Andrew Jones’ cancer remission gives his pro hoops career more purpose — Andscape
As Andrew Jones stood at center court alongside his jubilant teammates at the end of his first pro basketball season, he had a moment of reflection on the bumpy road he traveled to get to this moment on the court.
Surviving after being thrown out of an SUV as a 7-year-old in a car accident that left his father paralyzed.
Getting the wind knocked out of him — literally and figuratively — by an illness that left the University of Texas guard contemplating whether he’d live or die.
The ensuing doubts, as he recovered from a catastrophic illness, of whether he’d ever play basketball again.
In those moments of reflection, on the floor of the Rasta Dome in Vechta, Germany, Jones had every reason to smile. Five years after a leukemia diagnosis that derailed Jones’ college basketball career for two seasons, Jones alongside his teammates with the championship nets around his neck after helping the Rasta Vechta basketball team win the German ProA league title.
“It’s all God, that’s all I can say,” said Jones, speaking to Andscape by phone from his home in Dallas. “Right situation, opportunity and being able to go out there and learn and be comfortable in my first year. It’s great.”
The journey of Jones has been well-documented, including profiles from ESPN, The Players’ Tribune and Overtime. On Wednesday, a snippet of Jones’ journey will appear in The Speech, a documentary from SC Featured about the heartwarming soliloquy delivered by Jim Valvano at The ESPYS shortly before he died of cancer in 1993. The Speech will air on ESPN at 7 p.m., right before the 2023 ESPYS.
Besides his professional basketball career, Jones serves as an ambassador for the V Foundation for Cancer Research and has devoted time and energy in helping the organization raise money for cancer research.
“I’ll do all I can to help,” Jones said. “I’ve learned that I can use my body and experience to impact others. I’ve learned that I’m more than basketball.”
There was that point in Jones’ life where life was mainly basketball. He was the nation’s 19th ranked prospect out of MacArthur High School just west of Dallas in Irving, where he averaged 30 points as a senior earning a spot in the McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All American games. That led to a scholarship to Texas where, after a solid freshman season, Jones entered the 2017 NBA draft and attended that year’s draft combine.
“The feedback that I got, they wanted me to put on some weight, shoot more consistently from the 3,” said Jones, who decided to go back to school following the combine. “Continue to develop my overall game to give me a chance to be [drafted].”
But life for Jones was altered soon after Texas returned to Austin in August 2017 from its series of exhibition games in Australia. Jones’ appetite changed, his weight began to fluctuate and he became more prone to injury.
“I broke my wrist against VCU [Dec. 5, 2017] and it took a while to come back,” Jones recalled. “During that time, I was training and my cardio and my conditioning began to weaken and not feel the same.”
When Jones played only nine minutes when he returned to the team for the Dec. 29 home game against Kansas, his father, David Jones, sensed something wasn’t right with his son.
“He was standing on the court with his legs crossed, and I thought that was unusual because I never saw him do that,” his father said. “Then he had a chance to push the ball and kind of gave up.”
That odd feeling continued in the next game, a New Year’s Day road contest at Iowa State. Jones experienced sluggishness during the pregame warmups, which carried over to the game.
“I couldn’t make it up and down the court,” Jones recalled. “I had to literally sub myself out. And it was a bad feeling there because my coaches were yelling. It was intense.”
Jones, one of the team’s top scorers, played just 11 minutes that day. While Texas beat Iowa State in overtime, Jones was concerned about being stigmatized.
“It could be interpreted as me being lazy or not me not wanting to compete hard,” Jones said. “In reality, I just couldn’t go.”
Jones called his father after the team arrived back in Austin.
“My dad noticed my breathing when I was on the phone and asked, ‘why are you breathing so hard?’ ” Jones said. “A few days later, I felt the same way. I couldn’t move.”
That led to a visit to a doctor, who thought the low energy was due to a viral infection. Jones was given a prescription, but the problems persisted. Jones’ saw his weight dip from 195 to 180, and began experiencing breathing problems.
“It got to a point where I would run up and down the court and I would be gasping for air,” Jones said. “I couldn’t fully inhale.”
Jones said he was eventually diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease, a rare form of pneumonia that explained the shortness of breath. A blood draw taken during a series of tests later yielded results that led to Jones being pulled out of practice for a meeting in the athletic training facility in the north end zone of the gym. He walked in to see a doctor and an assistant athletic trainer.
Their demeanor: grim.
“When I came into the room,” Jones said. “You could feel that the news that they were going to tell me was something severe.”
Jones was told about his white and red blood cell numbers, which Jones didn’t fully comprehend.
When the doctor dropped the “c” word, cancer, “that was something I knew,” Jones said.
The initial reaction from Jones: silence.
“I was in shock,” Jones recalled. “I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t scream. What does it mean? When you hear about cancer, you think ‘is it lethal?’
“I just didn’t know what to do.”
At that moment, Jones felt helpless. It’s the same feeling he experienced in 2007 when, at the age of 7, he was thrown out of a car that skidded on Interstate 20 in Texas.
Jones was sitting in the front seat of the car driven by his father when it skidded on a patch of black ice.
“We were laughing and joking and the car flipped,” said Jones of the car that also was carrying his sister and several of her AAU basketball teammates in the back seat. “The next thing you know, I’m 20 feet away from him and we all go to separate hospitals.”
The kids were taken to a local hospital and his father was transferred to a hospital in Dallas. Jones would later find out that his father was paralyzed from the waist down.
“He was a man of strong stature with a future ahead of him,” Jones said. “Then, he was limited. But still, he never complained; he still figured out a way to go on and he was still able to be impactful in my life.”
His father was the first person Jones called as he sat in the athletic office in complete shock after being told he had cancer.
“I called my dad to explain the situation and I could barely get my words out,” Jones said. “That’s when the emotion really struck, when I had to explain the situation to my parents because they’re 3½ hours away in Dallas and I’m with people that I don’t even know.”
David and his wife, Carla Seldon Jones, gathered a few belongings and were on the road within an hour for the agonizing nearly three-hour drive to Austin. When they walked into the intensive care unit, they encountered their son hooked up to a series of machines.
“I didn’t know actually what to think. I didn’t know we were going to lose him or he’s going to be sick for a very long time,” David Jones said. “I was trying to stay as positive as I could, but you always had those thoughts in the back of your head.”
Jones and the family revealed his cancer diagnosis to a small circle as he and his parents were faced with countless questions.
“When you don’t necessarily know the answers, it’s trial and error,” Jones said. “There was a trial, there were errors, but then we eventually found the right solution.”
That solution included treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where Jones, soon after his arrival after his initial treatment in Austin, offered these words to the medical staff.
“ ‘Whatever’s necessary, do it,’ ” Jones said. “ ‘You got to poke me with that, do it.’ ”
Jones went radio silent, avoiding phone calls and conversations for more than a month. When he decided to reconnect to his phone and social media he had messages from friends and people who just wanted to check in on his progress, including alums such as former Texas great Kevin Durant and actor Matthew McConaughey.
NBA guard Chris Paul and then-sports analyst Jeff Van Gundy even dropped by the hospital to visit. The West Virginia basketball team sent him an autographed ball. The entire Big 12 showed support, including a heartwarming gesture from the Oklahoma State basketball team, who wore special shooting shirts with Jones’ name and number on the back.
“There was a lot of support,” Jones said. “I got a lot of love from people.”
ESPN’s College GameDay even showed up to Austin after he was hospitalized with a somber Texas coach Shaka Smart sharing his thoughts about Jones.
“He’s used to being hit with challenges that he’s had to overcome in his life even before this,” Smart said. “You can see in his eyes that it’s something he’s going to attack.”
Jones was holding up well during College GameDay and that day’s game against Oklahoma until the airing of a four-minute feature segment that outlined how his ordeal had affected his teammates and the coaching staff.
“It was a crazy video I watched from my hospital bed, and I did not know it was coming on,” Jones said. “It was emotional. I broke down.”
So emotional that Jones couldn’t watch the entire video the first time it aired.
“Later, I told myself that I had to watch,” Jones said. “That showed how much love and appreciation was out there for me. People want you to get better. People want you to fight. People want to see you come back and play.”
Once Jones was able to put his emotions in check, he set goals to get back with his basketball family. For starters, he had a miniature hoop put on the side of his bathroom door. “I’m in bed, I got a ball and I would just throw it up there,” Jones said.
Jones later discovered that there was a basketball court at the hospital’s Hoglund Foundation PediDome that was dedicated in the name of sports journalist Craig Sager a year after his death. The space in the pediatric unit, Craig’s Court, was opened so young cancer patients could spend time playing basketball while undergoing treatment.
“I just turned 20 before I was diagnosed, but the staff told me, ‘go down there and shoot because we know you play basketball,’ ” Jones said. “I was there as much as I could [be]. That’s the best feeling I had since getting there.”
Jones left the hospital in March 2018 after doctors determined he had made enough progress to go home.
“I walked outside to fresh air and said, ‘this is what it tastes like to be free,’ ” Jones said. “It was fun for the first hour or two, and then I started to feel the effects of the chemo.”
By August 2018, Jones had moved back to campus and rejoined the basketball team. On Nov. 6, 2018, Jones played nine minutes and scored two points in the season opener against Eastern Illinois, and played nine minutes against the Citadel nearly two weeks later.
A broken toe, combined with not being able to perform at levels before his diagnosis led the team to shut Jones down for the rest of the season.
“It was delusional for me to think that I could play three months after treatment,” Jones said. “Even though I was playing well in practice and it looked promising, the best thing was to slow down. Don’t rush this. Take a year.”
Jones continued his follow-up treatments for cancer at MD Anderson, which is where he was on Valentine’s Day 2019 when his doctor entered his room and pulled out a graphic.
“Here’s where we want Andrew to be, and this is where he was,” the doctor said. “Andrew’s back to baseline.”
Sensing that “back to baseline” didn’t initially register with Jones, the doctor continued.
“If I would run a test on him, I would see no leukemia,” Jones recalled the doctor saying. “He’d just be a regular person. He’s in complete molecular remission.”
Jones, just over a year after his initial diagnosis, was cancer-free. His parents were running late on their trip Dallas to Houston to pick him up, but arrived just at the point where Jones was ringing the bell to mark this milestone in his treatment.
“That was the best day,” David Jones said. “It was so exciting to see his face and to understand he had a second chance in life.”
Confetti dropped from the rafters of the Rasta Dome as the final horn sounded at the conclusion of Rasta Vechta’s victory over Tigers Tübingen in the German League ProA championship game on June 6.
Jones, as he walked to center court to accept the gold medal that all the members of the team received, raised both hands high as the capacity crowd all dressed in orange applauded.
“A great, great feeling,” Jones said.
Vechta wasn’t the place Jones envisioned playing when he declared for the NBA draft following his first season at Texas. He assumed he’d be in the NBA, just like Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox and his other teammates who played alongside him on the East team in the 2016 McDonald’s All American game.
By the time Jones concluded his career at Texas in 2022, he was among the school leaders in several statistical categories including total points and 3-pointers. But it was hard to return to the explosive player that he was after coming back from a life-threatening disease and missing nearly two complete seasons of college basketball.
For Jones, playing pro basketball after what he’s been through is the true victory.
“I had cancer not five years ago, and now I get to play professional basketball and win a championship,” Jones said. “It’s one of the highlights of my career. A great feeling.”
Jones now realizes he’s on a life mission that encompasses more than basketball. In his efforts to raise funds for cancer research in partnership with the V Foundation for Cancer Research, Jones has also become friends with Dick Vitale, who was treated for cancer twice, in 2021 and 2022.
“I spoke at a gala that he invited me to, and I helped them raise a lot of money,” Jones said. “And I thought to myself, ‘yeah, I want to be a part of this.’ ”
Jones’ advice for people who are faced with a life-altering diagnosis?
“Have a good support system, have people you can be vulnerable with, and have people around you that will be compassionate and won’t ever cast judgment,” Jones said. “And do things you love that make you happy. If it will bring you joy during your trials and tribulation, even if it seems unattainable, go for it.”
One of the most important lessons that Jones has learned?
“I learned that, with what I’ve gone through, I can have an impact on others.”