Marion Jones returns to sport with the WNBA's Tulsa Shock

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; D08

TULSA -- Not quite two years ago, Marion Jones got out of jail, her six-month sentence for lying about her steroid use to federal investigators complete. Ten years ago, she won five Olympic track and field medals that she was forced to give back because of her drug use. Even further back than that, a full 16 years, Jones won a national title in college basketball at the University of North Carolina.

Somehow on Saturday night, Jones, 34, brought all of those experiences on the court with her when she entered a highly anticipated WNBA game in a sold-out arena jammed with a stomping, screaming crowd of 7,806.

With 5 minutes 50 seconds left in the first quarter of the Tulsa Shock's inaugural game against the Minnesota Lynx at the BOK Center, Jones, wearing No. 20 and her long hair in braids and a bun, sprinted into the game, stepping back into professional sports after a four-year absence. Her brief moment in the spotlight -- she played just more than three minutes in the 80-74 Shock defeat -- made it exceedingly clear how far she is from her once iconic status.

"I'm not disappointed," Jones said moments after the game. "When I came here, I said, 'However Coach wants me, whichever role he wants me to fill,' . . . I'm learning things as I go. I know it's going to take time for things to come together for me."

Jones was so excited before the game, she could not nap, she said; as it turned out, her performance was as raw as her emotion. She committed a foul three seconds after she took the floor, then allowed a player to score on her seconds after that. In her sparse minutes, she played aggressive defense, throwing arms, legs and body at the ball, but she did not score and handled the ball only twice.

"I'm not satisfied with that," Jones said. "I'm a competitor as well. I want to see the team win, and I want to see myself contribute to a win."

Jones, though, had officially concluded an excruciating journey that took her from sport's peak to its abyss. With this new undertaking, Jones is not attempting to return to her former glory as the world's premier female athlete, a starlet who after she won her three gold and two bronze medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 appeared on the covers of Vogue and Sports Illustrated.

At the moment, she will have to settle for being a cog in a relatively small wheel, an end-of-the-bench player on the smallest-market team in a league that still struggles for attention. It was interesting that the loudest cheers in the first half came not for Jones, but for the players on the floor when the Shock overcame a double-digit deficit to tie the game at 36.

Though Jones supported the comeback mostly with wild cheering, Tulsa Coach Nolan Richardson said she would get more opportunities, explaining that he wanted to ease his rookies into the action. Richardson speculated she could eventually play both guard positions and small forward.

"It's a really gratifying feeling to know I made the right decision to attempt this," Jones had said earlier. "I really feel like I'm here [because], in fact, I can play basketball . . . not just pack the house or get [the media] to come here."

Pack the house, she did. (Well, she helped, anyway. Richardson, who coached the University of Tulsa men's team, is considered a legend around these parts.) The game, the Shock's first since the franchise relocated from Detroit in the offseason, drew Oklahoma's governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and a smattering of national and international media members.

WNBA Commissioner Donna Orender, who also attended, said she was "curious to see at what level [Jones is] going to contribute. We want to see how it all plays out."

Though she still boasts the broad-shouldered, lean physique she carried in her youth, Jones's face confirms that she is the eldest on the Shock roster, and her game has more rough edges than that of some of her teammates -- all of whom got more playing time Saturday.

Jones is, of course, a decade older than many in the league. She has three children, ages 6, 2 and 10 months. Since her release from a six-month prison term in September 2008, she has been living in Texas with her kids and husband Obadele Thompson, a former Olympic sprinter from Barbados. She is still on probation and obligated to complete 800 hours of community service; in 2007, she pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators when they asked her about using steroids during her track career.

"How do you come from where I was a few years ago?" Jones said before the game. "I'm just so thrilled. Thrilled doesn't even touch the surface of how happy I am."

Added Jones: "This, for me, is a new beginning, doing a sport that I love and am passionate about . . . [but] I would have loved to have done this all quietly, and have it not be as big of a deal as it is."

In the year after she walked out of the halfway house in San Antonio where she served the end of her term, she said, "most of my time was dedicated to just really reconnecting to my family, just being there every moment of the day." It was last summer that her agent and long-time attorney contacted Orender, trying to get Jones back in the pro sports work force.

Orender recalled telling Jones, "We will support you, but you have to be able to play."

Richardson, who led the University of Arkansas men's team to a national title in 1994, invited her for a pair of private workouts in January, wondering just what he would see.

"I really didn't know if she could play or not," he said. But "I'm not into testing vertical jump; I throw up the ball and see where you go. . . . She's as good as any athlete we have on the team. In most cases, better."

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