- Jason King
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WACO, Texas -- He could be a multimillionaire in four months, but still, Perry Jones III can't help himself. Each time he walks off the court, the Baylor forward thinks the same thing.
I wonder what they'll say this time.
A year ago, on a message board, Jones said someone called him the biggest underachiever in college basketball.
A national sports columnist recently wrote that drafting the 6-foot-11 sophomore would "cost an NBA general manager his job."
When Jones jogged through the tunnel at Kansas last month, a middle-aged man screamed at him in the concourse, calling him a "second-rounder" and a "[wussy]." Sensing a confrontation, teammate Quincy Acy pushed Jones back and walked toward the fan, who sprinted away.
Basketball isn't always easy when you're tagged as a one-and-done player before puberty.
"My heart goes out to him," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "He gets judged on his potential instead of where he is now. If he wanted to be judged like an NBA player, he'd be in the NBA."
Instead, at least for a few more months, Jones remains in Waco. The 20-year-old cartoon fanatic who loves to play paintball returned for his sophomore season because he realized he lacked maturity. Before turning pro, Jones said he "wanted to become a man."
The past month has certainly been a test.
Jones is averaging 13.2 points and 7.3 rebounds for the 25-5 Bears. But he's scored just 5.3 points per game and shot 27 percent from the field in Baylor's past four losses, three of which came against top-10 teams.
Jones tries to stay upbeat, but it's difficult. When Baylor loses, he said the criticism "goes through the roof" on Twitter -- the bathroom walls of the Internet.
"I can't get on there without hearing about how soft I am," Jones said.
Two weeks ago, when Jones tweeted about his excitement over earning a B on an English paper, a "fan" responded that he should quit worrying about his grades and get back in the gym.
Less than a year removed from braces and acne medicine, Jones shakes his head. Last season he said he would've responded to such a comment.
"But now I'm more mature," Jones said. "I realize I don't even know who these people are.
"And they definitely don't know anything about me."
That's what frustrates Jones' inner circle. Everyone thinks they know PJ3, as he's called by his friends, but the perceptions are far from true.
The people who believe he was getting money from Baylor during high school might feel differently if they knew Jones was homeless -- bouncing from one $95-a-week hotel room to another -- throughout much of his final prep season.
Those who wonder why he picked the Bears over a national power such as North Carolina or Kansas might understand if they knew that Jones' 40-year-old mother, Terri, was battling a severe heart condition -- she may need a transplant -- 90 minutes away near Dallas.
And anyone who questions Jones' mettle obviously forgets that he passed up an opportunity to be a top-5 NBA draft pick last summer because he didn't feel he was ready. If it isn't tough to know who you are and turn down millions, what is?
Perry Jones is soft, they say?
His story suggests he's anything but.
Jones begins his tale and then stops.
"This is stuff," he says, "that I've never told anyone before."
Tipoff for Baylor's Big 12 tournament game against Oklahoma last spring was less than two hours away. As Terri Jones and her husband, Perry Sr., dressed in their hotel room in downtown Kansas City, Mo., a message scrolled across the bottom of the television screen.
"Baylor forward Perry Jones III has been suspended for the remainder of the season for accepting impermissible benefits," it read.
Their stomachs turned.
Even though he had done nothing wrong, the Jones' knew their son's image could be tarnished. Terri Jones remained in her room that evening, fearful that the stress would cause problems with her already fragile heart.
When she saw Perry a week later, he had lost eight pounds.
"He couldn't eat," Terri said. "He was just so hurt. All these people had this negative impression of him, but they didn't know what really happened."
The last thing anyone had ever questioned about Jones was his character. Whether it was in the classroom, on the basketball court or at home in the family living room, Jones had always been an example-setter. He was an honor roll student and, when he wasn't in gym working to become a McDonald's All-American, Jones was usually helping raise his three younger brothers.
Terri still remembers sitting in her car for 30 minutes after the school bell one day, wondering why her sixth-grade son was late. When Jones finally emerged through the doors, he was wearing a "Peer Mediator" badge. Turned out two girls had gotten into a fight, and Jones had sat both of them down to explain there were better ways to settle their problems.
"He was so proud," Terri said, smiling.
Jones credits his parents for his kind-hearted nature.
Perry Sr. worked long hours constructing and selling wooden pallets during his son's childhood. Terri was a cafeteria manager at an elementary school during the day. At night, she worked at LensCrafters in the local mall. Both said they never had to worry about Perry when they weren't around.
"He was a shy kid, but a respectful kid," Perry Sr. said. "He never gave us any trouble."
Things began to change, however, during Jones' senior year at Duncanville (Texas) High School. His grades slipped from A's and B's to B's and C's, and he had trouble focusing on the basketball court. When his teammates asked if they could come over after practice to play video games or watch a movie, Jones told them no every time.
"I had no choice," Jones said. "We didn't have a home."
Perry Sr.'s pallet business was struggling, and he had trouble finding other work. Terri's income wasn't enough to pay the four-figure mortgage on their Duncanville house, much less the bills that came along with it. Jones remembers the electricity being shut off on multiple occasions. Brutal as the Texas summers can be, they're unbearable without air conditioning.
Eventually, each member of the Jones family packed a week's worth of clothes into a suitcase and placed the rest of their belongings in a storage shed.
For most of the school year, the Joneses rented cheap hotel rooms by the week. If they were lucky, there'd be two beds and a pull-out couch to accommodate six people. Instead of sharing a mattress with his brothers, there were a few times that Perry -- all 6 feet, 11 inches of him -- curled up and slept on the floor.
Jones had endured an identical situation during his eighth-grade year, when his family's home in Mesquite, Texas was foreclosed on, forcing the family into homelessness.
"I remember leaving one night to go to work one night during Perry's senior year," Terri said. "He and his brothers didn't have anything to eat, and they kept asking me for money so they could order a pizza while I was gone."
She wipes away a tear.
"I couldn't give them any," she said. "We had to save up for the rest of the week."
Most times, Jones said, dinner meant he and his brothers splitting a half-pack of hot dogs.
Jones said he kept the situation a secret from his teachers, coaches and teammates at Duncanville as well as the staff at Baylor, where Jones had committed as a ninth-grader.
"Some people may have known something was wrong," Jones said. "The last thing I was worried about was school. I was worried about where I was going to sleep at night. It was hard to do the things I wanted to do as a kid. The last thing on my mind was going to parties or movies. I felt like I needed to get home every day to make sure my family was OK."
At one point early in Jones' senior year, Terri Jones made a request that would ultimately result in her son's six-game suspension from Baylor. She asked Jones' AAU coach, Lawrence Johns, for three loans that would allow her to make mortgage payments so she could keep her family in its house and off the streets.
Terri Jones said the three payments -- which totaled $1,195 each -- were due on the fourth of each month. She said she repaid Johns once she received her paycheck on the 15th.
Jones, who began playing for Johns' AAU program in junior high school, knew nothing of the loans. But when the NCAA found out about them nearly two years later, during Jones' freshman season at Baylor, it was determined the family had received an impermissible benefit.
"I thought the NCAA was about helping kids," Johns said last week. "I'm still trying to figure out what made it so bad. She asked for the money, I loaned it to her and she paid me back. If that's truly breaking a rule then a lot of AAU coaches out there are going to be catching heat."
Instead, Jones was the one who felt the most backlash. Opposing fans and coaches had spent the previous two years questioning how Baylor -- which hasn't won a conference championship since 1945 -- was able to land a commitment from such a high-profile recruit. Now the assumption was that the school was orchestrating payments to Jones.
"If that were true, then we wouldn't have been in that situation in the first place," Perry Sr. said. "Even now, if they saw where we lived, they wouldn't say that."
Perry Sr. and his wife currently reside in a duplex in Lancaster, Texas, near Dallas. A year later, it's obvious the suspension still bothers Jones.
"Basically, I got suspended because we were struggling, and my mom didn't want us to live on the streets," he said. "We were down to nothing and someone helped us out. I always ask people, 'If you were in that situation, and you didn't have a place to stay, would you ask someone you'd known since the sixth grade for a little help?' Everyone knows they would."
"If my mom didn't take that money," he said, "I probably wouldn't even be at Baylor right now. I probably wouldn't be playing basketball at all. Because I was ready to do anything to make sure my mom and my family didn't have to live on the streets."
Jones is asked to clarify.
"I was ready to do anything to make sure we didn't have to live on the streets," he said.
His mom said -- and Jones confirmed -- that one Big 12 school offered him money. Another said it could arrange for jobs for family members and maybe even a new home. Through it all, Perry Jones -- still a teenager -- refused to budge, telling every recruiter who called that he would honor his commitment to Baylor.
"There's got to be something we can do to get you to change your mind," Jones recalled one college coach saying.
Jones thought for a minute.
"Can you get my mother a new heart?" he said.
It's been refreshing. It feels weird to actually have people care about me as a person. In the past all anyone has wanted to talk to me about is basketball.
”-- Perry Jones III, on his time at Baylor
Talk to Jones long enough, and it's obvious that he views Terri as more than just a mother. She's also his best friend. That's why, in some ways, the last seven years have been so painful.
Terri has dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart becomes weakened and enlarged and cannot pump blood efficiently. Complications include shortness of breath, swelling in the feet and ankles and extreme fatigue and weakness.
Jones was in junior high school when Terri's condition began to worsen. These days doctors rarely allow her to fly to Baylor's road games because of the stress and strain a flight could cause on her heart. She tries to attend all of Perry's games in Waco, although at times she's had to watch from the disabled seating section atop her medical scooter.
No matter how bad of a day she may be having, Terri has maintained a positive attitude. She's taking online sociology courses in hopes of becoming a social worker. Last fall, when fans lined up outside of the Ferrell Center for Midnight Madness, Terri parked her scooter right in the middle of them and waited for the doors to open like everyone else. She wanted no preferential treatment just because her son is Baylor's star player.
"I'm just praying for my healing," said Terri, an evangelist and lay minister who teaches Sunday school and has preached sermons at God's Grace Holiness Church. "I don't want to have to go through a heart transplant."
Upbeat as she has been, Terri's situation has caused problems. She lost her job in the school cafeteria last spring after missing too many days of work. And as hard as it was, she agreed to let two of Perry's three younger brothers live with their grandmother because she didn't have the energy to care for them on her own. The boys, ages 13 and 15, are not Terri's biological children, but she had raised them since they were infants.
"It's sad for her, depressing," Jones said. "You spend your whole life with someone, and then they're not there anymore."
Jones' relationship with his mother has strengthened during her illness. They text Bible verses back and forth to one another multiple times each week. And when the family goes to dinner after home games, Jones usually slips most of the stipend money he receives from Baylor into Terri's purse when she's not looking.
He said he looks forward to the day when he can help pay for the medical care Terri requires -- along with a new house with a working air-conditioning unit and a "refrigerator full of Dr Pepper."
"I'm sure he feels a lot of pressure," Terri said. "People have told him, 'If you go to the NBA, you can do such-and-such for your mom or your family. You can help their pain, and you won't ever have to worry about money again.'"
All indications were that Jones would've been a top-5 pick in the 2011 NBA draft had he chosen to leave Baylor after his freshman season. But when he hinted he was thinking about returning to school, Terri was quick to offer support.
"Don't worry about the money," she told him. "We can't miss what we've never had. It's your decision. If you want to stay, I'm behind you 100 percent."
Just as they did last spring, Jones' parents have tried to remain in the background when it comes to basketball. Perry Sr., a standout streetball player as a teenager growing up in Louisiana, texts words of encouragement and advice -- "take care of business," he usually writes -- before games. But for the most part they've left Jones' development up to his coaches.
And no coach has influenced Jones more than Johns.
The two met at Finish Line when Jones was in the sixth grade. He and his mother were shopping in the shoe store when Johns -- noticing Perry's height -- approached them and asked if Perry was interested in playing for his AAU team, the Timberwolves.
Within a year, Jones had become one of the team's biggest stars.
Johns said he made it his mission to help Jones improve as a player and also to help him "network." He made sure his team competed in all of the top AAU events around the country so that Jones could showcase himself in front of country's most prominent coaches.
Although he was a bit taken aback when Jones committed to Baylor at age 15, Johns said he spent the next four years backing his protege on his decision.
"We got so much [trash talk] from other schools about Baylor," Johns said. "It was horrible. For four years, everywhere we went, people said, 'Why are you going there? Don't do it. You're making a mistake.'
"I went to bat for Baylor so many times. It was sad. Everyone came to me because they thought I had the power to change the boy's mind."
Perry Sr. and Terri appreciated Johns' efforts at the time, especially after he lent them the money to pay their mortgage. But lately a rift has developed between them.
Jones' parents said they've been told that Johns was given money to ensure that Jones showed up at high-profile camps and events during high school. Perry Sr. said Johns viewed his son as a ticket to "early retirement." And even though Terri maintains a semblance of a relationship with Johns, she said she feels taken advantage of.
"A lot of people told us to watch out for [Johns]," Terri said. "They said he was slick. At that time we didn't know anything about AAU basketball. We trusted him and let our guards down. We weren't thinking."
The family became even more incensed last spring when Johns told a reporter that Jones was likely leaving school to enter the NBA draft. At the time, Jones hadn't even discussed the issue with his parents. At the adidas Nations Experience in Chicago, Johns even told someone that he was Jones' biological father and legal guardian.
When word got back to Perry Sr., he nearly lost his cool.
"He was telling everyone that they needed to go through him to reach Perry, that he was his daddy," Perry Sr. said. "What he didn't realize was that one of the people he said that to was my brother."
Johns admitted to referring to Jones as his son, but he said the remark was made with good intentions.
"I said it to keep people away from him," Johns said. "Everyone has always tried to come after this kid from every direction. I was trying to look out for Perry. I was trying to protect him."
Shortly after making one of the biggest decisions of his life, Perry Jones III played paintball. The whole Baylor basketball team did.
Armed with his own, personal gun he'd purchased a few months earlier, Jones darted about the course in Waco, ducking behind barriers and firing pellets at his teammates -- and coaches.
"He put his hands up and pretended like he was hit, which means you're out of the game," Drew said. "Then he walked behind all of us and blasted us. Those things leave welts!"
Through it all, Jones just cackled.
Basketball aside, this was why he came to Baylor. As much as they needed him, Jones needed the Bears, too. The school, the students and the fans have helped bring out the kid in Jones, the youthful side he compartmentalized for so many years.
A few hours before that paintball game, Jones had shocked his coaches and teammates when he announced his decision to bypass millions and return for his sophomore season. He said he wasn't mature enough, mentally or physically, to handle the rigors of the NBA. His game needed to develop, and his personality did, too.
One year later, Jones still marvels at the expressions he saw on everyone's face when he peered out into the crowd during that press conference.
"Everyone just looked so happy," Jones said. "I felt so wanted."
Jones was like a piece of meat before he arrived at Baylor. AAU coaches and college recruiters and agents snipped at him from all directions. Everyone assumed Jones would use Waco as a one-year pit stop on the road to the NBA.
But once Jones got to college, he didn't want to leave.
Last season, after a victory, Jones joined a group of students for dinner and a movie. Not once was he asked about the game. Professors stopped him on campus and said how much they'd like to see him back in class the following year, and he and his teammates reminisced about the memories they'd made during the previous six months.
"Perry is coming alive," guard A.J. Walton said. "He's smiling and having fun. He's finding his roots instead of his leaves."
It may not be as big as Texas or tout the same tradition as Kentucky. But Baylor and its surging program were the right fit for Jones. He had sensed it four years earlier, when he told his mother on the drive home from an unofficial visit to Waco that he wanted to be a Bear.
"It's been refreshing," Jones said. "It feels weird to actually have people care about me as a person. In the past all anyone has wanted to talk to me about is basketball.
"I'd been told I was one-and-done my whole life. The mindset was instilled in my head. There are still a few people who start sentences with, 'Once you're in the pros ' or 'When you get to the pros ' I get tired of that. I'm not in the pros. I'm at Baylor right now. Let's talk about that."
Lately, the conversation hasn't been all that positive.
Jones is the top scorer and is tied for the team lead in rebounding for a Baylor team which has been ranked as high as No. 3 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. But in his past seven games, Jones is averaging just 9.1 points while shooting 33 percent from the field.
Critics want Jones to be more assertive, especially when it comes to attacking the basket. He often shies away from contact and settles for outside jumpers when he could use his skill and athleticism to get into the paint.
"We need him to play big," said Acy, Jones' sidekick in the frontcourt. "We need him to be more aggressive."
However, Drew thinks Jones' best days are still ahead.
"Getting tougher is a physical and mental thing," the coach said. "It's about competing every single possession and fighting and shoving and getting hit. It's about being a man. Thomas Robinson at Kansas is a man. Quincy Acy is a man.
"Perry is still young. He's getting stronger. When he's 26 or 28, that's when he's really going to be good. That's why the NBA is so in love with him. They know he's going to get better."
Despite his recent struggles, Jones is still projected as a top-10 pick in this summer's NBA draft. If Jones does decide to leave school, those close to him are confident that any questions about his toughness will be put to rest during individual workouts and scrimmages.
"He'll open everyone's eyes, trust me," Johns, the AAU coach, said. "I cringe when I hear people say he's soft. There's nothing soft about him. I'll go to my grave with that one."
Still, even though he doesn't talk to him as often, Johns can sense the burden on Jones' shoulders. He may be enjoying himself around his teammates and on Baylor's campus, but other pressures loom.
Johns said Jones doesn't seem to be "getting any better" and that he often looks preoccupied on the bench. He's certainly has a lot to ponder.
Just as he's been all season, Jones knows he'll be one of the most scrutinized players in this season's NCAA tournament. If he catches fire, Baylor is a Final Four-caliber team. But the Bears could lose its first tourney game if Jones continues to struggle.
Even more important is the decision regarding the NBA that Jones will face once again. He'd like to come back to school, but Terri's condition has worsened. Some of the country's top physicians that specialize in her condition work at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, Calif. Terri's local doctors have suggested she seek treatment there when possible, but plane flights and hotel rooms are expensive. Jones could certainly help defray the costs with his NBA paycheck.
"I don't think he's going to stay at Baylor another year," Terri said. "I think he's more ready than he was a year ago. Last year we never talked about making the transition to the NBA, but this year we've discussed it a couple of times. I still don't think he's made a decision, though."
Jones said he's "50-50" on whether he'll return to Baylor for another season. He'd love to spend another year in school, but he wants to be smart and do what's best for his future.
And his family's future, too.
"I call him 'Purgatory,'" Johns said. "He's caught between heaven and hell. He's trying to please his mom and dad. He's trying to be fair to me and he's trying to do what Coach Drew asks. He's torn. His game is suffering. He's got a lot on his mind.
"Pretty soon he's going to come to a point where he has to draw a fork in the road and say, 'This is what I'm going to do. This is who I am.'"
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.