When Marion Jones walked over on media day in the midst of her over-full circuit of obligations to smile and apologize to not visiting my table yet, I thought to myself - wow, she might indeed be the public relations gimmick that everyone is saying she is, but I hope not.
When she made it a point to learn and know my name and even care about my crazy tweeting habit, I thought to myself - wow, she's an awful nice and caring gimmick, if that's indeed why she's in Tulsa, but I don't think it is.
When she anchored the Tulsa Shock team bench, cheering and encouraging the ladies dressed in Shock gold in both victory and defeat, I thought to myself - wow, she's too vital to the team to be just a gimmick.
And when I saw her step on the court, I thought to myself - wow, she is NOT just a gimmick.
From afar, Jones seems to still be in the purgatory of perception, one that is in limbo between old and new; disgraced Olympic track and field star and elite basketball player. It's a perception that she has tried hard to change, but still has a sense of acceptance over why and how it is she's gotten the accolades intermixed with negative attention.
These two worlds, even though distantly removed from one another, are also very much making the same revolutions and following the same orbits. And through it all, Jones remains an encourager on a team that needs encouragement, choosing to be a positive voice when many would easily have folded or turned into hateful curmudgeons many years ago. Teammate Jen Lacy even says it's an honor to play with Jones.
But she does more than just encourage, she plays basketball. And as her rookie season comes to a close, she is playing good, hard-nosed, aggressive basketball every second she has on the court.
"You know, there are some fans [from track and field] that have supported me and that continue their support even now," Jones said. "Obviously there are some fans that don't want to see me achieve success and I am not naive to that, but there's a good majority that still love me and care for me and want me to do well.
"It means a lot when I get shoutouts from people from that side of my world because it seems like I have so many different facets. It feels good to know that I still have some of their support."
The basketball world has made much of the same revolution. One that invariably contains those who doubt her game, her skills, her intentions. One in which you can find critiques in her game and wisecracks about her past. But again, for Jones the focus trends towards the positives.
"I think I have gained more support as the season has gone along and although people don't see me out there on the court a lot, when they see me out there they see little signs that this is not - not many people think it's a gimmick anymore," said Jones as she shooed me out of the locker room to get to shoot around, focused on the task at hand of playing winning basketball.
She's used this rookie year experience like many others do, to develop not only her game but her character. One such trait she's learned this year is a quality that was seen the first time we talked, and has been seen every time since - humility. A quality that shone through even as the perceptions were still permeating my thoughts.
"I've learned that it's important to be humble. It has certainly been a humbling experience for me and this kind of reinforces the fact that there's a need for that in all of our character, all of our personalities, so I think that's probably one of the things that I've really kind of come to grips with this season."
So when the woman on the bench is playing the role of the encourager, a role of spectator in which she is unaccustomed, she practices that humility. When she is interviewed after the game, oftentimes before the statistical stars get a nod, she practices that humility and gives credit to her teammates. When she answers the tough questions intermixed in conversations, she practices that humility and gives frank, honest answers.
And that same quality that Marion has cultivated should be carefully considered by all of us, especially by those who choose to ignore fact and accept perception as the reality that is Marion Jones, the basketball player.