Dontae’ Jones was introduced as an SEC basketball legend at the SEC Tournament this week, and you can color me pleased about that.
It had to be special for him to be honored in his hometown of Nashville.
Dontae’ is one of my most favorite athletes to write about. He was a sports writer’s dream. Some players see a journalist coming with a notebook and they head the other way. Dontae’ would come up and put his arm around you.
“What you need?” he’d ask, flashing that huge, toothy grin. Richard Williams, his coach at Mississippi State, will tell you that Dontae’ never met a shot he didn’t like. And that’s pretty true, but not as true as this: Dontae’ never met a camera he would not smile for.
A lot of folks thought Dontae’ was dumb because he had to pass 36 hours in one summer of junior college to become eligible for college.
He was not. He just much preferred not to be bothered by things like biology, algebra or Civil War history.
He was plenty smart about things he cared about, and, boy, did he care about basketball. He was a basketball historian. If there was such a thing as Basketball Jeopardy, he would have broken Alex Trebek’s bank. He knew basketball – and it’s history – inside and out. He would have buzzed in on everything before Trebek got the question out of his mouth.
What’s more, he was a quote machine.
I’ll never forget when Mississippi State knocked off UConn and Ray Allen in the Sweet 16 in 1996. Darryl Wilson had one the best shooting performances these eyes have ever seen. But Darryl, bless his heart, was not a great quote. Truth be told, he avoided tape recorders and notebooks almost as well as he did people trying to defend him.
So when I gave up on getting Darryl to say something about how well he had played, I turned to Dontae’, who lit up like a full moon over a dark sea.
“Man,” he said, “when Darryl shot it, it was like the basket was a hula hoop.”
Dumb people don’t say things like that.
State was to play big, bad Cincinnati next for the right to go to the Final Four.
“Don’t worry, we got this,” Dontae’ said. And they did.
Not to be forgotten was an interview of Erick Dampier, who was asked about Cincinnati’s inside muscle. The Bearcats did look like an assortment of NFL tight ends in basketball uniforms.
Said Dampier, as if he was bored by that line of questioning, “We lift weights at Mississippi State, too.”
For the day of the State-Cincinnati game, I wrote a piece that said Cincinnati was favored and that was as it should be. But the column ended with a line about Dontae’ Jones being the wild card. “If Dontae’ goes off, State goes to the Final Four,” it said.
And then, of course, Dontae’ went off, while Dampier swatted away everything the Cincy tight ends had to offer.
I remember Richard Williams talking about Dontae’ afterward. While everyone else was gushing about his amazing offensive moves, Richard said this: “Dontae’ even played a little defense, too.”
Last year’s 20-year remembrance of that Final Four team at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum surely rates among the highlights of my four-plus years working at the museum. The players, coaches, trainers, managers and fans had a blast. So did at least one sports writer. But nobody had more fun than Dontae’, who laughed harder than anyone when I told my story about his earning 36 hours in summer school in order to become eligible for that one shining season at State.
You see, Dontae’ earned 22 of those 36 hours in correspondence courses at USM, my alma mater, where the esteemed Aubrey K. Lucas was the long-time president (and a man I much admire).
So I told the story about calling Dr. Lucas a day after the news report that Dontae’ had passed 22 of his 36 hours at USM.
Lucas said he knew why I was calling. “You want to ask me about the Dontae’ Jones thing, don’t you?” he said, before I could say a thing.
No, I told him, I was calling to ask about me.
“What about you?” he said, sounding relieved that I wasn’t calling about Dontae’ Jones.
“I’ve got two weeks vacation left this year,” I said. “I was wondering if I could come on down there and get my Ph.D.”
Twenty-one years later, I hope Dr. Lucas can laugh about it. He did not laugh that day.
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