197-260 in stints with the Pistons and
the Knicks in the '60s.
[SKINNY]: DICKEY, 44, is 129-124 in nine seasons at Arkansas
State; DENNIS, 40, has a 53-50 record in four years at Texas
State. (Big brother Houston is the football coach at Arkansas.)
[SKINNY]: JIMMY V won a memorable NCAA title at N.C. State in
1983; younger brother BOB, an ESPN radio host, coached at five
schools, including St. Francis and St. Mary's (Md.).
[BROTHERS]: VAN GUNDY
[SKINNY]: Rockets coach JEFF, 42, took the Knicks to the 1999
NBA Finals; STAN, 44, the Heat's rookie coach, split the two
meetings with his little brother this season.
[SKINNY]: From 1923-24 through '27-28, Hall of Fame player and
Harvard coach ED was 3-1 against brother LEONARD, the coach at