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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Chris Jones loves his hometown. Memphis made him tough and street smart and strong. His identity as a person and his reputation as a basketball player stem from the city's roots -- fearlessness and resiliency borne out of survival in the tough parts of town; skill developed on Memphis' playgrounds and courts. But the city never quite loved him back, at least not enough for his own satisfaction. It was teasing with its heart, downright stingy with its respect.
That's because it all belonged to another. Memphis already had a poster boy and his name was Joe Jackson. The city was his oyster, he Memphis' beloved pearl.
The heir apparent to Penny Hardaway, the kid who would score more than 3,000 points in high school, the McDonald's All-American, national player of the year candidate, and, most importantly, the homegrown product who would stay home to play at the University of Memphis, Jackson inked an audacious tattoo on his arm as a 10th-grader.
It read "King of Memphis." Even in the King's hometown, no one blinked.
Certainly not Chris Jones.
"For me to get my own, I had to go through Joe because there was no one bigger than him," Jones said.
Jones is three long, hard years removed from all of that, on his own road, his own journey as Louisville's starting point guard.
Except sometimes no matter where the road leads, it's hard to forget where it started. When Jones faces his hometown team for the first time on Thursday night in Louisville, when his No. 12 Cardinals battle Jackson and the 24th-ranked Tigers, it won't just be a pivotal contest in the American Athletic Conference. It will be Jones' past colliding headlong with his present, who he was intersecting with who he's become. It's never supposed to be about individual matchups, but sometimes, this time, it just is.
"He's still got a chip on his shoulder," said Jones' high school coach, Jermaine Johnson, who is now on staff at Georgia Southern. "Trying to beat Joe, that right there is the story of his basketball career."
To be clear, there is no personal animosity between Jones and Jackson. Jones respects his adversary immensely and appreciates his talents. Jackson returns the compliments -- "he's a great player," he said simply Wednesday night.
It's just that Jackson always has been a personal growth chart for Jones, the bar he could never quite reach.
They played the first time when no one was looking.
Johnson dragged Jones for a meeting and a helping of humble pie. Johnson had spied Jones in a church league, liked his spunk and his game. He brought him to Melrose High School, envisioning an inside-out game featuring Jones and the already enrolled Adonis Thomas.
But Jones was like a lot of kids from the tough Orange Mound section of the city -- scrappy, but also undisciplined and unpredictable. He lived with his mother and sisters, scraping by as families there do, sleeping next to a pit bull in a back room at night for company and security.
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"I wasn't a troublemaker, but I did what everybody else did because they were my friends," he said. "I didn't know no one else but them, so I did what they did. I thought it was cool."
He thought it was cool until Johnson intervened, and handed him a basketball. Jones had been playing for years, but the structured version of the sport showed Jones a whole new world of possibilities -- college and a career, a paycheck and a future.
He wanted all of it. Mostly, though, he craved to be the best.
So one day Johnson showed him the best.
By then Jackson, a high school sophomore, already was on the road that would lead him to Memphis glory, so popular that high school gyms would fill up in minutes when he played.
Johnson knew Jackson played every day around 2. He called and asked Jackson's AAU coach if he could bring his feisty point guard over for a game of one-on-one.
"I didn't know anything about Chris Jones when he came to the gym," Jackson said. "We went at it. We got to arguing a little bit in that game. That's why I respected him. I liked his toughness."
Jackson knew that toughness, knew it firsthand. Jones and Jackson really aren't much different. Jackson, too, grew up in Orange Mound, the son of a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. He, like Jones, got a lift from someone else -- in his case, his maternal grandmother, Lillie Cox.
She took him in when he was middle school, raised him and made sure he stayed on the basketball courts -- even if it was in the wee hours -- instead of the streets.
So Jones, all spitfire and attitude when he walked into that gym, wasn't entirely unfamiliar to the more polished Jackson. Except at that point, Jones was only spitfire and attitude.
He was set up to fail.
"He got back in my truck, crying, all snotty-nosed and ready for a fight," Johnson said. "I told him, 'You work hard and he'll get the last cry.'"
Not long after that first game, word got back to Jackson that the anonymous, snotty-nosed kid was getting better.
"I heard a lot. You hear a lot in the city," Jackson said. "There was always something with Chris, not from him but from other people. People always talking about him, what he was doing. It didn't bother me. You just play basketball."
They would play five times during high school and Melrose would win four, none bigger than the 2010 state championship game.
Melrose won 75-70, with Jones scoring 35 to lift both the state title and the MVP trophy.
"They were always great games. Melrose had stacked teams. Stacked," Jackson said. "It was never a one-on-one thing. They had a lot of guys that transferred in there. They were pumped to play me, too. They were triple-teaming me, totally denying the ball. Their coach, he was my first AAU coach. I think a lot of people wanted to prove something."
Melrose did, and Jones did, and still.
Still, Memphis held back.
"Everyone thought I wasn't on his level," Jones said. "I'd say it took until the fourth time where people said, 'OK, maybe Chris is for real.'"
Just when the chatter finally started, when respect seemed close at hand, Jones' career went off the tracks. While Jackson moved on to the University of Memphis, Jones headed to Oak Ridge, a military academy in North Carolina, for his senior year.
|Joe Jackson always outshined Chris Jones in Memphis. Will it happen again Thursday night in Louisville?|
By January he was back in Memphis, booted from Oak Ridge. The short-fused Jones had, Johnson said, "one of his temper tantrums, and they don't tolerate that at a military school," earning him a one-way ticket home.
It was too late to play basketball, so Jones simply re-enrolled at Melrose, took classes and graduated. By then he was committed to Tennessee, not quite hometown Memphis but still the beloved state school. It was a good choice, out from under the thumb of his hometown but close enough that word of his success would travel.
And then the bottom fell out again; actually, it fell out twice. Bruce Pearl was fired amid an NCAA scandal and Jones failed to qualify academically.
While his old friends went off to the bright lights -- Thomas to Memphis, former AAU teammate Austin Hollins to Minnesota and, of course, Jackson to his second year at Memphis -- Jones ended up at Northwest Florida State College, a junior college in Niceville, Fla. Junior college will humble even the proudest athlete. Chartered-flight visions become bus-ride realities. No one is really there by choice. There is always something -- academics, temperament, ability -- that has to be repaired.
This wasn't the path Jones imagined, certainly wasn't the one he preferred, but it wound up being the best move of Jones' life.
At Northwest Florida, he played for Steve Forbes, the former Volunteers assistant also scarred by Pearl's shrapnel. Forbes had known Jones for years. He knew how he had cooled in Jackson's shadow, knew how it fueled him. But he also knew Jones' passion could be his undoing.
"He's the most highly competitive person I've ever coached. Ever," Forbes said. "It can be his biggest strength and his biggest weakness. He will fight every fight."
Maybe it was all the pent-up frustration from trying to win over Memphis and best Jackson. Or maybe it was all those nights next to a pit bull.
"It's like his meanness rubbed off on him," Johnson joked.
Whatever it was, Jones' temper had become his calling card as much as his skill. He'd get ticked at the smallest of transgressions, blowing up over an obvious foul call, steaming at his teammates when they didn't play up to par.
"I always told him, it's about your character, what's in you," Johnson said. "I remember one teacher telling him he'd never amount to anything and I challenged him. Is she right? That's what he had to figure out."
What Forbes didn't coach out of him, the reality of a last chance via juco did. Jones changed. Matured? Yes, but changed more. He became a playmaker on top of a scorer, a teammate instead of a dictator.
He twice led Northwest Florida to the national championship game and, as a sophomore, earned national player of the year honors.
Suddenly the player who felt like he would never get his was being courted by Kansas and Louisville.
He chose Louisville, where the Cardinals desperately needed him. Rick Pitino returned a stocked roster from his national championship team save one critical piece -- point guard Peyton Siva.
Pitino knew what he was getting. Jones wasn't Siva.
His former assistant, Steve Masiello, almost begged him not to recruit Jones -- "Don't even write him a letter is what he told me," Pitino said -- but Pitino liked what he saw and what he didn't like, he could fix.
"Chris has a competitive disorder, to put it kindly," he said. "How do you stop it? You keep blowing the whistle and calling fouls in practice. He'll get the message."
And for the most part, Jones has. There are still flare-ups, but on a soap opera team, Jones has been remarkably stable.
"He stepped out of the shadows and made a name for himself," Forbes said.
And now on Thursday it all comes full circle.
Both schools have bigger fish to fry than simply settling an old score with a high school rival.
Both players insist this isn't about them. But there is a guarantee of just one more meeting (an American tourney matchup is possible), and so the subplot in the big plot does matter.
"If you're a good player, you want respect from your hometown. You gotta have it," Jackson said. "You get respect from Memphis, you get that swagger. People know who you are and what you're about no matter where you go."
Jackson knows because he's had that respect for years.
Chris Jones still wants his.