Growing up in the Bahamas, Jonquel Jones so badly wanted to come to the United States to play high school basketball that she would cry whenever occasional workout partner Yolett McPhee-McCuin would leave the islands to return to America.
McPhee-McCuin was the first Bahamian women’s player to sign with a Division I college out of high school, and on trips home, she would regale Jones with stories about the vibrant basketball scene for females in the States.
“She didn’t care where I was going, she just wanted to come,” said McPhee-McCuin, who played at Florida Atlantic and Rhode Island. “She just wanted that opportunity.”
Jones got her chance three years ago when she moved in with Riverdale Baptist Coach Diane Richardson, who became her legal guardian. Touted on the team’s Web site as a female Kevin Durant, Jones has developed into one of the best players in the Washington area, a smooth and lanky guard-forward who has earned a scholarship to Clemson, where she will play for McPhee-McCuin, one of the Tigers’ assistants.
But Jones’s most lasting basketball accomplishment could come this week. She and her Riverdale team, top-ranked in The Post and No. 6 in USA Today, traveled to the Bahamas as a special entrant in an annual tournament there that began Wednesday.
As a 6-foot-3 billboard for what serious basketball training can do for a Bahamian girl, Jones is in a position to perhaps fundamentally alter the sport she loves, in the country she loves, with the help of a bunch of teammates she loves, girls who accepted her as one of their own three years ago when she arrived in Upper Marlboro with tattered sneakers and an unvarnished game.
“I’m excited for [Bahamians] to really see the top-notch talent in the United States and see what they should strive for and what they could look forward to sending their kids to,” said Jones, whose smile is as sneaky quick as her speaking cadence. “There’s going to be a lot of jaws dropping to see everybody coming together collectively on a team with such good chemistry.”
Jones is already something of a celebrity in Freeport, Grand Bahamas.
“This is epic,” said McPhee-McCuin, who has run camps in the Bahamas that have attracted 80 boys’ basketball players but only 20 girls. “Jonquel has the chance to be better than all of us. She has an opportunity to do some really big things for the Bahamas, herself and her family.”
“I am happy that Riverdale is coming here to maybe make our politicians and leaders in our country understand that these young ladies can go places if we give them the opportunity,” said tournament director Gladstone McPhee, a pioneering girls’ coach on the islands and father of Yolett. “It will be game-changing.”
Jones, who averages a team-high 12.5 points and 16 rebounds for the 25-2 Crusaders, is believed to be just the third Bahamian female to earn a Division I scholarship directly out of high school, after McPhee-McCuin and Waltiea Rolle, a junior center at the University of North Carolina.
McPhee-McCuin stayed on the islands for high school but gained exposure through playing one year of AAU ball in the United States. Rolle attended high school in Houston.
Jones wanted to come to the United States at the start of her high school career, but her parents, Preston and Ettamae, did not think she was ready to handle such a transition. Jones learned of Riverdale Baptist through Jurelle Nairn, a native of the islands who attended the school as part of an exchange program, graduating in 2002.
“Every day [Jonquel] would lament about the fact that there was no place here for female basketball players,” said Ettamae Jones, who has relatives from other islands coming to watch her daughter play this week.
McPhee and others say that girls’ basketball in the Bahamas lacks the resources and facilities that the United States can offer. There are few youth leagues and the girls’ high school teams play far fewer games than the boys’ teams. College recruiters rarely visit.
“In the Bahamas, a lot of programs that I thought were intense were a joke when I came here,” said Nairn, who played at a Florida junior college and then at North Carolina A&T. “A lot of coaches say they are coaches but don’t really put the time in to . . . help develop players like Jonquel.”
Preston Jones, a heavy equipment operator, and Ettamae Jones, a social worker, did not think they would be able to afford to pay for their daughter to live and attend high school in the United States. The family had lost almost all of their belongings in two hurricanes, and Preston Jones was treated for a brain tumor in recent years. Playing at Riverdale looked doubtful until the Richardson family decided to sponsor her.
“Sitting down four or five months later . . . God was telling me to give this kid a call and see if they really wanted to come over,” said Richardson, who now also is temporarily housing Khady Toure, a 6-3 sophomore from Senegal who joined the Crusaders a few weeks ago.
The Jones family flew up and spent a week at the Richardsons’ home in Ellicott City. Jonquel stayed.
“When I met Coach Richardson, it was like I had known her all my life and it was if Jonquel was her child and I was just turning her over to her,” Ettamae Jones said. “It was like I’d raised her to be 15 or 16 and was giving her back to her mom. It confirmed that Jonquel was exactly where she needed to be.”
“J” or “JJ” is right at home living with Larry and Diane Richardson, who own a security company. Jones joined two of their three children in their roomy home, which sits on 10 acres about an hour from Riverdale Baptist.
Jones and Larry Richardson spend hours stretched out in a row of leather recliners watching sports on TV and offering running commentary. A small basketball court, complete with a three-point line, at the end of a meandering driveway is now lighted to accommodate Jones’s late-night workouts.
Jones went from being a 5-10 sophomore with a size 9 shoe to a 6-3 senior with a size 14 shoe. Initially dubbed “Spider” for being all arms and legs, she has graduated to the more esteemed “Big Slim.” The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association recently selected her as one of 20 players to compete in its All-America Game in Denver next month.
“I call the Bahamas home home and I call Coach Richardson’s house home,” Jones said. “So when I say I want to go home home, people know what I mean.”
This week, Jones plans to introduce her Riverdale teammates to such Bahamian fare as conch fritters, Johnny cake, chicken sous and Goombay punch and give them a feel for the Bahamian way of life. At the same time she will give the young women of Freeport a long look at a powerful high school girls’ basketball team, one with six players already committed to Division I colleges.
Jones has not been back to the islands since summer, and her parents have never seen her play in a Riverdale uniform. Those are highlights for the family this week, but they are perhaps sidelights compared to the cultural impact she could make on her sport.