Stepping Up: Nick Jones Emerges For For The UCSB Men's Basketball Team

Feb. 14, 2001

Santa Barbara, Calif. - The more Nick Jones plays this basketball season, the better he gets. And the more Nick Jones plays, the worse he feels.

Call it "catch-41."

UCSB's emerging freshman has come a long way the last three years on a very sore left foot.

"It hurts still, but it's not as bad as it used to be," said Jones, a 6-foot-4 guard. "The more and more I play now, the more it acts up. But I want to play. No pain, no gain, you know?

"I've got no complaints."

That's because Jones once wondered if he'd even be able to keep his left foot, let alone play basketball on it. It took four surgeries -- three this summer alone -- to get him back on the court. And half of a surgical screw remains in that foot, where it will probably stay forever.

"The thought was in the back of my mind this summer," he said, biting his lip as he struggled with it still, "that I wouldn't be able to play again this year."

After two painful high school seasons and a redshirt collegiate year, Jones has been living up to the expectations that arose after an All-State sophomore season at Oxnard's Santa Clara High. Every major college recruiter in the West put Nick Jones on their early wish list that year after he nearly averaged a double-double (18.6 points, 9.9 rebounds) for the CIF champion Saints.

He's aided the Gauchos' recent resurgence, scoring at a 13-point clip over the last eight games to boost his season average to 9.2. His shooting percentage of .459 is tops among UCSB's perimeter players, and he's even hauled down 5.0 rebounds in league play.

oJones is a big reason that the Gauchos enter tonight's 7 o'clock home game against Idaho with a three-game winning streak.

"His family calls him the Tasmanian Devil because he does everything as hard as he can," said UCSB coach Bob Williams. "I love his heart and I love his tenacity. I tend to have more patience with guys like Nick, whose mistakes come only because they can try too hard."

Jones was always an overachiever, tagging along as a kid to play with his brother, Robert, who was seven years his elder.

"My brother taught me the game, basically," he said. "He'd bring me along with him when I was a kid, and I think I got so good so quickly because I played with older guys at such a young age. Even if I wasn't doing so well, I was still out there on the court, getting the chance."

He learned, especially, how to pick himself up after getting knocked down.

It served him well after the start of his junior year of high school, when he dove for a loose ball in typical Nick Jones fashion. The result was a fractured foot -- the Bill Walton injury, known officially and ironically as "the Jones Fracture" -- and it eventually had to be mended with a screw.

Jones knew his basketball history, and it scared him.

"Walton wasn't able to come back, he wasn't the same, and so he had to retire," he said. "And a lot of people were saying that I'd never be able to get a scholarship now, that it'd be a 500-to-1 shot."

He said his strong faith -- he's a devout Buddhist -- and his family kept him from sinking into complete despair.

"My religion really helped me focus and stick with it," Jones said, "with basketball, and with life in general, because I was starting to feel like my world was over."

And while he returned for the playoffs that spring of 1998, averaging15.3 points, he knew he still wasn't right.

"My whole junior and senior years, I had that pain," Jones pointed out. "It was a stabbing pain, like someone was sticking a knife into my foot.

"It was real tough on the court, but the worst pain came after I'd stop playing, when I'd go home to rest. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night at times because it would be too much."

He missed more than just sleep, having to skip several of the summer recruiting camps. Many recruiters began to lose interest.

But not Williams. While scouting Jones' Santa Clara teammate, current Gaucho sophomore B.J. Ward, he fell in love with the Saints' gimpy warrior.

"We watched him at the Fairfax Tournament that summer, and Nick got 30-something against Simi Valley and then scored 28 against Fairfax," Williams recalled. "I saw how explosive and tenacious he was on the floor, and the demeanor he played with, and I just fell in love with him."

Recruiters from around the country began to find their way back to Jones' doorstep, but his mind was set. He signed with UCSB during the fall of his senior year.

"The main part was the coaches' loyalty, because a lot of colleges looked off when I got hurt," he said. "Coach Williams and his staff kept going. They were there through the surgery, and they kept me going. That stood out big-time to me, because I wanted to decide before my senior year started."

Another factor was his family -- parents Fred and Laura, brother Robert, and 15-year-old sister Janelle.

"My connection to them is so strong that I asked them if they'd be OK if I went far away, out of state," Jones revealed. "What it came down to was that they really didn't want me to leave. Even my cousins jumped on that bandwagon.

"They stuck with me through high school, with everything that I went through, so I wanted to stay home for them, so they'd be able to watch me play college basketball."

UCSB couldn't believe its good fortune as Jones' senior season unfolded: California Division 5 Player of the Year honors with averages of 25.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.0 steals for Coach Lou Cvijanovich's state champions.

But the foot still hurt, prompting Jones to redshirt the next season for the Gauchos. And things only got worse last summer when he finally decided to have the screw removed.

"The first time, they couldn't get it out, so they sewed me back up and scheduled a second surgery with special machinery," he pointed out. "Then the screw broke apart. The doctor left half of it in there, shaving the ends off of it. The third surgery was necessary because the foot got infected."

Jones fought off the dark thoughts that clouded his summer, with a little help from his friends.

"My doctor (Michael Maguire) stuck with me the whole four years and did all the surgeries, and he was like another stepping stone for me," he said. "He believed in me and stuck with me even though I'd go into his office and tell him off, cuss him out, because I wanted to play so bad.

"No matter what I did to him, he'd still be there and give me advice, tell me that this is what I really needed to do. His advice and my parents' advice really got me through that point.

"That's why I think that whatever comes on the court now, I can take it so easily."

He watched, perched on crutches, as his teammates prepared for this season. Rusty at the start, he averaged 4.0 points as a reserve through UCSB's first eight games before his 10-point, five-rebound effort two days after Christmas emerged as the only bright spot in a bleak 63-59 loss at UC Riverside.

Williams decided to start him the next game, and Jones hasn't been stopped since. He's twice scored 19 points, getting 15 in the second half alone in last Thursday's turning-point win at Long Beach State. He sank clutch, end-game baskets on both ends of last week's road trip, scoring 13 points in Saturday's victory at Pacific.

"He's getting better every week," said Williams. "He has a knack for scoring. He has a great mid-range game, and a really good garbage game, he finds ways to get buckets. He also has a much-improved 3-point game.

"He's been everything that I saw when I watched him that summer -- the desire that he has, the internal drive," Williams continued. "He's really self-motivated to be a player, doing the extra shooting workouts and getting into the weight room. It's the same as Nick is about being a good student, and about being a good son.

"He approaches life with that passion."

Jones doesn't know if his foot will ever feel right again, but it no longer bothers him.

"I think it's prepared me mentally, and keeps me going to this day," he said. "It just gives me that fire on the court. It's an outlet, because I went through so much.

"I figure that nothing can stop me now. There's nothing that's impossible for me now."