Twenty-eight seasons have passed since Mike Jones last suited up for a college basketball game and time has turned him into a forgotten footnote. But serious followers of his mercurial career will tell you he should have been a headline.
On the court he was magic … probably the best high school player ever to come out of Columbus and Phenix City … one of the best to play at Auburn University — and yes, that includes two guys they call Chuck.
Off the court, he was trouble. Problems began in his hometown and like a tight man-to-man they followed him around the world. Now, at the age of 49, he accepts blame and says his mistakes were his mistakes.
“Talent was not my problem,” Jones says. “I thought it was all about talent, but it was so much more than that. I thought I was in the NBA and I tried to live like I was in the NBA.”
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Grades ended his college career with a thud seven games into a brilliant senior season. He could have been a high draft pick, but whispers about his private life caused his draft status to fall. He became Mr. Irrelevant — the 63rd player taken in a 63-player draft.
Jones never made it in the NBA. He became a basketball gypsy and his resume of teams reads like a European travelogue: PAOK, Aris, Paul Orthez, FC Barcelona, Cholet Cedex, CB Murcia, Hapoel Holon, Penarol Mar del Plata, Apollon Limassol, Welcome Montevideo, Asteras Limassol and Digenis Akritas Morphu.
His playing days over, he has found a second home in Cyprus, nearer the Mediterranean Sea than the Chattahoochee River. He coaches and owns a basketball team of Greek young people who know and revere the intercontinental legend of Mike Jones.
Two Guys Named Chuck
People on both sides of the river knew about his skills when he was a kid burning up the playgrounds and humbling older guys who never saw him coming. He had the game and soon he had the rep.
His name preceded him before he played his first game at Central High School. He played at three high schools and graduated in 1984.
Offers stacked up high, but he leaned toward Georgia, Louisville and Auburn. Auburn coach Sonny Smith had a hefty advantage that the rest of the country didn’t consider. His name was Charles Barkley — who sometimes answers to Chuck.
“I went over to Auburn all the time. I saw Barkley live and in person, and I idolized him. The things he could do on a basketball court I wanted to do,” Jones says.
Barkley was not yet Barkley. In the Southeastern Conference, they called him the “Round Mound of Rebound.” When he set a pick, he blocked out the sunshine. Jones was big. Barkley was bigger.
“When I went on a recruiting trip, I went to a football game. Barkley was there. He was so big that they had to cut out the corner of his jersey,” Jones says.
Barkley was gone by the time Jones arrived on campus. Chuck Person was there though and Auburn was still a budding power — in the SEC and around the country. Person, Jones and Jeff Moore were cover boys for Auburn’s media guide in the 1987-1988 season. They were called “The Chairmen of the Boards.” Later on, Jones, Moore and Chris Morris were dubbed “The Fat Boys.”
The Tigers were a budding power and two straight years they were bumped out of the NCAA Tournament by teams that won it all. On that stage, it was a time for Jones to shine. Twice he set career highs in scoring during postseason play. His coach loved his game but tired of dealing with his off-the-court behavior.
“I was weak to temptation and I regret the things I did,” Jones said. “My support was in place. My grandmother and my coaches were telling me the right things to do, but I didn’t listen.”
As a senior, he was averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds a game when academics caught up with him. More than a season ended. So did his NBA dreams. Again, it was more than talent.
“If I had had him for four years, he would have been as good as anybody I ever had,” Sonny Smith says. “People ask me who the best player was I ever coached. I always say it was a tie between Barkley and Person. But I wish I had had Mike Jones for four years. He was capable of doing anything with the basketball.”
Jones went to several NBA camps but soon decided he would play in Europe rather than ride the bench in the USA. American teams wouldn’t offer a guaranteed contract, so he began to bounce around Europe.
He played for contending teams in France and his legend began to build. So did his rap sheet. In 1990, he was arrested in Greece in possession of 31 grams of hashish. Other scrapes with the law followed and only good lawyers and his basketball prowess kept him out of prison.
“God blessed me,” he said.
Jones could never shake the regrets. Auburn offered him a chance to come back and finish his degree, but he never did. He was a star but few people back home knew it.
During off-seasons, he returned home. He would sneak into Auburn for some chicken fingers at Guthrie’s and he would look up old friends.
He started to coach but without a degree he could only coach at certain places. Jones is licensed in Cyprus. He owns his team and his own basketball academy and he’s his own boss. He shares his story with his pupils and he pulls no punches.
“I have to tell them the truth. I don’t have a choice,” he said.
Auburn was always there for him, but he did not take advantage of that relationship until last season. The Tigers were honoring the 1986 team at the Vanderbilt game and for the first time Mike Jones was there. Being out on that court with his teammates was a special moment. He was finally home.
Earlier this week, he was back in Columbus and Opelika. For the ninth year he held a basketball camp. He talked about the fundamentals of basketball and life and pointed out to them that when he’s back he lives in the hood just like he always did.
Jones accepts the setbacks and celebrates the successes. The regrets are obvious. He found a new home but lost his old one. He’s a father and a grandfather and he has seen the world. But he’s not without critics.
“Some people don’t remember the good things I’ve done because they can’t forget the bad things,” he said.