IN & OUT OF CONTROL Tyra Jones, a Motor City native, couldn’t find affirmation in the Steel City or under Friday Night Lights. So she escaped to the Bible Belt. | By Sean Frye

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.

After her dismissal from Odessa, Jones was left again searching for a home that felt right.

ANXIOUS TO spark his coaching career, Rolls needed to land a big signee to the Labette Cardinals.

So he went to Detroit, scouring talent as far as his shoestring budget would allow in search of revitalization.

Through his connections, Rolls got ahold of Jones’ cell phone number, and the two arranged to attend a local basketball tournament.

“I didn’t have any confidence, it was a gamble,” Rolls said. “I went up to Detroit and we just went and watched some basketball together. We talked the entire time. She can really talk once you get her going. It was pretty easy.”

The two talked away at the tournament before hopping back in Rolls’ rental car.

“I felt the connection with him that I didn’t feel with any other coach I had talked to,” Jones said. “We just clicked. I had never clicked with a coach like that before.”

It was on that car ride, in a Michigan snow storm, that Rolls got his wish, while Jones got her third chance.

“She told me on the ride back that she was coming to Labette,” Rolls said. “There were coaches calling her in my passenger seat, and she was showing me. But she said she’d call them all and say she was coming to Labette. I just sat there and played it cool.”

Jones committed on the spot, and by the start of the spring semester, she was on campus in Parsons.

“I had a lot of uncertain feelings at other schools, but with Labette there was no uncertainty in my mind,” Jones said. “This was the coach I was supposed to play for.”

Rolls also later found Jones’ future teammates DeAshia Young, Brittany Hill and DeAnna Fletcher on that recruiting trip.

"When she got here, it was all about her footwork and handling the ball. She was shooting all types of crazy ways." -- Rolls

Jones redshirted her first semester at Labette, relegating her to the sidelines as she watched her new team struggle through a two-win season — a byproduct of Rolls being hired to the position just weeks before the 2015-16 school year started.

“It wasn’t hard to practice and not be able to play, but it was hard to watch them lose,” Jones said. “There was anger in watching them not living up to their potential. It was frustrating, and that hurt the most.”

Rolls, who himself was an NCAA Division I guard at Colgate who also played professionally overseas, saw a guard in Jones, not a post player.

“She has all the physical tools to be a high major guard. She can rebound with any post player in the country,” Rolls said. “She loves to do these Magic Johnson type things on the court. She gets mad when other players don’t do what she does, like these over-the-head passes on the break.”

Through her redshirt and the ensuing offseason, Rolls invigorated Jones by giving her back a spot along the perimeter.

“All last year, I told her she was playing at guard,” Rolls said. “She was excited. That’s why she’d be in the gym so much. It was all her eagerness, though.”

The process was, well, a process.

Jones’ jump shot had deteriorated and needed polishing. While the rotation and trajectory has since been fixed, her form is far from aesthetically pleasing.

“I lost my confidence when I spent a year-and-a-half pounding the ball into the floor with post moves,” Jones said.

Her ball-handling was the quickest to develop.

“She was never allowed to shoot the three in college,” Rolls said. “So when she got here, it was all about her footwork and handling the ball. She was shooting all types of crazy ways. But we got her in scrimmages and we could tell she had that burst to her.”

With a coach she trusted, Jones has established herself as an elite guard in the Kansas Jayhawk Conference.

As Rolls’ second season at the Cardinals’ helm came around, Jones earned the start at one of the guard spots for Labette in the team’s first game against Independence.

That game marked the first time Jones had played significant minutes in a meaningful game since high school, from which she was more than two years removed.

Labette won 75-69, with Jones scoring 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting from the field.

“I was ready,” Jones said. “I didn’t feel like I played well that night, but we won and I contributed. I’m just out there playing and doing whatever I can do.”

Since that game, Labette and Jones’ trajectories have skyrocketed in tandem.

The Cardinals are now 13-2 at the semester break and appear poised to make a run at the Region VI title, while Jones is the team’s active leading scorer at 16.9 points per game. She’s started the most games with 13 and earned Kansas Jayhawk Conference Player of the Week honors in Week 2 of the season.

“I don’t put any pressure on myself. I just allow myself to breathe,” Jones said. “I messed up twice in a row because I tried to control too many things outside of my control. I forced too much with coaches and not being who I am. Now here, I feel like I can be myself.”

This will be Jones’ only season at Labette, as the lost semester at Odessa burned one of two years she had of eligibility at the NJCAA level.

Louisiana Tech and UTEP, both Division I NCAA schools, are among teams interested in Jones’ services next winter. Where Jones will end up is a mystery, even to her.

“I’m not even caught up in that at all,” Jones said. “I gave it too much weight at the wrong times, and that messed me up. So now I need to focus on the now. Once I get to juggling too many balls, they all fall. So I’m just focusing on school, basketball and making sure my rent is paid.”

Sure, Labette is a Division II junior college, one level down from Odessa, which was already a plummet from NCAA Division I.

Sure, Labette resides in Parsons, a culture far from where Jones had spent her life.

But she is a guard again. She’s playing with swagger again.

That’s all that matters to her. She feels like she fits in again.

“It’s been a different experience,” Jones said. “I’ve never limited myself. I like different cultures and I’m not afraid to try different things. What does rural have to do with anything? I’m here to get an education and play basketball.”

Created By
Sean Frye


Photos by Sean Frye of the Parsons Sun unless otherwise noted.

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