Earl Jones is robbing himself. By playing at half speed in college basketball's low minors, he steals from the store of his potential. He can get his 20 points a night and his dozen rebounds. But it earns him nothing beyond what he already has. Right now he couldn't start for Maryland, let alone get the $1 million he wants from the pros to quit the University of District of Columbia.
Wil Jones, his coach, won't say that.
Earl Jones himself doesn't know it.
The coach talks of the kid being in a class with Kareem Abdul-Jabber. The kid talks of a million dollars.
They talk foolishly.
Because UDC plays its first home game tonight in the Armory (against Lincoln, 8 p.m.), I went to Clarion, Pa., last weekend to catch up on Jones, the man-child whose gifts are so unmistakable that most every big league school wanted him. UCLA, Las Vegas and Maryland swooned at his feet despite a high school academic record that was below minimum Ncaa Division I requirements. Even as a high school star first in West Virginia and then here at Spingarn, he dazzled us with his mobility and shooting range. At 6-feet-11, he took the dribble behind his back on the break. He is a leaper, too, a shot-blocker and sure rebounder.
With half the tools of an Earl Jones, men have grown rich in pro basketball. Some have come from college basketball's Division II, the schools no one knows. For every Willis Reed, though, there are five UCLA centers in the NBA, and for every Earl Monroe, five Kentucky guards. Maybe Earl Jones is so good, such a rarity, he can sign for the big bucks straight out of the minors. The ones who have made it were hungry kids scrapping like hell to make a dime.
A mean and hungry Earl Jones using all his tools -- even an Earl Jones who chooses life in the minor leagues of college basketball -- can be a great player.
But he has to want it. He can't get it by cheating himself the way he did last weekend in Pennsylvania.
He didn't even make all-tournament in a four-team field that included the anonymous Pitt-Bradford, Daemen and Clarion State (he was named corookie of the week for ECAC Division II schools).
When someone asked why Jones wasn't on the six-man all-tournament team, the tournament chairman twisted the knife. "What'd he do?"
So 46 points and 19 rebounds are considered nothing. Jones had 29 points in a first-night romp over Pitt-Bradford and 17 while fouling out in a three-point championship loss to Clarion. It was UDC's third loss in six games. That the tournament chairman believed those figures meaningless is convincing testimony to the potential of Earl Jones. In point of fact, Jones was only UDC's third-most-effective player.
If Jones is to make the unprecedented move from Division II to millionaire status, he must do more than his uninspired work of last weekend. In UDC's 2-3 zone defense, he stood idly in the middle, one hand raised. In the man to man, Jones watched as men drove by him; occasionally he would try to block their shots from behind. Not once in the two games did he so much as try to draw a charge.
Partly by design but mostly because UDC's guards were unable to move the ball inside, most of Jones' offense came one on one with the big guy starting 12 feet from the basket. He forced moves that resulted in charging fouls, often put up improbable twisting layups and once, thinking to be fancy with a fast-break dribble, bounced the ball off the side of his foot.
He is, it says here, bored.
More's the pity, because he is too good, too gifted, to cheat himself this way.
"Maybe losing up here will wake him up," said Joe DeGregorio, the coach who took Clarion State to the final eight of the NAIA tournament last season. "He has to play for them to win. He has to play with more aggressiveness, he has to assert himself more."
This was not mighty Indiana or awesome Kentucky that Earl Jones needed to assert himself against over the weekend. This was, remember, some anonymous school out of the agate scores: Clarion State.
On a minuscule $12,000 budget, DeGregorio, 45, has built Clarion State basketball into a winning program of disciplined, overachieving players "who may be a half-step slow, but the big-timers couldn't measure their hearts." Clarion is a city of 6,000 in northwest Pennsylvania, "two hours from the world," the coach said. "When I came here to be interviewed seven years ago, I stayed at the Loomis Hotel. Ask me how small that hotel is."
How small is the Loomis?
"So small that when I put the key in my door, I broke out a window."
Clarion can't mimeograph the coach's drawing for a Christmas card to send to prospects. Might cost $25. In the bushes, $25 is big money. The day before the tournament, the local Clarion News sports page carried eight stories -- one about basketball, and four about the deer-hunting season. Most of the nation saw the big-time Indiana-Kentucky game on TV, but the Clarion sets carried a war movie instead.
And on a heaving, smoking bus Friday here came Earl Jones, the would-be millionaire, arriving in deer country.
Up at 7 a.m. in Washington, Jones and his UDC teammates rode that bus until 5:30 p.m. Because their game was to start at 6, UDC went straight from the bus to the locker room. There was no problem with delaying the tipoff, anyway; the Clarion State women's team still was practicing on the court.
Making his 29 points against the Bradford branch of the University of Pittsburgh, Jones worked with the air of a player with nothing to prove. He made one sensational play. When a shot bounced high off the rim, Jones took one step from 12 feet out, grabbed the ball in his right hand at the top of his jump -- and in the same motion threw it down through the hoop, kerBOOM!, the backboard trembling at what happened.
Even the deer hunters among the 400 paying customers in the 3,000-seat gymnasium knew they had seen something then.
Mostly, though, Jones was bored. That flying stuff shot excited him. He would smile about it later. Even in the minors, this miracle was proof positive he could do anything he wanted if only he wanted to do it. A thought: Is Earl Jones so good that he can be bored/mediocre against Pitt-Bradford and yet, if you took him to a court next door, could play to the level of the NBA's best?
"Oh, yeah," said Wil Jones, the coach. "Earl is ready now. He's a great player. He's strong enough to post-pin anybody right now. He ain't no sissy now. Sometimes I have to say to him, 'Don't you realize who you are?' But he is great. Hell, yes, he could go next door and play Kareem."
Whoa there, coach. Earl Jones and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the same breath? Can Earl get there by playing at the Division II level? Wouldn't he improve more if he were at the top 10 level, with people demanding more of him, with him being tested by good players every game?
"Hey, Albany State is good," the coach said. "Tuskegee, Wright State, Howard, Kentucky Wesleyan. The are good. His level of play ain't bad. There are players in this league who will give Earl the blues. Look at the NBA. Tell me about Division II players. Bobby Dandridge was Division II."
Jones said "demands" on a player's potential may be counterproductive.
"Look at Sugar Ray Leonard. He's a talent. Why should he have a warmup bout? It's the same thing for Earl. He's going to learn playing here. By the end of the season, you'll see a mature player who totally dominates every game. I don't know if you ought to be tested every night. High-pressure basketball has killed some kids. Tell me about Gene Banks. Go ahead, tell me where Gene Banks is now."
The NBA? Still at Duke?
"See?" Jones said triumphantly. "Gene Banks, ain't nobody talking about him. Came out of high school as the 'only' man. Final four as a freshman. Now he's a senior at Duke -- and the NBA isn't sure they can use him. Did four years of 'testing' help him?"
Only 19, yet shy and suspicious, Earl Jones wouldn't talk about any of this.
DeGregorio was mystified by Jones' listless performance. "If he gets banged around by my 6-foot-5 guys," the Clarion coach said, "what's he going to do with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?"
It was 11 p.m. in deer country. Earl Jones was on the bus riding the six hours back home.