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Women's Sports Round Table on Marion Jones: "If she can perform, why not give her a shot?"

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"Come on Marion, are you freaking serious?"

That reaction on yesterday’s Women’s Sports Roundtable online radio show is pretty much representative of the public reaction to the news that former track and field star Marion Jones is working out with a San Antonio Silver Stars staff member in an attempt to make a run at the WNBA.

Sports of The Times - Marion Jones Aims for a Comeback, in Basketball - NYTimes.com
Jones, who at the time was eight months’ pregnant with her third child, said she thought about it and talked with her husband, Obadele Thompson.

"I thought it would be an interesting journey if I decided to do this. It would give me an opportunity to share my message to young people on a bigger platform. It would give me an opportunity to get a second chance. I think I can be an asset to a franchise, so it comes down to, Why not? Really. Why not?"

Given a WNBA climate in which the Sacramento Monarchs just folded on the heels of a season in which rosters were cut to 11 leaving talented players without a team, the idea that Marion Jones could make a team after being away from the game for so long seems ridiculous to many people.

After panelist David Siegel backed off of his initial hyperbole comparing his chances of making the New York Knicks to Jones’ chance of making the WNBA, he probably made the statement that best characterizes the challenge Jones faces.

"If Sheryl Swoopes can’t get a job, Marion Jones damn well better not get a job," said Siegel of retired WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes who was unable to earn a roster spot last year despite starting for a playoff team the previous year with averages of 7.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, and 2.1 apg.

Given that a) Swoopes was unable to make a team due to roster cuts and b) the fact that the talent level in women’s basketball has increased immensely in women’s basketball since Jones last played, it’s justifiably difficult for us to imagine the 34-year-old Jones making a team months after having her third child. With the combination of the difficult task and the hit Jones’ image took after her steroids scandal, it’s commonly assumed that it’s nothing more than a publicity stunt for both the league and Jones.

"I think if a WNBA team wants to waste one of their tryout spots for Marion Jones to try and rehabilitate her sports image go right ahead," said panelist Tammy Garner. "The flip side is she’s got as much chance of making a freaking team in this climate as Dave does making the Knicks. Like Jayda said, you go ahead and try to get yours girl, I’m not getting in your way – I’m gonna make jokes, but I’m not gonna get in your way."

It’s all lighthearted -- though perhaps fair -- commentary directed at a relatively easy target.

However, although it’s certainly possible that this is merely a publicity stunt, I really appreciated a blog by Mechelle Voepel that actually sought to contextualize Jones’ comeback attempt rather than making derisive comments about it.

What if Jones had stuck with hoops? " Mechelle Voepel
At the U.S. outdoor track championships several years back - before the BALCO scandal blew up – I asked Jones her thoughts on the WNBA. And her eyes lit up; she spoke about her love for hoops and her desire, even then, to maybe still give pro basketball a chance.

Her plans at that time, she said, were to compete in track through the 2008 Beijing Olympics, then see if maybe there was still any chance for her in hoops. It sounded to me like kind of a nice fantasy for a superstar, but figured by that point, she’d be far past the point of seriously trying it. Of course, when she said that, she wasn’t envisioning that one day she’d need athletic salvation.

What I most appreciate about Voepel’s commentary is that she reminds us that Jones was a not just a contributor to a NCAA championship team, but a lightning fast starter as a freshman on the 1993-94 University of North Carolina team. Voepel’s point, counter-factual as it may be, was that Jones might have been a pretty good basketball player had she not made the rational decision to pursue track. As a fan of the game, why wouldn’t she wonder what could have been having watched Jones closely at the time?

I suppose that in the process of placing our athletic heroes on a superstar pedastol, it’s easy to forget that occasionally have dreams of their own independent of advancing their celebrity status or meeting our expectations as observers. But Voepel’s article caused me to reflect on the issue a little bit differently, both trying to better understand where Jones is coming from and finding a more accurate comparison.

"The ultimate price is to have your name, your reputation, and everything you’ve stood for ripped away."

In October 2008, Marion Jones had an interview with Oprah Winfrey in which she did in fact imply that she was searching for some sort of redemption -- strikingly similar to a quote in the New York Times article -- regardless of whether it is "athletic salvation" as phrased by Voepel.

"There’s a bit of sadness because I love to compete, but on the same token I am energized by this next chapter," said Jones with her eyes lit up similar to what Voepel described in response to how she feels about not running again. "I think really it’s gonna be bigger and better than that last chapter. And so my goal now is how to connect with people on now a much bigger level – how can I help young people make certain choices and not make certain bad choices like I did?

"I do not want for the legacy of Marion Jones Thompson now to be this – I want it to be something bigger and better and something for my kids to be proud of. That’s what really now it’s all about."

Of course, any of us would want that after making a very public mistake that cost us everything that we’ve built our identity upon. When someone has spent their life hiding behind an athletic persona, as described by Jones, suddenly they are forced to look at themselves and interrogate their true identity, true feelings and true dreams. Whether merely out of guilt or an appreciation of the opportunity to improve oneself as a person, that usually includes working on one’s flaws.

For Jones, one of those flaws was apparently connecting with people. In her commentary on Jones’ April speech at the University of Pennsylvania’s "Race and Sports" series, Salamishah Tillet of theRoot.com describes how connecting with other female athletes to create a dialogue about the advancement of women’s sports was one of Jones’ major flaws as a high profile female athlete and something she’s trying to rectify now.

Former WNBA draft pick (and Olympian) Marion Jones on Title IX & race
But she also highlights how Jones apparently spoke of her failure to leverage her sports celebrity even to help other address the gender inequalities in sports.

Instead of creating a dialogue with her fellow female celebrity athletes, such as Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie, and Venus and Serena Williams, she said, she squandered her national media platform, engaging in behind-the-scenes competition for endorsement deals, magazine covers and interviews.

Yet, although Jones was not able to create a dialogue with her fellow female celebrity athletes, Tillet does mention a connection she has made with John Carlos, a black track and field athlete. Carlos and Tommie Smith, best known for raising their fists with black gloves on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics, spoke the previous night. Carlos and Jones embraced briefly near the end of the event.

The problem is that it may be perceived as presumptuous to believe that one could do that by leveraging the growing spotlight on the WNBA. Such an attitude might be explained partially by a lingering competitive spirit and a feeling that athletic salvation is actually the most accessible form of redemption available to her.

"How can we trust anything Jones says knowing that she's already lied to us?"

"I think an athlete on the highest level, Oprah, you know your body," said Jones with the tenacity that helped her become an Olympic gold medalist after Winfrey commented that Jones’ story was hard to believe. "Nothing felt different. I felt strong, I felt powerful - I do all the time - but this is the Olympic year. I know I’m supposed to feel a little bit stronger, a little bit faster. I’m preparing on the track, I’m preparing in the weight room, the supplements are together. Everything is coming together. I’m *supposed *to be better this year. So that’s the difference that I felt. And I attributed that to everything, putting everything together. You know, you when a gold medal, you break world records because everything worked that year."

Independent of the fact that she did take performance enhancing drugs, it’s clear that her competitiveness is natural – as Evans said on the WSR show, you don’t even make it as far as she did without some natural effort and ability.

What’s also evident however is the sense of entitlement that appears to come along with being an athlete at the top of her sport. It's hard to say whether that's arrogance as much as a supreme belief in oneself that precludes the possibility of not feeling "a little bit stronger, a little bit faster." For someone that competitive who works that hard, the possibility of failure simply cannot enter their mind.

"I still think I would’ve won, but just the fact that there’s a question mark, to me is not fair," said Jones about whether she thinks she would have won without the drugs. "It’s not fair for anybody that I ran against. It’s not fair for the women who ran with me on the relay. Just the fact that there’s a question mark is not fair."

Stripped of her opportunity to compete and her legacy on the track tarnished, a return to basketball could therefore be as much an outlet for that competitive spirit as a publicity stunt – a new frontier to try to bring things together and reach the top.

As such, the comeback could be seen as a character flaw rather than merely a publicity stunt – the idea that someone could even think that they deserve a second chance in another sport after violating the rules in another sport and lying about it (which is what landed her in prison) smacks of an arrogant sense of entitlement that is at once disturbing and unsurprising. She’s apparently a person that believes she’s supposed to succeed and stubbornly refuses to let go of that opportunity to compete, even if it seems like more of a fantasy (as Voepel interpreted it as) than a real opportunity. It’s especially tough to swallow given that most of us would not get a second chance to pursue a fantasy opportunity after blatantly violating the rules of our profession.

However, there’s another angle that I believe Voepel hits on – basketball is something she’s really wanted to pursue and perhaps less an example of arrogant entitlement and simply a very talented person trying to pursue a path she let go of over a decade ago.

It's not exactly unprecedented for a star athlete to have a lasting desire to play another professional sport

While Siegel compared Jones to Swoopes and Bobbitt and others briefly joked about Nancy Lieberman’s comeback attempt at age 50 in the summer of 2008, a better way to contextualize Jones’ return to basketball might be a pro athlete who actually made the attempt to cross sports: Atlanta Falcons and former Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez who tried to make the NBA.

Tony Gonzalez' fun-filled three-week stay in fantasy camp is about | Topeka Capital-Journal
You can't criticize the guy.

Why, some men would pay thousands of dollars to do do what Gonzalez did: work out with the Miami Heat, play in some summer-league games, rub elbows with Pat Riley, get a lot of good press for doing it.

Not that Gonzalez did this as a publicity stunt. Like, this guy who has posed with swimsuit models in Sports Illustrated and appeared in United Way spots needs air time? If Tony Gonzalez ever needs more exposure, the Speedo rep will take a meeting anytime, anywhere. Cosmo is holding on line 2.

Similar to Jones, Gonzalez was a starter on a NCAA tournament team that included future NBA stars before leaving college early to choose the sport that would reap him far greater rewards, both in terms of fame and finance. Like Jones, he’s broken records in his chosen sport and has established himself as one of the best of all-time at his position. And as Voepel said about Jones, Gonzalez had a longing to return to the court.

Gonzalez Shows Defense In Debut - Sun Sentinel
"I've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time," Gonzalez said. "It's fun. I had a great time. I was a little nervous at first."

While Gonzalez had played with NBA players at the Southern California Pro Summer League in past years, this was his first action wearing an NBA uniform in an NBA setting.

"I wanted to concentrate on one specific thing," he said. "I wanted to play good defense, and I wanted to get rebounds. That's pretty much all I'm thinking a team would want from me."

For the most part, the large group of NBA scouts, coaches and executives in attendance at the Magic's practice facility (the event is closed to spectators) was bemused by Gonzalez's effort.

"Somebody asked me the other day, `Is it like fantasy camp or are you pretty serious about it?'" Gonzalez said. "And I can honestly say it's both. I get to come out here and play against these guys, NBA talent, and also, at the same time, I am serious about it."

Again similar to Jones, he did have physical tools that helped him on the basketball court – strength and leaping ability. The problem was that he also had severe limitations working against him – standing 6’4" he was an athletic specimen in the NFL, but against NBA competition, he was below average. Despite his strength that probably allowed him to get position for rebounds in college, he neither had the ability to compete against NBA power forwards nor the perimeter skills to play as an undersized 3 or 2.

For Chiefs' tight end, life is a bowl of cherries
He also knows the odds would be long. Standing 6 feet 4 inches on a football field, he's tall. That same height amid a forest of NBA veterans might make a non-guard feel short. And just imagine the mental and physical drain of playing both football and basketball at the highest level. ''I'm realistic about it. It's highly unlikely it will happen,'' Gonzalez said. ''But hey, if it does, I'm going to be there and I'm going to try to take advantage of it.''

In other words, although he played another sport at the highest level, none of the things that made him successful in football made him successful in professional basketball. After earning a spot on the Miami Heat summer league team in 2002, he played in only 2 of 5 games, effectively ending his NBA fantasy.

Jones of course is probably a relatively better women’s basketball player than Gonzalez was in men’s basketball: as previously stated, Jones was a freshman starter on an ACC and NCAA tournament champion who may still be faster than any of her competition even at 34 after three children. As a guard, there would probably be less physical demands on Jones, though a higher emphasis on the quality of her skills.

The challenge that will likely be much tougher for Jones is that Gonzalez had been playing in the California Summer Pro League prior to making a real run at making a NBA team. According to Evans, Jones "hasn’t picked up a basketball seriously since 1997." That and the fact that the competition has changed so much more since she last played seems to stand in her way.

And of course, Gonzalez never had to deal with the perception that his decision was a publicity stunt for athletic salvation either, making the situations not entirely analogous.

Nevertheless, Gonzalez's effort to make the NBA brings to mind the possibility of Jones finding a path to work her way into the league slowly, as Gonzalez tried to do. Of course, the NBA has a far more extensive structure of opportunities for a player like Gonzalez (or Terrell Owens…or Master P) to take a shot at the NBA with multiple summer leagues and, now, a Developmental League. What Jones might have is Euroleague.

"Go ahead, play overseas"

Siegel brought up the example of Kerri Gardin, who was cut from the Chicago Sky and Seattle Storm before going to Europe to work on her skills, returned to the WNBA and started 15 games for the Connecticut Sun, a playoff team.

While women do not have the opportunity to play in a WNBA-sanctioned league as Gonzalez did, Euroleague is a way for a player like Jones to get her feet wet and re-learn how to play the game…or figure out if her body can hold up over the course of a full basketball season. In the current WNBA context with teams limited to 11 players (the NBA had almost three times as many teams with 15 spots each when Gonzalez tried out) and surplus talent, going to Europe first might be the right decision for Jones. In William C. Rhoden’s New York Times article that described her decision make a run at the WNBA, a winter stint in Europe was part of the plan.

So she might go to Europe this winter, sign with a team and comeback ready to play. If so, why begrudge her doing that? If she can get herself into playing shape and prove herself good enough to contribute to a WNBA team, why not? In a way, it would be a testament to her greatness as an athlete to pull off something like that. The possibility of a team signing her merely for publicity with only 11 roster spots available seems slim – she would have to earn herself a spot.

Conversely, as WSR panelist Tammy Garner points out, there could also be a silver lining to Jones going to Europe, trying out of for a team and still being cut.

"If an athlete who has the star power and the credibility [of Jones]– even though she was busted for ‘roids at a different time – but in the American sports fans’ eye, if she tries out for a WNBA team and does not make it and is told that she needs to go back and develop her skillset, will that bring actually some credibility to the league?"

Is flash in the pan publicity for Jones with the ultimate message that WNBA talent is too good even for one of the best female athletes of all-time to make it good for the league’s image? Maybe. Maybe not.

But perhaps instead of ridiculing her for trying, we should just wait to see if a team picks her up. If she can make it onto a roster, it would be quite a feat of athleticism, albeit a second chance that many of us might still legitimately hold against her for being undeserved.

Related Links:

Final Women's Sports Round table - Year In Review

Video: Marion Jones Interview w/ Oprah Winfrey

Former WNBA draft pick (and Olympian) Marion Jones on Title IX & race

Marion Jones, Role Model?

Transition Points:

  • The 2002-03 Miami Heat team that Gonzalez did not make ended up missing the playoffs with a 25-57 record. The rookies who made the team ahead of Gonzalez were fellow Cal alum Sean Lampley, Ken Johnson, Rasual Butler, and future all-star Caron Butler (who I badly wanted the Warriors to draft that year).
  • For some reason, Marion Jones' attempt to return to the WNBA reminds me of comedian Chris Rock's commentary on former DC mayor Marion Barry, only in a very, very abstract sense of course: public figure loses their job because they used drugs and manages to get a second chance to return to public life, something that the average person would likely not have the opportunity to do (audio available here):

    “How the hell did Marion Barry get his job back? Smoked crack and got his job back. How the hell did that happen? I mean, if you get caught smoking crack at McDonald’s, you can’t get your job back. … Marion Barry! Come on, how you gonna tell little kids not to get high when the mayor’s on crack?” (text via theRoot.com)