Andrew Jones returns at Texas Tip-Off

Robert Larkin

The crowd rose to applaud the player in black sweatpants and a hoodie. Andrew Jones waved back.

Jones didn’t expect to play last Wednesday night at Gregory Gymnasium after a toe injury on Oct. 4. But his presence alone at the Texas Tip-Off was a remarkable feat.

The Texas players, coaches and hundreds of Longhorn fans in attendance understood that. Nine months have passed since the Irving, Texas, native first learned about his leukemia diagnosis. The time since has been defined by chemotherapy treatments, recurring trips to the hospital and a fight for his life.

After ending chemotherapy treatments in August, Jones is now slowly working his way back onto the basketball court he loves so much.

While last Wednesday night certainly served as the debut for a Texas team shrouded in expectations thanks to a make-or-break fourth season, for head coach Shaka Smart, it was Jones being in the building, shooting baskets in warm-ups, exchanging conversations with his coaches and shimmy dancing next to his teammates that provided the moment of the evening.

“There were times where we felt like we were missing somebody, and we were” guard Matt Coleman said. “He wasn’t out there with us. Seeing him back with a smile on his face, him bringing joy, him maturing and growing up, it’s moving.”

After originally declaring for the NBA Draft following his freshman season, Jones came back to Texas to further improve his stock. In the early season, he appeared on his way to do just that — Jones averaged a team-high 15.3 points in his first eight games.

But a hairline fracture in his wrist derailed his progress. When he finally returned to the court in late December, Jones didn’t carry the same energy.

Smart knew it wasn’t the result of his injury or poor effort. It had to be something more. He said Jones would undergo a variety of tests to see if there was an illness affecting his star guard.

On Jan. 10, Texas announced Jones had been diagnosed with leukemia.

For the last half of the 2017-18 season, Jones served as a reminder of what life was like outside of basketball for a team wandering in mediocrity. An “AJ1” jersey patch and “BOOM AJ1” warm-up T-shirts referred to a teammate dealing with something greater than one-point losses or missed free throws.

His appearance last Wednesday transcended a single ovation or happy moment. It elevated the energy of the entire Texas team.

“Just seeing Andrew, I feel like everybody’s spirits are high,” senior guard Kerwin Roach said. “The energy was high. Everybody was here ready to get better, and you can see that.”

Jones returned to practice in September to make a comeback that seemed inconceivable when he was diagnosed. He worked hard, attempting to complete as many drills and conditioning workouts that he could before needing to take a break due to exhaustion.

The toe injury was a setback to Jones, but head coach Shaka Smart knows this injury won’t deter him. His determination ensures it.    

“The thing that’s exciting about Andrew is that he doesn’t let any obstacle take away from his enthusiasm for working to grow and get better,” Smart said. “He broke his toe, but that’s a temporary, hopefully short-term injury.”

In the moments leading up to the Texas Tip-Off, Jones grabbed a ball from a teammate and dropped back to half-court. He studied the hoop, gathered himself and flung it into the air.

His first shot went in. Jones looked to the crowd in amazement, raised his hands and searched for someone who noticed. This time, no standing ovation. No applause.

But it didn’t matter.

Jones smiled anyway and made his way to the bench next to his teammates. He took his seat and assumed his position for the rest of the evening.

He was just happy to be back.