In a few minutes, Donnie Jones would walk on the floor of the RCA Dome and coach in the biggest basketball game of his life. He worked for that moment as teen-ager in West Virginia who ran his own camps, as a point guard at Pikeville (Ky.) College and 18 seasons as an assistant.
Jones, an assistant coach at Florida, made a phone call before getting on the bus to the stadium in Indianapolis for 2006 NCAA championship game.
“JB” needed a phone call from Jones, 19 years after they played together on a memorable Pikeville team, 19 years after they made midnight runs to the SuperAmerica convenience store for chocolate milk and Little Debbie cakes to fuel studying for a business management test.
In Houston, John Biery came out of 20 hours of surgery earlier that day. The surgeon cut open his chest from his heart to his stomach to perform a complete aortic replacement and remove an aneurysm.
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“Most people don’t survive that surgery,” Biery said. “I didn’t know if I was going to live or die.”
Jones called his Pikeville teammate while he prepared for Florida’s title game against UCLA. He called Biery again three hours later, after a 73-57 win.
“Friends like that – you’ll never find anybody in the world better,” Biery said. “He was praying for me.”
Another assist for Donnie Jones.
“I prayed with him,” Jones said. “My mind-set’s always been to be the calm in the storm. I was trying to give him some life, some focus on his blessings.”
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall hired Jones in April — after offering him a job in 1998 — to calm a spring in which he lost assistant coaches Greg Heiar and Chris Jans within a week.
The Marshall-Jones reunion starts with Greg White, the former Pikeville and Marshall University coach whom both regard as a mentor. Jones sent White a piece of the net after the 2006 NCAA title.
“He’s been the biggest encourager I’ve ever been associated with,” Jones said. “I followed his lead.”
White met Jones as a seventh-grader in Point Pleasant, W.Va., when camp organizers trusted Jones to ride with White and show him the route to the next gym. When Pikeville, an NAIA school, hired White, 25, as coach, he offered his first scholarship to Jones. Four years later, Jones left Pikeville with a school-record 513 assists.
Gregg Marshall, who worked for White two seasons at Marshall, landed the Winthrop job in April 1998. He had a rental car and a new cell phone, the first provided by the school to its basketball coach, he said.
“I had five scholarships to give and no help,” Marshall said. “I always say, jokingly, that after my parents the first call I made as I made as a head coach at Winthrop, while I was driving a car with my knee, was to Donnie Jones.”
Jones, then a part-time (officially called restricted earnings) assistant coach at Florida, wanted to take the job at Winthrop. He talked to head coach Billy Donovan, who told him a full-time position awaited at Florida. Jones stayed and moved into that job.
Gregg Marshall made that call again this spring.
He needed an experienced coach to help with the move to the American Athletic Conference. He needed a recruiter to replace Heiar’s tireless efforts to restock the roster. He needed a veteran voice he could lean on as much he did on Jans during their nine seasons together.
Jones, as in his days as point guard for the Pikeville Bears, is there to fill all roles.
“He’s a relationship-builder,” Marshall said. “He’s been around a lot of successful programs in a lot of different chairs.”
Jones helped Donovan (now with the Oklahoma City Thunder) to two NCAA titles. Central Florida – an AAC member – hired Jones as head coach and he coached there from 2010-16. He recruited medium-profile athletes such as Hassan Whiteside and Tacko Fall, recognizing talent others missed.
“He knows players,” White said. “He knows the league. He knows the towns. He knows his competitor’s personalities. Do they positively recruit? Do they negative recruit? He knows all that.”
Jones also recruited and coached players such as Marreese Speights and Joakim Noah and helped them turn their talent into NBA paychecks.
“You have to get a little fortunate,” Jones said. “I usually look and see what I can coach and what I can change. With Hassan, you saw the raw ability. He had to learn to focus and be an every-day guy.”
For Biery, Jones was an every-day guy as a teammate in 1987 and again 19 years later on the phone in the Baylor Medical Center.
Jones led the 1986-87 Bears to a 20-10 record. He handed out a school-record 21 assists in a game, many of them to star forward Todd May. White described Jones as the kind of point guard who got the money to the bank and didn’t drop a penny. No mistakes. No drama. Calm, positive leadership.
“He was the leader and team captain,” Biery said. “He got the ball where it needed to be.”
May led the NAIA in scoring in 1987, averaging 40 points and 15 rebounds.
“You could call for the ball and Donnie, he knew where you wanted it,” May said. “He could put it on the money. You could tell he was going to get into coaching. They’ve got that outgoing personality — Greg (White), he could talk to anybody. Donnie was the same way. Always smiling.”
May, a Kentucky high school legend who started his college career at the University of Kentucky, graduated. The Bears slumped to 5-22 the next season and Biery remembers Jones’ contributions just as fondly.
“Everybody handles winning really well,” Biery said. “It’s how you handle it when you lose. He wouldn’t let us get down. Everything about him was positive, more than he had any right to be.”
Wichita State’s players are now in line to benefit from Jones’ personality. Shocker guard Landry Shamet called him a “Zen Master” in a recent Twitter message.
“I was always the point guard and I always enjoyed sharing and adding value,” Jones said. “Coaching was a natural, having that ability to impact other people, serve other people.”
Eleven years after the surgery, Biery is cross country coach at Pikeville, a job he held since 1998. He will root for the Shockers this season, confident his friend will help another team and lend his good spirit to more athletes.