I wouldn't be talking to you if it weren't for basketball. It spared my life. The words may seem like an empty cliché, but they are true. Basketball kept me alive, and now my son, Rob, and basketball are helping restore honor to my family name.
I never will forget the day. It was November 18, 1978. I had moved from the San Francisco area a few years earlier with my dad as he set up his ministry, Peoples Temple, in the nation of Guyana. The town we lived in was called Jonestown.
My life was built around basketball. I loved the sport and was in the capital city of Georgetown, Guyana, playing in a tournament on that infamous day. I was absolutely overwhelmed when I got a horrifying message from my father over the ham radio.
My father was explaining to me that California congressman Leo Ryan was in Jonestown investigating my father's ministry and that we would be blamed for people wanting to leave because of the injustices against Peoples Temple. He said that people were going to lay their lives down, that they were going to commit revolutionary suicide. It still echoes in my head how I argued with my father, "Why are we doing this? Isn't there another way?"
Hours later I learned that Congressman Ryan had been murdered and over 900 people had consumed a cyanide-laced beverage resulting in their deaths. My dad had a bullet through his head. I had lost everyone I loved — my parents, my wife, and my unborn child. My world was rocked forever. That experience was one that I wouldn't wish upon anybody because everything that I had lived for over my eighteen years was gone.
I returned home to my roots in the San Francisco area after this senseless tragedy, but I was haunted by those memories for years. I had many regrets, much remorse, and was besieged with survivor guilt as I wrestled with the questions, "How did I escape? Why was I one of the chosen few?" The reason, of course, is that I was away playing basketball.
For many years, my solution to my mental anguish was to totally divorce myself from the sport that I loved. I blamed basketball. If I wasn't selfishly away playing basketball, maybe I could have made a difference. So I had no contact with the game at all.
As I put my life back together, I eventually married and our union was blessed with children. One of our sons, Rob, was gifted with some exceptional athletic talents. As he grew older, it was obvious that he had a bright future as a basketball player. I began to work with him one-on-one and started coaching some of his youth teams. In addition to contributing some value to his life, the love I had for basketball was rekindled after a long absence from the sport. My enthusiasm returned, and I found myself elated to be a part of the sport again — through my son.
As Rob advanced through his high school career, he became a highly recruited college prospect. He grew into the best high school basketball player in the Bay Area — a 6'6" 230-pound forward with strength, quickness, and a well-rounded floor game. After evaluating all of his options, Rob decided to accept a scholarship at the University of San Diego to play collegiate basketball. As a freshman, he averaged nine points and six rebounds per game, and was named to the West Coast Conference All-Freshman team for the 2007-08 season.
When I first saw an article in the paper about my son's high school basketball team — "Jones leads Riordan to the top" — I paused reflectively. Anytime our family name had been in the news — Jones leading anybody — it was associated with leading individuals to a very negative outcome. It made my heart swell with pride to know a Jones was leading a group of people in a very positive direction. I am so proud of Rob's accomplishments on the floor, but I'm more proud of the fine young man he is turning out to be.
For years, I tried to escape the stigma of being Jim Jones, Jr. I was never able to do that. I was known in basketball gyms as the son of the infamous Jim Jones. Now I'm known as the father of Rob Jones. That amazing transition has left me with an extremely good feeling.
The wonderful game of basketball helped make it happen.
This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball © 2009 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.
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