Honoring a Friend’s Lasting Legacy

I’ve spoken and posted about an upcoming event that means a lot to me and, thankfully, some close friends have asked for more details. It made me realize that, if I shared a bit more about WHY it means a lot to me, perhaps more folks would get behind this very worthy cause.

On October 16th, from 5-9 p.m., the Y of Central Maryland is hosting an event at the gym at Leadership Through Athletics, to raise funds in order to renovate the gym at Cardinal Gibbons School, my alma mater, into a state-of-the-art facility for the community’s use for years to come. That strikes home because that acreage is hallowed ground- not just to me personally, but also to the hundreds of others who spent their formative years mentored under knowledgeable men who guided us to future successes with daily teachings and role-modeling.

But even more importantly, especially for this initial event, is the cause at hand. On October 16th, the event is designated to honor the memory of one of Gibbons’ finest. This is a strong statement, particularly since this individual was not even a Gibbons alum. But more important than where he graduated from, he embodied the spirit of the Gibbons community and lived it, in his daily interactions with his family, friends, and colleagues, and on the campus when he came to impart his wisdom to students fortunate enough to have known him. I am one such fortunate soul.

Neil Jones became my basketball coach in sophomore year of high school. I had dreams of playing D-I basketball. At 5-7, you can imagine how that panned out. Nonetheless, Neil made an instant impact on the team. I was best friends with his younger brother, Brandon, who was also on the team. We had a solid JV squad that year that routinely won in a highly competitive Catholic League. But more important than winning were the lessons he imparted to us on a daily basis, win or lose.

Neil came in as an assistant to a much more established head coach who’d been in the program for a long time. Everyone loved this coach, and for good reason. But most realized that his strength was management and motivation as opposed to the Xs and Os. But Neil didn’t just barge in and take over. He was patient in expressing his ideas. He was diplomatic in how he entered the team dynamic. He was careful to assuage any feelings that might’ve been hurt if he had exerted more control right away. It was an important lesson in leadership that I’ll never forget, i.e., knowing when and where to insert yourself, understanding team dynamic, suppressing one’s ego for the betterment of the larger group, knowing when and how to speak one’s mind and stand ground when necessary, and maximizing the impact of interpersonal relationships.

Neil also taught by example. He led by showing and doing as opposed to just by talking or yelling. When the court would clear after any (all) practice, Neil would start working out. As a player who’d just worked out for 2+ hours, it was infectious to see someone else how had also poured themselves out for that time to continue on. A few dedicated others would grab a ball and press on with their training, motivated by Neil’s example. I’ll never forget that example of continuing to do what needs to be done, even when everyone else has called it quits- and you’d like to, too.

Neil knew how to motivate. And he knew how to motivate each particular player differently. He was keenly aware that each individual responded differently based on different situations. I’d be motivated by his hollering. I’d been motivated by his boisterous cheering. I’d been motivated by his ass-chewings. The messages might have been different each time. And they were definitely delivered with different tones. But I can affirm that, outside of my immediate family, Neil’s the only person who’s chewed me out in public where I thanked him for it 30 minutes later…while working out with him after practice, one-on-one. I knew I deserved it, and I thanked him for getting in my stuff. Neil was that voice in my head telling me to quit my bitching and push on when my own voice had convinced me to quit.

Neil taught these lessons to many more kids after I’d moved on. Brandon and I parted ways. We played against each other a few times in college. Brandon scored 1,732 points and broke the scoring record at St. Mary’s College. I scored maybe 12 points at Salisbury and broke my ankle running a secondary fastbreak in sophomore year. Maybe Neil saved some of the secrets for his brother.

But the shame with this life is that the people who should stay the longest- the ones who are so dedicated to those around them- aren’t promised their time. Neil was shot and killed in Baltimore in 2005. A family man, married with children-  Kameron (then 5-years-old), Kai (then 2-years-old) and Kolby (then just 6-months-old) – was murdered while walking to his car after hanging out with a friend in Canton, earlier having played in an adult-league basketball game. Neil could have impacted hundreds, if not thousands, more with his time here, but for this senseless act. Neil’s parents, Gerald and Martina, forgave their son’s killer in an unprecedented act of forgiveness. Their powerful and, in my opinion, supernatural ability to forgive another for taking something and someone so precious from them (and us) is a true testament to Neil’s lasting legacy.

Neil’s ability to impact young men like me was taken from him. But his memory continues to inspire, and this upcoming event is geared towards raising funds to affix Neil’s name to the lobby area of the Y to-come. It gives me comfort knowing that the money raised in his name will go towards a foundation that will continue the work that Neil was so passionate about: mentoring, sharing skills, giving time to others, being an example to others who need that example, and so much more.

I realize that these words fail tremendously in doing Neil’s memory justice. I only hope that my failure in better demonstrating Neil’s impact on me and those around him does not deter my friends and colleagues from donating to this very worthy cause. If you are interested in donating, attending, or otherwise supporting this worthy cause and event, please feel free to contact me. Also, https://fundraise.ymaryland.org/event/paying-tribute-to-our-beloved-friend-brian-oneil-jones/e229907 to the event’s contribution page; I’d be humbled if you’d consider giving.