When new California head men's basketball coach Wyking Jones was being recruited out of Playa Del Rey (Calif.) St. Bernard, he had a chance to pay his mother, Vera, back for all she'd done for him. She'd raised six boys and one girl in Inglewood, Calif., as a single parent, driving the city bus. The Bears coach at the time, Lou Campanelli, offered Jones the chance to take an official visit. On Wednesday morning, as he was introduced at his first public press conference since being hired on Friday, he reflected on that moment, when he and Berkeley first met.
"I'm like, 'Man, I'd love to come on campus,'" Jones said. "So, we scheduled an official visit. In my mind, I'm thinking, 'OK, St. Bernard is a high-academic high school, we wear blue and gold. Cal, high-academic university, blue and gold. I go on this visit, I'm probably going to be a Cal Bear, when it's all said and done.'"
Then, three days before his visit, Campanelli called Jones.
"I've got bad news for you," Campanelli said. "Monty Buckley took your scholarship."
Jones paused during his remarks.
"Monty, if you're watching," he said, as the crowd laughed. "I no longer hold that grudge against you, brother."
Standing at the podium, the 31st former Rick Pitino assistant to be named the head of his own program, Jones reflected on how he got from not being good enough for a scholarship (although, Buckley did wind up playing in the NBA), to becoming Cuonzo Martin's assistant -- taking a "leap of faith," in coming to Berkeley -- to going from interim head coach, to the man at the tiller.
He thanked his first coach, Jimmy Ellis, who saw him in elementary school, towering over the other students, and, despite Jones knowing nothing about basketball, got him on the court. Jones also cited Harold Jones, his Inglewood All Stars coach, "the first guy to abuse me, verbally, as a coach," as a building block, as well as his coaches at high school and college.
"My mom, a single mom, raising boys [in] Inglewood, Calif., in the '80s, drove the city bus for 25 years, [she] showed me what hard work and sacrifice looked like, every single day," Jones said. "I was born and raised in Inglewood, Calif., in the '80s. It was a tough place. A lot of gangs, drugs, the whole deal. But, my love for this game kept me focused. [I was] 13-years old, and I walk into Rogers Park, and the two gang members who used to beat me up the most are sitting in the lobby. So, they say to me, 'Come here, man.' So, I'm like, how much money do I have in my pocket? They're going to get me for my money. They say, 'We hear you're really good in basketball.' I say, 'Yeah, I am.' They say, 'OK. So, from here on, we're not going to bother you. And, as a matter of fact, if anybody bothers you, you let us know, and we'll take care of it.' So, this game has protected me. This game has protected me."
Now, the game has taken him, as he said, home, for which he thanked his predecessor and old boss, Cuonzo Martin. Wednesday was a moment that was 12 years in the making for Jones, who said that, during his fourth year as recruiting coordinator at Pepperdine, he realized that he wanted to be a head coach.
"The way I look at it, I'm just going to steal a little bit from this coach, I'm going to steal a little bit from this coach, I'm going to steal a lot from this guy, and I'm going to steal a little bit from this coach, and that's the coach that I'm going to be," Jones said, citing Pitino, Martin, Steve Alford and Paul Westphal, his boss at Pepperdine from 2002-05. "I'm ready to be that guy today."
When Martin decided to leave Berkeley for the head coaching job at Missouri, Jones assembled a plan, a detailed outline of where he saw the program going, from strength and conditioning to on-court scheme to recruiting to culture. It was that plan, several sources have said, that impressed Williams the most, out of all of the candidates.
"When the job opened, the moment I became the interim head coach, in my mind, I've been studying coach Martin, I've been studying coach Pitino," Jones said. "Every single day, working as an assistant, you're always in your head, thinking, 'If I'm the head coach, this is what I would do. If I'm the head coach, this is how I would have reacted to this certain situation. This is what I would choose to do in a time out.' It's a constant process, as an assistant, if you want to be a head coach."
Now, the 'What if?' of it all has become the 'What now?'