The fear that now eats at Josh Jones has nothing to do with the heart issue that would scare the pants off any of us.
Jones has stayed strong through the rounds of doctor visits and procedures that have followed the episode before the Dec. 6 game at Nebraska that caused his heart rate to race out of control.
He already knows more about mortality than most of his elders. Undergoing open-heart surgery at age 17 tends to sharpen one’s perspective on such matters.
Now, at 23, Jones must address the question that every athlete eventually faces: What will I do now that the cheering has stopped?
“The thing that is the hardest for me is when I start thinking how will my future will change now that I don’t have basketball,’’ Jones said Wednesday night. “Will I become irrelevant? Will people still care about me?
“Basketball has always provided my family and me with stability. Other people have been able to live through me and the success I’ve had with the game. I don’t want to let people down. I want to be successful.’’
Over the past five-plus years, I’ve done countless stories on Jones. My favorite was a piece I did this past fall that dealt with his passion for the game and the commitment he brought to it.
That commitment was deeply-seeded in Jones’ roots. His coach at Omaha Central, Eric Behrens, perhaps nailed what made Jones tick when he told me:
“Josh has always taken great pride in representing who he’s a part of and where he’s from. In that regard, he cares about representing the Jones’ family, his extended family, Jesuit Middle School, Central High School. If he gets an opportunity to play beyond next season, he’ll take pride in representing Creighton. That’s just who he is.’’
Jones won’t get that chance in basketball but he’ll have an opportunity to pursue it in other arenas. Barring any setbacks from the upcoming medical procedures that he faces, Jones will graduate this spring with a Creighton degree in public relations.
“If nothing else, this has helped me realize how important my college education is going to be,’’ Jones said. “It’s helped me understand that life is more than just a game. Basketball helped bring stability to my life. My degree will give me a chance to have stability in the future.’’
Of course, degrees don’t come with guarantees. That’s where it gets scary for Jones.
“I wonder if anyone will take a chance on me,’’ he said. “I worry about whether anyone will care for me now that basketball is over for me. I want to be successful. I need to be successful because I have people that depend on me.’’
Jones is one of the most charismatic athletes I’ve had the pleasure to cover in four-plus decades at The World-Herald. His smile is his trademark. His unpredictability, whether it came in what he might say in an interview or what he might do on the court, always made things interesting.
Every Creighton fan wanted Jones to have one more chance to play the game he loves. He won’t get it, but the hard work and focus that enabled him to overcome more adversity than some folks three times his age have had to face should serve him well as he pursues other opportunities.
One of Jones’ faults — if you can call it that — is his selflessness. He cares about others, which is one of the reasons he delayed announcing that his basketball career was over until Wednesday even though he knew it probably was finished weeks ago.
“I didn’t want to be a distraction to my teammates,’’ he said. “Nothing means more to me than the people I love, and I really care about those guys.’’