Monday, July 2, 2007

DeLisha Milton-Jones is married to a basketball player. So is her husband, Roland Jones. She is playing right now, he is not, and overall she is far more accomplished on the court. It is, to say the least, an interesting partnership.

“We’re a couple of the millennium,” said Milton-Jones, a forward for the Washington Mystics.

That is, they are a thoroughly modern couple with thoroughly modern marital roles that still might be viewed as unconventional according to so-called traditional standards. Milton-Jones is an established WNBA veteran, a star overseas and a mainstay of international competition. She was an All-American at Florida, an Olympic gold-medal winner (2000) and a member of two WNBA championship teams with the Los Angeles Sparks.

After a slow start this year, she is one of the keys to the resurgent Mystics, as much for her bubbly personality and assertive leadership as her all-around game.

“She’s always happy,” star guard Alana Beard said. “And she’s very caring, very giving. … There are certain plays I don’t want to run without Dee. I want to be in the pick and roll with Dee because I know it’s hard to defend both of us together. She’s just so versatile.”

Her husband, on the other hand, attended seven different colleges and has had a somewhat spotty professional career, playing overseas and in backwater leagues in the United States. He currently is working out, overseeing his wife’s business interests, taking care of the household chores and sharing his expertise while he stays in shape for another round of international competition.

Such an arrangement might seem fraught with peril, but it seems to be working. They keep constant company, working out together and traveling the world in tandem — Spain, Korea, Russia and the Czech Republic, among other locales. Sometimes he finds a basketball job in the same country where his wife is playing. Sometimes he doesn’t. But the front remains united. It helps that they’re crazy about each other.

On Saturday, the day after Milton-Jones scored 19 points to lead the Mystics to a one-point victory over Detroit, the couple celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary. “It’s been a roller-coaster, but it’s also been a breath of fresh air,” Jones said of their time together.

“We’re still newlyweds,” said Milton-Jones, who came to the Mystics in 2005 along with a first-round pick in a trade with the Los Angeles Sparks for the now-retired Chamique Holdsclaw. “Number one, we’re really good friends. We really like being around each other. Number two, we have a common interest, which is basketball. When you’re good friends and you have a common interest, why wouldn’t you want to be around each other?”

They met while Jones was on a recruiting visit to Florida, but things didn’t start off so well. The Gators women were practicing, and DeLisha Milton caught Jones’ eye. When he boldly asked her out, she flatly turned him down.

A few years later, while Jones was playing for the Dallas Mavericks summer league team in Southern California, he reintroduced himself to Milton in the form of a four-page, hand-written letter. At that time, Milton was with the Sparks following the demise of the American Basketball League. She did not respond but showed the letter to teammate Lisa Leslie, who insisted she call him. Milton refused, so Leslie called, pretending to be Milton. Jones caught on. Then the real Milton got on the line. They were married three years later.

“We have no interests in anything but each other and our jobs, and if we can do our jobs and be together at the same time, it’s perfect,” Milton-Jones said. “But I know it’s not easy for him. He could have had jobs all over the world, but he always makes the decision to keep his family together. And that family is me and him. This is our legacy, so we want to make it the strongest legacy we can make.”

Milton-Jones recalls a conversation with her husband early in their relationship during which they discussed potential pitfalls. As she remembers, he told her something like this: “Why would a man be jealous of a woman in your situation? We’ve lived two different lives, and your path has gone this way. Mine goes that way. There’s no way to be jealous. Whatever benefits you receive, I receive also, and I’m proud of you and I love the fact that people look at you that way and people adore you in that sense.”

Jones calls himself her “wedlocked personal assistant,” which means “I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I’m not gonna say the marriage is hunky-dory every day. There are days we have arguments like everybody else. Athletes have lives, too. People think we’re superhuman robots. But you do what you have to do to make things work. And my part is to make sure that Dee has as little stress off the court as possible.”

Said Milton-Jones: “The only thing I have to worry about is basketball.”

And yet, people will talk. People do talk. Milton-Jones, who played six years in Los Angeles and is in her ninth WNBA season, said friends have told her about the whispering that goes on.

“[Jones] gets a bad rap in this league,” she said. “When people see us always together, they always have their slick comments like, ‘Oh, he’s using her. He’s manipulating her. He’s just taking her money.’ ”

She was asked who is making such “slick comments.”

“The girls in the league,” Milton-Jones said. “I have friends in the league, and they’ll come back to me and say, ‘Dee, people are saying things about you and Roland.’ They just don’t understand. Do I need to show them my bank account to know he’s not taking my money?

“We support each other,” she said. “It doesn’t always have to be picture-perfect, how the man needs to be the breadwinner and the woman needs to be home, barefoot, pregnant, cleaning, with dinner on the table when the husband gets home. It’s not like that. Times are different.”

The one truly awkward moment occurred in 2005 when Milton-Jones was named interim coach of the Los Angeles Stars of the American Basketball League, a men’s pro league. Roland was one of her players, a reserve point guard. She already was working as an assistant, but the dynamic instantly changed when she took the top job.

“It was rather interesting,” she said.

From the start, Milton-Jones had to show the rest of the team she would not play favorites.

“We’d be in the car, and it would be like, ‘OK, have a good practice,’ ” she said. “Have a kiss and what-not, and then we’d get into the gym, and I’d be like a drill sergeant. ‘Roland, get on the line! Run!’ And this and that.

“The guys were looking at me like, ‘Hey, she’s dissing her husband.’ I’m like, ‘Right now, he’s the same as you are. He’s a player. So I don’t want you thinking I’m gonna treat him differently. I’m gonna be hard on him. Really hard on him. I’m gonna call him out for any and everything.’ ”

She laughed. “But it was a lot of fun,” she said.

Said Jones: “At one of the first practices we had, she looked at me and said, ‘Roland, if you can’t get in shape, you’re not gonna play for me.’ At first it was hard to bear. ‘You’re my wife.’ But you have to respect it. … It was strange, but on the flip side it was a blessing because she was standing behind me.”

Jones does more than make the bed and handle his wife’s personal appearances. He and Milton-Jones are set to play in Spain next season, and he was just invited to play for the Dominican Republic’s national team (his paternal grandmother is Dominican, he said). He works with Milton-Jones on her game, helping impart the skills he acquired as a guard.

“I don’t take credit for anything Dee has done, but one thing I will say, I’ve had the opportunity to go into the gym for five years and help mold a great basketball player,” he said. “I helped her expand her game. I help her work on her shot, help her work on her ball handling. I’m not a coach. I do what she’s doing. I have a workout partner.”

Jones grew up in Dallas and played two years at Cochise (Junior) College in Arizona, starting an odyssey filled with twists, turns and detours. According to Jones, he signed a letter of intent at Nebraska but left in a dispute over his scholarship. He then played a year at Division II Arkansas-Monticello but tore his ACL, found himself in a “bad situation” and left. Next, he took classes at Concordia University in Austin, Texas, but did not play, followed by half a season playing for Central Methodist University, an NAIA school in Missouri. Finally, he signed with Texas but was sent to a community college in Austin to make up credits, and then was found to have used up his eligibility.

“I’ve been to so many schools I don’t remember all of them half the time,” he said.

Jones’ overseas rides have been bumpy, too. There was, for example, the time he quit his Ukranian team because he wasn’t playing much and the 45-minute drive to practice was too long.

“I made bad decisions, and my agent made bad decisions,” he said. “It’s been a revolving door, a dog-eat-dog world. Dee’s had a lot more stability.”

But next season, Jones said, he will assume Spanish citizenship and be allowed to play as a native, not as a foreigner, a big help. The Dominican job looks promising, too. But no matter what happens, they will have each other. They always do.

“He’s my support system,” Milton-Jones said. “And I’m his.”

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