TULSA, Okla. | Marion Jones made a mistake and paid the price for it.
Her prison term completed, she could have found a quiet place and stayed away from the scrutiny and all the questions about being stripped of her Olympic medals.
Instead, she wants to make amends for what she did wrong.
The 34-year-old Jones will return to the world of sports Saturday night when she makes her debut with the Tulsa Shock, the WNBA franchise that moved out of Detroit in the offseason. Known for her triumphs as a track sprinter at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and later for having her five medals taken away for using steroids, she’s returning to her roots as a basketball player after more than a decade.
“I’ve made the choice not to disappear, not to crawl up in a hole, not to be a hermit, but to put myself out there on the highest stage of sport again and have people judge me, criticize me, watch me and then hopefully it helps them in their lives,” Jones said, taking a seat on the floor of the college practice gym where the Shock work out.
“If I see that happening, then all of this would be absolutely worth it.”
Jones was a superstar, among the world’s most recognizable female athletes, after she won three gold and two bronze medals in Sydney. All that was washed away as she spent about six months in a Texas prison for lying about her use of performance-enhancing drugs and her role in a check-fraud scam.
Jones has maintained that she didn’t know she was taking the designer steroid known as “the clear” until well after the Olympics, and she believed Trevor Graham — her coach at the time — was giving her flaxseed oil. She says her mistake was not stopping to “take a break” before the lies to federal investigators that landed her behind bars.
“It’s part of who I am. I think I have really taken and embraced it, and at this point that’s all I can do,” Jones said. “I have learned from it. I think I’m a better person because of it.”
Her road back into the public eye began a year ago when she got word that WNBA teams might be interested in the services of a former point guard who won a national championship at North Carolina — albeit back in 1994.
Eight months pregnant at the time, Jones could only laugh at the notion of playing pro basketball. But she talked to her husband about it and realized she still had an unquenched passion to play. Plus, it would be a way to promote her “Take A Break” platform of thinking before acting — a chance to lead others away from the path that led her astray.
“I have this competitive drive that is kind of hard to kind of channel toward anything else,” said Jones, whose children are now 6, 2, and 10 months. “I love being a mom, love being a wife but it’s just hard to channel that really competitive energy, and so I really missed it. I missed the training, I missed competition and I missed everything related to it.”
Jones still has her sleek, athletic frame although she has run into something new going through the Shock’s training camp: She simply isn’t used to being a step slow.
It’s not her conditioning. Instead, Jones is still trying to regain her basketball instincts. She catches herself thinking before she releases a pass, an extra split-second she can’t afford at this level.
“I spent so many years perfecting my craft in terms of going over and over certain angles of my body — how my foot should be, my head, my hand, my back — that it’s different,” Jones said. “I’m a perfectionist, so I would practice over and over and over and over again. Here, these ladies are all professionals and the coaches have already said they don’t have time … to really teach.”
Just like Jones, her coach is pursuing a second chance. She’ll be playing for Nolan Richardson, who won a national title with Arkansas in 1994 but was fired eight years later and then lost a discrimination lawsuit against the school.
He had never before coached women and was hesitant at first to accept the Shock job, since he wasn’t looking to get back into coaching. Eventually, he bought in and returned to the city where he won an NIT title and made it to the NCAA tournament three times at the University of Tulsa.
In what will be the WNBA’s second-smallest market, Richardson is adapting to his role as “the face of the squad,” which has him serving as equal parts ticket-seller and coach. The first player he signed was Jones, a natural fit for his frenetic “40 Minutes of Hell” style and a big splash for a franchise that lost its two top scorers from its championship-winning days in Detroit.
The combination has helped the Shock sell out its first game (only the lower bowl of the BOK Center, seating about 7,500, will be used for WNBA games).
Richardson insists Jones’ signing is more than a PR stunt and said she has a chance to be good.
“It’s just a matter of sharpening up the knife,” Richardson said. “It still can cut if you sharpen it.”
In Jones’ mind, there’s still plenty of sharpening to be done. She stays active in practice, shifting back and forth and trying to dart into passing lanes on the defensive end. When she heads to the sidelines to rest, her chest heaves as she tries to catch her breath.
But it’s in those moments that Jones catches herself smiling.
“I’m tired and, yeah, I kind of want the drill to stop but I’m so happy that I’m here. There’s so many other worse places that people can be,” Jones said.
“I could have not awakened this morning or I could be in some other places that — trust me — are not very fun to be in. But I’m here, doing what I love, getting an opportunity to just play basketball. It doesn’t really get much better than that.”