Mike Jones has a vision and a dream. One day, Jones wants to see Columbus and Phenix City known as a hotbed for basketball just as it has been for football and baseball.
More than that, though, Jones wants to help kids make life choices that he wishes he would have made. He just concluded the seventh annual Mike Jones HOPS Summer Camp. HOPS stands for Helping Other People Succeed.
After a long and successful playing career in Europe — Greece, France and Spain — Jones settled in Cyprus, the small island republic in the Mediterranean below Turkey. It’s there where he founded and ran MJ Basket Plus, a youth basketball club, and discovered this passion. He came back home last year, along with his wife, Louicia, to start a new club. The growth of the club has been slower than he’d like but steady nonetheless.
Even at 52, far removed from his playing days at Central and Auburn, Jones has a passion for basketball. And, he believes, he has a calling to help kids.
The kids have no idea how good Mike Jones was. Many people seem to have forgotten, which may explain why he’s not in the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame. To say he was a local legend does not overstate. If not for a few bad decisions and some personal tragedies, Jones could be remembered as possibly the most talented basketball player this area has ever produced.
Jones grew up in Phenix City. His mother, Ida Bell Jones, died when he was 5, leaving him to raised by his grandmother, Mary Jones, a tough disciplinarian who worked at Bibb Mill. In the fifth grade, he transferred from Mother Mary Mission to Westview Elementary, where he befriended Kelvin Redd, whose father was James Redd, the legendary Central High basketball coach, a brilliant science teacher and strong disciplinarian.
Jones became a Boys Club and Spencer Rec Center legend in Phenix City, dominating everybody regardless of their ages. By the seventh grade, he was almost 6 foot 7 inches tall, his current height. He relied on his height to rebound and dunk on everyone.
Coach Redd knew that for Jones to fulfill his potential he needed to be challenged — mentally and physically. He made Jones play against college players and develop an outside game. He was 13. He played against Ken Johnson and Eddie Adams, Central graduates who played at Alabama, among others.
“I didn’t score a lot. But each game I was getting better,” Jones said. “I think the most I had was 5 points one game, but I blocked five shots, I was so hyped about that. Amongst the basketball world, that’s how my name kind of got out there.”
Jones still wasn’t widely recruited until after his sophomore season at Central. He went to B/C All-Stars Basketball Camp, a prestigious invitation-only camp run by Bill Bolton and Bill Cronauer to give high school players exposure to college coaches. He won the Best Underclassman award and selected as one of the top 10 players going against teams of the guest counselors, which included the likes of Charles Barkley, Xavier McDaniel and Sam Mitchell. Jones scored 24 points in that game.
It was Mitchell, the former Columbus High star then having a standout career at Mercer, who took Jones under wing there. He still holds Mitchell in high esteem.
Jones was invited back for another camp two weeks later and was named Top Overall Player.
“That’s when the letters really started coming,” Jones said.
Not long after, though, his grandmother suffered a stroke. She survived but could no longer talk. For Jones, the timing could not have been worse, with Mike starting to hang more with older people. He would drink or smoke weed before going to school.
“I think that hurt me more because I didn’t have her steady hand. She was real disciplined with me. Without having her to talk with me and handle it, I think that gave me a little bit too much room, and I wasn’t man enough at that age to handle that responsibility, discipline myself. Got a little bit more freedom. Maybe somebody else would have handled it better. That’s when I started making too many decisions alone and not listening to advice.”
Jones went to school drunk one day during his senior season and was going to be sent to the alternative school. What bothered Jones then — and still does — is he said many football players were doing the same things but were given preferential treatment. So instead of going to the alternative school, Jones went up to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia before going to Auburn.
“The whole thing was blown out of proportion and could have been handled different -- and I shouldn’t have done it.
At Auburn came more success on the court, but more bad decisions off the court. He was a key player on the Tigers’ 1986 team that went to the Elite Eight. Sonny Smith, his coach at Auburn, said Jones “was easy to coach, wanted to learn. He worked like a dog. He was unbelievably good to coach.”
But he flunked out of school seven games into his junior season. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in the third round but was among the last cuts in training camp. He was offered guaranteed money to play in Greece, something he couldn’t turn down. He liked playing in Europe and traveling the world.
“If Mike had not had his problem, in my opinion he would have had an eight to ten-year career in the NBA,” Smith said. “I talked to people who played against him in Europe and they all said, ‘He’s the best player over here.’ He was hard to guard.”
And if you take away nothing else from this piece, remember this:
Mike Jones is a good person. Kind and caring.
“He wanted to be liked,” said Smith,.
“I was never a kid who was out stealing or robbing or fighting, all those things,” Jones said. “The things I’ve done, I didn’t hurt nobody but myself and my career. I still ended up having a good career, but it would have ended up much better if I would have made those right choices.”