David Jones will be sitting under the basket at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday. It’s a good seat, if not the view he would prefer. He’s a coach at heart, and he’d like to see the game from the sideline, but there aren’t many places he can park his wheelchair in Cameron.
Still, he isn’t the kind of person who complains. Just getting to see his daughter play in person is good enough for him. It’s good enough for his daughter, who survived, unscathed, the car accident almost seven years ago that left her father paralyzed from the waist down.
David will be there to see Alexis Jones play for Duke against Albany on Thursday, just as he was Tuesday night when the Blue Devils lost to No. 1 Connecticut. Alexis, a sophomore guard, has started all 47 games in her Duke career. David has seen only seven in person.
“It means a lot to me, because I know how much if he was on his feet he would be up here every chance he could get,” Alexis said. “When he comes up here, he’s excited. He just loves to watch it in person, the feeling of it. It makes me happy because it makes him happy to be up here.”
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David watched on television and on the Internet as Alexis became a starter in the Blue Devils’ backcourt immediately; how she blossomed last season after star guard Chelsea Gray was injured; how she impressed her teammates with her poise and confidence.
Once in a very long while, he gets to see with his own eyes what Alexis’ teammates see every day.
“Lex is really just fearless,” Duke teammate Haley Peters said. “You never see her get the deer-in-the-headlights look. She just is going to play and compete and she thinks she can play with anybody, because she can. I’ve never seen her afraid of anything, afraid to go after anything.”
David was driving early that spring morning in 2007, taking Alexis, her brother and three other girls to Dallas for basketball practice, a five-hour drive. The family was planning to move there from Midland, and Alexis had already joined a new team. He left at 5 a.m., trying to outrun a winter storm. He didn’t. An hour or so into the drive, on I-20 outside Sweetwater, with the kids asleep, he hit a patch of black ice and lost control.
The car flipped three times. Two of the children were injured, but not critically. Alexis and her brother were thrown from the car, but unhurt. David, hanging upside down in his seat, was paralyzed from the waist down.
It took David more than two years to get to the point where he could move around in a motorized wheelchair. It took him longer than that to get back into coaching. As an eighth- and ninth-grader, Alexis was on her own. Her mother Carla was busy taking care of David and holding the family together. David’s friends, including the brother-in-law who joined him on this trip, were the ones who stepped in and made sure Alexis got to practices and games.
“I know that we’re a product of our experiences,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I don’t know how much we can always talk about them. Lex isn’t really talking about her father and what happened, but there’s no question in my mind, being a parent as I am, that shaped her. That shaped her in ways she’ll probably never understand.”
McCallie took her team to Duke Children’s Hospital on Monday. She couldn’t help but marvel at the ease with which Alexis moved through the hallways, with a comfort level far beyond any of her teammates – fearless.
Yet she was always fearless. She grew up at her father’s side, dribbling a basketball as a 2-year-old while her father coached her older brother, always playing in an age group against older competition.
“Nothing ever really fazed her,” David, 48, said. “Last year, it wasn’t that she was out of her comfort zone, she just couldn’t find her edge. At the end, she found her edge.”
When she was thrust into the starting lineup in her very first game at Duke, she took it in stride. When Gray, the co-player of the year in the ACC, dislocated her kneecap in February, Jones took over at point guard – and was named most valuable player of the ACC tournament as the Blue Devils won the title.
David was in Greensboro for all three games. He was in Oklahoma when the Blue Devils played there on Dec. 8. He was there Tuesday to see Alexis score 10 points in the 83-61 loss after scoring 20 or more the previous two games.
“She just had an off game,” David said. “It hurt her so much, she’ll never have a game like that. She’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
After her high-school games, he would pull her aside to offer technical advice. Don’t pass up that jumper from the elbow; pull up and take it. Go off those screens a little harder, a little lower. It’s different now that she’s in college. She has new coaches to offer that kind of guidance, so his messages now are more motivational in nature.
He won’t always be her coach. He will always be her father.
He will be there Thursday night, watching in person before he makes the 18-hour drive back to Texas in his crimson van – it took 24 hours to get here on Monday because the van blew a hose in Louisiana at 3:30 a.m. – leaving right after the game.
“If he was on his feet, it would be a lot easier and better,” Alexis said.
He looks back to what happened seven years ago, and it’s a trade he’d make again. If this is what he had to give up so those kids could walk away, so be it.
“It was more of a blessing to me to see that group up and running than me up and running and a child in this chair,” David said. “I would never have been able to face that child or face that parent if I was walking on my two legs and their child was not.”
Two of those kids have graduated college. A third is finishing her degree. His son, now 16, is playing varsity basketball back in Texas. And his daughter became the basketball star he always hoped she would be.