DESTINY AND FATE seem intertwined, but are often forced apart by reality and circumstance.
Tyra Jones was destined to be a premier basketball talent out of Detroit. She was destined to follow in the legacy of Crystal Bradford, a Motor City native who made it to the WNBA ranks. She was destined to escape the fate that had beset too many of her childhood friends, some of whom now phone Jones from behind bars on drug charges.
Destiny hasn’t been Jones’ reality.
Instead, the 6-foot point forward has been forced into rural America to try to save her life on the hardwood.
Oddly enough, it’s working.
At Cody High School in Detroit, Jones was one of the premier talents and pegged to be the next Crystal Bradford, a star at Central Michigan who went on to be drafted seventh in the 2015 WNBA draft.
IT’S ALMOST cliché to say Jones was the shining star of women’s prep basketball in Detroit. But she was.
In her senior season at Cody High School, she averaged 27 points, 11 rebounds and four assists per game. She was also named by the Detroit Public School League as a “Proud Strong Learner of the Week” in February 2014.
Through her AAU coaches’ connections, Jones decided to commit to Duquesne, an NCAA Division I program in Pittsburgh, out of high school. At the time of her signing, Dan Burt, the Dukes’ women’s head coach, praised her as a quality, multi-dimensional athlete.
"I was immediately impressed with how hard she played every possession, and always with a smile on her face,” Burt said in a release from Duquesne. “Tyra, at 6-0, will be a multi-position player for us. She will start her career at the four-spot, but we anticipate her playing the two and three positions in her career. Tyra is strong, has a impressive face-up jumper to 17 feet and plays with reckless abandon. The coaching staff and I are very excited that Tyra chose Duquesne."
When Jones got to Duquesne she felt duped.
“That was the most depressing year of my life, playing at Duquesne." -- Jones
The coaching staff wanted to move her off the perimeter to primarily a post player. For Jones, that meant losing the swagger of her game.
“I loved Pittsburgh,” Jones said. “I loved the coaches. I had a good connection at the time. But when I got there, they flipped the whole script on me and I had to adjust. There were a lot of nights I wanted to give up and not play basketball.”
Jones spent her freshman campaign with the Dukes, but not a moment longer than she felt necessary. Before telling Burt she intended to transfer at her exit meeting to end the season, she appeared in just 80 minutes over 34 games, appearing in 15 contests and putting up just 12 shot attempts.
“That was the most depressing year of my life, playing at Duquesne,” Jones said. “My friends got me through there. I’m still close with players from there. They kept me strong through the whole ordeal.”
The gravity Jones puts on her year in Pittsburgh aside, the reality was that Duquesne and her weren’t a match.
So Jones intended to transfer to Central Michigan, where she’d follow in the footsteps of Crystal Bradford, one of her childhood idols from Detroit.
Bradford graduated CMU in 2015 as the school’s all-time leader in points (2,006), rebounds (1,140), made field goals (805) and blocks (177).
Former Central Michigan forward and Detroit native Crystal Bradford. (Photo by Samantha Madar/Central Michigan Life Magazine)
When the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks organization drafted Bradford No. 7 overall in 2015, she became the school’s first alum to garner that honor as well.
Naturally, the legacy seemed a viable path on the surface for Jones.
Under the hood, Bradford’s presence was a necessary evil that Central Michigan endured.
In October 2013, Bradford was arrested and charged with drunken driving, for which she served a one-game suspension.
According to Jones, that DUI was the tip of the iceberg of a pattern of behavior for Bradford. It was an iceberg the CMU coaching staff was unwilling to collide with again.
"I felt like I messed up and I needed to do whatever I can to make it up." -- Jones
According to Jones, despite initial mutual interest, the Central Michigan coaching staff didn’t extend an offer to her.
“They didn’t want another Crystal,” Jones said.
So she went to Odessa College in Texas, turning to the junior college ranks in the Friday Night Lights town looking for salvation.
Jones’ time in the Lone Star State lasted one semester.
For starters, Odessa towed the Duquesne line of keeping Jones in the paint.
“I was never a post to begin with,” Jones said. “When I went to Duquesne, they moved me to the post. So when I moved to Odessa, they just assumed I was and automatically stuck me there.”
Decision-making on Jones’ end is what cost her the opportunity at Odessa to re-shape her future while affirming Central Michigan’s fears.
Jones was caught by the Odessa coaching staff smoking marijuana in her apartment. Weeks later, she failed a random drug test.
That was enough for Odessa to send Jones packing.
“The coach said we got three strikes,” Jones said. “My first strike was getting caught, the second time was the failed test. But after that drug test, they told me I had to leave. He had nothing to say.”
After leaving Duquesne, Jones considered quitting basketball. But after damaging her own reputation, she sought salvation.
“I was ready to get a job, and I was done with basketball when I left Duquesne,” Jones said. “I didn’t commit to Odessa until July. But I didn’t feel like that when I left Odessa. I felt like I messed up and I needed to do whatever I can to make it up.”
A month after returning to Detroit, then-first year Labette head coach Mitch Rolls paid a visit.