He was still smiling. That's what you noticed about Josh Jones on Wednesday, a day he had to hold back tears and be strong for everyone at Creighton, everyone who wants to see him shoot those 3-point lasers again, everyone who wants to see a whole lifetime still of bright, beautiful Josh Jones smiles.
Think about what must be going through this young man's head. He's 23 years old. He had open-heart surgery in high school. He lost his father, who died of an enlarged heart in 2006.
Then, last Thursday night at the Devaney Center, Jones felt his heart racing just before he passed out in the layup line.
Then on Wednesday, in what felt a little like a retirement speech, the often jovial Jones flashed a smile and talked about how basketball is only a hobby in life, which is so much bigger.
This kid has a lot of heart.
Unfortunately, it comes with a flaw.
Jones, the senior guard at Creighton, will undergo a procedure Tuesday called radio-frequency ablation. It's a procedure that can cure many types of irregular heartbeats.
Jones has been diagnosed with atrial flutter, a type of abnormal fast beating in the upper chambers of the heart. Doctors will thread special wires into Jones' heart and, using radio frequency energy, will try to locate the problem area and fix it.
Doctors will examine Jones' heart again in a month and see if the procedure was a success. If it is, Jones could be given a timetable to return to the court. Or they could recommend that Jones hang 'em up.
“We're looking at mid-to-late January as best-case scenario,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “Worse case is, he's done playing.”
If you know Jones, you know he's a “best-case” kind of guy. But as he sat next to McDermott at a press conference in the old gym at the Vinardi Center on Wednesday, before media and family and teammates, the moment seemed to hit Jones. Twice, he choked up. He couldn't hold back the tears.
“The thing I have to focus on right now is life,” Jones said. “What happened in Lincoln, I don't ever want to go through again. I'm a pretty strong person, and I tend to smile a lot. And I'm going to continue to smile because of the support and the team (of doctors) that is going to do the procedures.
“But I feel like I've been bottled up. It just hurts.
“I'm holding back tears now. I just want everyone to know I'm strong, and basketball has been a blessing to let you guys see the person that I am.
“I just want to say thank you ... ” and then he stopped to compose himself.
“I just want to say thank you. I appreciate it. And it hurts me, it hurts me bad. I feel like God has put this on me because he thinks I'm strong enough to do it.”
Jones has been strong. And healthy. Since having the open-heart surgery in 2007 for a bacterial infection as a senior at Omaha Central, Jones has passed many examinations on his heart. The latest came on Nov. 9.
In fact, as he's carved out a niche as a free-wheeling, streak-shooting guard off the bench for the Jays, Jones' heart issues had faded to the background.
But then came the bus ride to Lincoln last Thursday.
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Jones said he “amped up” for the game, the Nebraska rivalry and Jones' last appearance at the Devaney Center, where he and his Central teammates played state tournament games.
He said he “started to go blind” in his left eye and chalked it up to new contacts he was wearing. But then he got a dizzy spell.
“Everything that happened to me, I thought it was off adrenaline,” Jones said.
He took the court nearly two hours before game time, taking some shots and playfully sparring with the Husker student section.
He remembers being in the layup line and doing a light layup. He felt weird.
“My heart was like a snare drumroll,” Jones said.
He says he heard the voice of a local sportscaster say, “Jonesy, don't scare me like that.” He remembers falling down, but getting back up.
He threw coach Darian DeVries a pass, and then, “I decided to go to the locker room.”
Dr. Doug Ramos, Creighton's team physician, said Jones' heart was going at 200 to 300 beats per minute when he passed out last Thursday, or four or five times the normal heart rate of a well-conditioned athlete.
It had nothing to do with playing Nebraska.
“It's more than being hyped up,” Ramos said. “There's something wrong in the heart.
“The heart beats faster when you're excited, but it doesn't cause atrial flutter and make you pass out. Who knows what or why? I don't know that we'll ever know.”
Doctors hope to find out more next Tuesday, said Ramos, who cautioned not to let the imagination run wild. Jones didn't suffer a heart attack, Ramos said. Those are more related to the ventrical (lower) part of the heart.
“The one thing people need to understand is, this rhythm he has now is serious, but a little bit different than other heart rhythms that you hear about in the sudden athlete deaths, like Hank Gathers. Those tend to be in the ventrical chamber of the heart; (Jones') is in the atrial chamber, the upper chamber. Still important, still the heart and (it) still can be dangerous. But different.”
The bottom line is, nothing apparently triggered this rapid heart rate. It just happened.
“It could have happened to me when I was driving a car,” Jones said. “I'm just thankful it didn't happen then.”
His mother, Desiree, was thankful to give him a big hug after Wednesday's press conference.
“When I heard about it, I was home,” Mrs. Jones said of last Thursday night. “I was waiting for the phone to ring, and he finally called me and said his heart was going too fast.
“I didn't sleep all night. I told his daddy to watch over him.”
Josh will have plenty of eyes watching over him. Doctors. Coaches. Teammates. Jones will still hang around the team, provide that comic relief and emotional anchor that the Jays rely on, that keeps them loose and grounded.
And when — if — he comes back, won't that be an emotional scene?
That's best case. The reality is, nobody knows what's inside that upper heart — and when, or if, that accelerated heart rate will show up again. Doctors don't know if it's a basketball thing; don't know if it's not. They'll likely have a strong recommendation, either way, come mid-January.
And then, if Jones would be gambling with his health by playing again, he would have to make the toughest decision of his young life.
On Wednesday, Jones seemed to be coming to grips with the possibility of living with a healthy, broken heart.
“It's like a divorce,” Jones said. “I love the game with a passion. I'm a Scorpio: Anything I do is with a passion.
“I'm stressed right now, and 75 percent of what's going on is me letting go of playing on the court.”
John and Desiree raised a strong, soulful young man. They told him that any college was going to use him for his God-given talents, so to be sure to use the college right back and get a degree.
Jones has two classes next semester, and then will be on his way to a degree in public relations, which he joked would mean “I would talk to you guys forever.”
Having open-heart surgery when you're in high school is a wake-up call to find a life after basketball. Jones has spent the last five years working up sweat after sweat on the court, wondering if he would hear from his heart again. Then came last Thursday.
“Yes, you have to prepare for something like this,” Jones said. “You only have one heart. That's what keeps you livin', what keeps your body going. My thought after the (open) heart surgery was, you're not going to play forever. Prepare and do things in life that will allow you to have a life after basketball.”
He sounded so old, like the poster boy for every parent to put on the teenage kid's wall. Go to school. Love life. You know how many kids in Omaha would love to have his life, putting on the Creighton uniform, hanging with the McDermotts?
Josh Jones was telling them, telling us all, that there's more to life than that. There's, well, life.
“Honestly, right now I'm scared to be a high level (of heart rate),” Jones said. “I really can't speak on my future.”
Hope to see you later this season, Josh. And all the seasons after that.
Contact the writer:
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