Melvin Jones beat the odds in a rare way

Jun 22 2011 - 4:19pm

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Melvin Jones celebrated like a basketball player, of course. Hoops got him here, as did his motley family, and now came the moment he always figured would turn him into "one of the happiest people walking the streets."

He extended his arm, secured his diploma and let loose. He bent down and slapped hands with two of his graduating Portland State University teammates, three low-fives for each player, reveling in the greatest victory of his life.

Seven years ago, most people had considered Jones a lost cause. A high-school sophomore with zero credits, a dying mother and an absent father, Jones bounced from school to school and roamed the streets, unhappy, undisciplined and unsure. He was the kid no one even bothered to try to save. He was helpless, supposedly.

On Sunday at the Rose Garden -- a basketball arena, of course -- Jones stood in defiance of premature condemnation. About 30 family and friends joined him for his unlikely graduation. Jennifer Annable, his guardian turned mother, looked on, smile widening, tears welling.

It was worth it. He was worth it.

Last Thanksgiving, I wrote the story of Jones, his non-traditional family and his incredible transformation. Since then, the Seattle native has been featured on NBC's "Today" show, enjoyed a solid senior season on the basketball court and continued his personal growth.

He plans to pursue his professional basketball options, probably overseas. But he focused on child and family studies while receiving his social-science degree, and he'd love to be a social worker in the future. He's even thought about graduate school.

"It's not over for me," Jones says. "Wow, this is amazing, but it's just the beginning."

His story is both an inspiration and a lesson. Never give up on a kid. And never underestimate the value of a college scholarship. The hypocrisy of college athletics has become a lightning rod for irreverent conjecture lately because high-profile programs are breaking NCAA rules that seem either outdated or preposterous given that the punishing organization profits greatly from these win-at-all-costs schools. Breathless screams to pay college athletes are popular, and while there may be some validity to those opinions, the value of a college education is taken for granted in the argument.

Jones stands as an example of this value. The scholarship was his avenue to succeed. Graduation is his victory. He won't play in the NBA, but he can have a productive life now because sports allowed him to get an education.

Without basketball, Jones doesn't meet Annable's son, Kasey Poirrier, who was the junior-varsity coach at Chief Sealth seven years ago. Poirrier introduced his mother to Melvin, and then she took him in and gave him the structure he needed. Eventually, they became a true family.

They formed their bond during the fight to catch up Jones in school. He was in school all the time -- in the summer, at night, before school, after school. He needed tutors. He needed the assistance of Casey Family Programs. He needed Annable to tussle with teachers and school administrators to see the potential that she saw.

Many nights, Annable went home and cried after fruitless meetings. But she persisted. Jones did, too. He struggled in math and chemistry, but he passed those classes. He never had problems with subjects such as sociology or communications or English.

"I love to read his papers," Annable says. "I love it because he writes from the heart."

Jones wound up graduating from Chief Sealth in five years. He attended a hearing to get a fifth year of high-school basketball eligibility four years ago, and a former rival athletic director, Dan Jurdy of Rainier Beach, actually spoke on his behalf.

"I'm here for Melvin Jones," Jurdy said at the time. "This does not benefit Rainier Beach because we have to play against him. I've never seen a kid more deserving of a fifth year than this one."

I asked Jurdy last winter why he felt the need to stand up for Jones.

"I said that because Melvin Jones is a tremendous man," Jurdy said. "And I don't use that word -- man -- lightly. He went through hardships that were not caused by him. And he made it through OK. He deserved it. He's a wonderful man. Oh my God, words cannot say how proud I am of him. Never in my mind did I ever think that he could do what he was doing. I'm tremendously impressed."

Jones graduated from Chief Sealth. Then he went to North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene to play basketball and graduated. Many junior-college kids don't attend their graduation ceremony. Jones insisted he must.

"I had to walk because that was an accomplishment for me," Jones said.

In high school, some college basketball coaches dismissed Jones because they never thought he would be eligible to go to college. But he found a home at Portland State, and there he was last Sunday, sitting with his classmates, wearing a cap and gown and listening to a commencement speech. A student quoted Aristotle during her remarks.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

The thought was that Melvin Jones had too much going against him to make it in this world. His mother died. His father strayed. He was poor and didn't know right from wrong.

Jones once entertained the thought, and at times, he succumbed to it. But he didn't accept it.

He used his slick handle, sweet jump shot and crazy hops and turned it into a college education.

Look at him now, posing for pictures with his teammates. That cap and gown looks even better than his shorts and sneakers.

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