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Three years ago, one of the darkest days I can remember covering Texas sports took place. The Longhorn athletic department announced publicly that Andrew Jones was diagnosed with leukemia.
The entire UT community was shocked.
Jones, then a sophomore, began the fight for his life. Everything athletics related was placed on the back burner. This wasn’t something happening to sophomore guard Andrew Jones. This was something happening to fellow human being Andrew Jones.
While sports was secondary, there was a small beacon of hope in basketball that 2018 night. Texas played a steady TCU team into double-overtime, and eventually won an emotional contest, 99-98, after TCU’s Jaylen Fisher missed a layup at the buzzer.
That game was a beacon of hope for Texas, serving as a small flicker of light in a dark, dark time. The flicker is now burning brightly not just for UT to see, but for the entire country.
Three years after it was announced that Jones was to undergo treatment for leukemia, leaving many wondering if he would step foot onto the floor ever again, Jones hit the game-winning shot yesterday at No. 14 West Virginia to help the No. 4 Longhorns maintain an undefeated conference record and continue one of the greatest comeback stories in Longhorns’ history.
“It just feels great to be out here doing the things I love every day, being able to play basketball with my friends and my teammates,” Jones said following the game. “I just put all the glory to God for allowing me to be in a position to be healthy and alive and being able to play a high-level brand of basketball.”
If I told you in January of 2018 that in three years Jones not only would score his 1000th career point at Texas, not only would hit the game-winning shot for the No. 4 team in the nation, not only would be starting, but would even be playing basketball, I doubt you would have believed me. That was uncertain three years ago, scarily so.
“The place where we were three years ago, and just the way that I think everyone in our program felt in terms of it was such a helpless feeling,” Smart said. “When we would get a chance to see him in the hospital, it’s a pit in your stomach.”
“He’s come so far,” Smart continued. “I don’t know a lot of guys that would be able to do what he did from the standpoint of scrapping and clawing his way back.”
Andrew Jones’ on-court achievements are worthy of celebration. In the history of Texas basketball, only 38 other players have eclipsed 1000 points in their career. Texas surely is not where they are this year, and even last season, without the play of AJ1.
But yesterday’s celebration should be two-fold. Celebrate the basketball, for sure, but I’m celebrating just being able to see him with the team, on the bench, on the floor. I’m celebrating seeing his face on a postgame Zoom and that I can even interact with him. I’m celebrating the fact he’ll become a graduate of the University of Texas and receive a T-Ring.
None of that was guaranteed three years ago, and here we are. Still, it’s worthwhile to point out the role basketball played for Jones. Everyone has a motivation and basketball was a huge one for Jones throughout his diagnosis.
“The one thing that is so impressive about Andrew from the beginning, after he was diagnosed, is he kept saying I’m going to come back and play,” Smart said. “I think the rest of us were like ‘we’ll be happy if you can just get back healthy, forget playing right now. But I think that really helped him from a motivational standpoint. Let me do everything I can within all my power to fight, to get back healthy so that I can get back on the court.”
Jones perseverance through treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center gave him the chance to turn his life success story into a basketball success story. After Jones hit the game-winner, Smart simply remarked “now he’s just doing what he does.”
The basketball success story still has a few more blank pages left for Jones to write. Texas is only four games into its Big 12 conference schedule, and plenty of teams who knocked the Longhorns off their pedestal last year stand in the way.
Bring it on, says Jones. This is nothing compared to his previous battles.
“We owe everybody in our entire league,” Jones said. “We’re going to take it game by game, day by day, continue to prepare the right way and continue to take care of our bodies. Then, whoever is next on the schedule is who we’re going to have to show that we’re good and can play against.”
Cover photo courtesy of Texas Athletics