IN THE BRIGHT OCTOBER sunglare, the perspiration seemed to sparkle as it slipped from the 6-foot-10-inch runner clad in robin's-egg blue. In the company of a group of other giants, he energetically pounded concrete, turning quickly into the side door of a building at 16th and Q streets N.W. Earl Jones, 19, two-time All-American high school basketball star and one of the most highly recruited players in the nation, then descended to a tiny, box-like gym in the University of the District of Columbia, taking another step on what he knew would almost certainly be a road to riches.
The news last summer that Jones had ruled out Maryland, UCLA, Nevada-Las Vegas and chosen the University of the District of Columbia had piqued my interest. He didn't have the 2.0 grade point average he would need to get into a more well-known school where full scholarships are available. Yet his decision to attend UDC had catapulted what had been a relatively obscure institution into national prominence literally overnight. While my intimate insight into basketball is roughly equivalent to my erudition in nuclear physics, I wondered about the less obvious: whether this 5-year-old, predominantly black urban university struggling for academic visability and identity, this scattered campus with 15,000 students, most of whom would go there or nowhere, would repay Jones' largesse in kind?
Adjusting to a predominantly black world after long years of living in a predominantly white one is a cultural adjustment many blacks have to go through. It's testier still when one was a freak of a kid who at 16 and 6 feet, 10 inches couldn't go into a store without a crack about his height, who grew up in the small town of Mount Hope, W. Va., which numbered a couple of hundred blacks among its 4,000 residents. And it's further complicated when since eighth grade you've been known as A Basketball Player rather than just a runny-nosed kid or just Earl Jones, person. As the youngest of eight children including five sisters, he usually got his way. He was a fantastic basketball player but a bummer as a student; he needed a firmer hand than could be given him by his mother, a cook at the high school he attended, and a father who was ill with black lung disease.
When it was revealed that he had missed 63 days of school one semester ("They gave me a few grades," he says), it was clear that he was being exploited because of his basketball ability. Jones spent his senior year at Spingharn High School in Northeast Washington and lived with his guardian, William (Doc) Robinson.
"Doc makes him go home," says UDC coach Wil Jones, "Doc makes him go to class. When he tells him something he means it." Earl Jones adds, "Doc pushed me a lot and Coach Jones don't let me do no wrong. He makes me go to school. He tells me what things I shouldn't do . . . things that are bad. . . ."
In his old world, he says, there were scrapes with racism -- "you'd hear nigger this or nigger that" -- although nobody directly confronted him. "They weren't crazy," he says. Now he sees only a handful of whites. "I don't hardly see none except riding in cars," he says.
In West Virginia, he had "a little bit" of black history during Black History Week. Now he has a year-long course and expressed amazement at what was said "by that dude Blassingame [Yale historian John Blassingame] about the different slaves and stuff -- how they came across the middle passage on top of each other. . . ."
Jones' Black History professor, Dr. Janette Hoston Harris, has been helping him learn to study, to summarize chapters, and master other basic skills. "He's very quiet," she says. "But one of my requirements in class is that everybody give an oral report. Guys like Earl don't like to talk, it's not being sure of themselves . . . not knowing what to talk about." She's making them read newspapers and stressing eye-to-eye contact.
Jones is convinced, rightly or wrongly, that "at a white school I think they would have just given me grades. I think down here the blacks care about each other."
Jones does not know many people because he lives with his sister off campus. The problem of getting to know his fellow students is further compounded by the fact that the University of the District of Columbia is made up of four separate campuses and several buildings located in different sections of the city. There are other ways in which it does not fit the traditional image of a college. There is, for instance, no quadrangle across which Coach Wil Jones can walk with potential recruits and point out historical points of interest -- always valuable in any recruiting effort -- as can other coaches, such as legendary black football coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling, another all-black school.
Yet at the height of the recruiting war last spring, Coach Jones was able to convince Earl Jones that he could deal with his hopes and frustrations. He was able to convince him that he cared.
Now they have an easy going camaraderie. "His priorities are kid-like," says Jones. "He's a kid and he knows he is going to be rich. But the biggest advantage is we don't mess with him and Earl can be himself." When the coach broke in on an interview, the boy joked, "I didn't ask you to come checking on me."
For all of his hesitance to say he's definitely going to the pros -- he uses phrases like "if I make it" -- an amazing part of Jones' life is disciplined to just that end. He keeps his distance from girls -- "they just get you into trouble" -- and he avoids making many friends.
"If I was to make it, people would be after me to bring them up to games, you know. Even now, they don't hardly know me and they say, 'Can you get me a ticket, Big Earl?' 'Will you bring me up to a game?'