THE DRILLS Jones trained three times a week in San Antonio while waiting for the W.N.B.A. season, and her next chapter, to start.
By MAGGIE JONES of the New York Times
The sky was still dark on the March morning in 2008 when Marion Jones, the five-time Olympic medalist, folded her long legs into the passenger seat of her Honda Pilot. She had barely eaten that morning and sat silently, staring out the window as her husband began the three-hour drive to a federal prison in Fort Worth, Tex., where Jones was to begin a six-month sentence. During the ride, her husband, Obadele Thompson, pulled off the highway twice because Jones felt sick to her stomach. In the prison parking lot, Jones and Thompson hugged and kissed a couple of times, before she asked to stop; she did not want to cry. She had with her the few things she was allowed to bring: an inexpensive watch, her wedding band, small silver stud earrings, a Bible.
Accompanied by two guards, Jones walked to the prison’s processing center. Before she passed through the heavy metal doors, Jones looked back at Thompson. And as she watched him drive away, she felt a surge of anxiety.
It was the culmination of one of the most dramatic and tangled descents of a sports hero. Years after adamant denials of doping, Jones pleaded guilty in 2007 to lying to a federal agent about taking performance-enhancing drugs during the 2000 Olympics. Within a few days, the United States Anti-Doping Agency banned her for two years from track-and-field competition, and representatives from the U.S.A.D.A. and the United States Olympic Committee knocked on her front door to collect her five medals. Her track-and-field times from the 2000 Games onward were wiped from the record books — as if she never existed.
That first day in the minimum-security prison, Jones was determined that other inmates not see her in tears, so she went out to the prison track. Eventually she would buy sneakers and several pairs of shorts and T-shirts from the prison commissary. But on that day, she wore what penitentiary officials gave her after taking away her clothes: a pair of cotton slipper shoes, a worn T-shirt and pants several sizes too short. Then she started running. As she circled the track, she looked up to see dozens of prisoners standing on a balcony and at the windows of the dining hall, watching their new inmate. For more than two hours she ran repeats of 200-meter sprints, a track event in which she won a gold medal, until finally, as the sun was lowering in the sky, the prison’s bell forced Jones back inside.
On a Saturday morning in March, almost exactly 18 months after she was released from prison, Marion Jones was sprinting again. This time, she was on a basketball court in Tulsa, Okla. For six months, she had been quietly training for this moment: her best — and most likely her only — shot at a second athletic career, in this case with the W.N.B.A.
Jones is not new to basketball. As a freshman point guard for the University of North Carolina, she led her team to the N.C.A.A. championship with a 33-2 record. But that was in 1994. She is now 34 and the mother of three children, the youngest of whom she gave birth to just 10 months ago. On top of that, she is coming off an ankle injury that kept her away from the court for several weeks. If she lands a spot in the W.N.B.A., she will be the league’s eighth-oldest player and its only rookie over 30.
Those numbers and the idea of critics scoffing at her odds of success only motivate Jones. “I’m a sucker for a challenge,” she told me later. “I love that people say I can’t do it. That I’ve been away too long.” On the court that day, it was not hard to forget her age: her face is unlined, and she has the same high cheekbones and quick, broad smile that helped land her on the cover of magazines. At 5-foot-10, with broad shoulders, defined biceps and long, lean legs, she has a basketball player’s physique.
Still, this is not the Marion Jones body of the 2000 Olympics, when her thighs, her shoulders, her arms rippled with waves of muscle. She was 10 years younger then. She trained harder and longer; five hours a day, six days a week. But also, as everyone would later learn, Jones was taking, either deliberately or unintentionally, depending on whom you believe, the anabolic steroid known as “the clear.”
“I want to see your speed,” Coach Nolan Richardson said sotto voce, standing next to Jones at one end of the court. Richardson, the coach and general manager for the W.N.B.A.’s Tulsa Shock, had brought in three other women, all former college players in their mid-20s, as part of Jones’s tryout. As one player hurled the ball the length of the court, Jones took off down the left lane: her legs reached out in long strides, her angled arms sliced the air, her long narrow fingers spread like fans. Jones caught the ball, drove hard to the basket and laid the ball gently against the glass. Then she turned to defense. “Find her, find her,” Richardson yelled out. Jones chased another player down the lane, passed her and ran backward, her hands and arms in the player’s face, on the ball, creating havoc.
Over the next hour, none of the other women were as aggressive or as hungry as Jones. None were as winded either. About 40 minutes into the tryout, the 20-something women were walking off their fatigue. Meanwhile, Jones stood by herself, sucking in air. She bent over, resting her fingertips on a basketball, then squatted to the floor. She put her head down for a moment, drew in a few more breaths and slowly made her way back onto the court.
Marion Jones first became an international sensation during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. NBC covered Jones’s attempt to win five gold medals like a mini-series. She was 24 and had appeared in nearly a dozen national TV and print ads. Her face was on the covers of Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated. And a year later, she would become the first athlete to make the cover of Vogue — barefoot in a form-fitting red sequined gown clinging to her muscular thighs. Before Jones, Olympic heroines tended to be diminutive figure skaters and gymnasts. Jones had no interest in the frills of women’s track: the shimmering makeup, the long painted fingernails, the couture outfits.
She had dreamed of being an Olympian since she was 8 and wrote on her blackboard at home, “I want to be an Olympic champion.” By age 16, she had set national high-school track records. Well before the 2000 Olympics, she claimed she would take home more gold medals than any athlete in history.
During her first Olympic race, the 100-meter sprint, the gun fired, and Jones exploded out of the blocks. Soon all she could hear was the sound of her own spikes hitting the track. She won in 10.75 seconds, with the second-greatest margin of victory for a 100-meter race in Olympic history. In the coming days, she went on to win a gold medal in the 200-meter sprint as well as in the 4-by-400-meter relay; a bronze in the 4-by-100-meter relay and one in the long jump.
But in the midst of the races, another event foreshadowed Jones’s future: her husband at the time, C. J. Hunter, a world-champion shot-putter, was banned from the games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Few fingers pointed at Jones, though she and her husband used the same trainer. But the words of one TV announcer during her 100-meter race proved prescient. As Jones crossed the finish line far ahead of the world’s elite sprinters, the commentator gushed, “You’re not supposed to win by this much!”
On a warm Texas afternoon in January, I met Jones, along with her husband and three children, at a park near her house in suburban Austin. She was wearing a zip-up dark blue hoodie and jeans, her hair pulled back in a scrunchy. As we talked, Jones helped her 2-year-old son, Amir, jump off a low wall into a sand pit and handed out almonds to her 6-year-old son, Monty, who checked in with her between trips to the swings and to kick a ball with Jones’s husband, Obadele Thompson.
Jones was immediately engaging, sharing her weakness for anything drenched in sugar, as well as her disinclination to cook: “You’ll never drive by my house and smell the aroma of — anything.” But she is also guarded — “opening and sharing doesn’t come naturally to me” — and life over the last several years has made her only more so. When Jones is not training, her life revolves around her kids and husband (she now goes by her married name, Jones-Thompson). She has few close friends in Austin and no other family there. Her mother is in North Carolina; her in-laws are in Barbados; her trusted friends from her U.N.C. days are scattered around the East Coast. When other women try to befriend Jones in the park, she is gracious but often wary.
As she picked up her 7-month-old daughter, Eva-Marie, from her stroller, along with her bottle of formula, Jones said that until recently she pumped breast milk several times a day, including while sitting in the gym parking lot in her car, before and after basketball training. But as Jones built more muscle, she had to supplement with formula. “The first time I had to give her Similac, I told Oba, ‘You do it,’ ” she said, referring to her sadness at feeding her daughter something other than breast milk.
From across the playground, her son Monty, who is long and lean like his mother, called out, “Look, look, Mama,” before launching into a midair leap off a swing. Monty does not know yet that his mother went to prison. He knows that she was a fast runner, but she hasn’t told him that she was in the Olympics. It has to be hard for Jones to tell her son that she was an Olympic star, when his next question might be: Can I see your medals?
As delicate as the past is, Jones reveals little outward bitterness. The pain seems to be largely walled off, at least from the public. But also, she is content with her family life, including her marriage to Thompson. Jones’s first husband, Hunter, was gruff, possessive and like a “bodyguard,” says Tiffany Weatherford-Jackson, one of Jones’s closest friends from U.N.C. Then there was Tim Montgomery, the biological father of Monty and a “party boy,” Weatherford-Jackson said. A former Olympic sprinter and an admitted doper, Montgomery is in prison for heading up a multimillion-dollar check-fraud scheme and for dealing heroin.
Thompson, by contrast, is settled and devoted to his family. (“Marion says I’m predictable,” he told me one evening, referring to Jones’s teasing him about his taste in food and movies. “I tell her I’m stable.”) Thompson, a former sprinter who won a bronze medal for Barbados in the 2000 Olympics, is now finishing an advice book for student athletes. “We only wish we had met earlier in our lives,” Jones said one afternoon wistfully.
Jones tightens, though, around other topics: her relationship with her mother; her father, who was absent throughout her life; her exes; some of the details around the doping allegations. Like the track outfits, the prizes, the photos, which she has tucked away in her attic, some parts of Jones’s life are no longer available — if they ever were — for view.
Several weeks after we met in the park, Jones picked me up at my hotel at 8:20 a.m. for the 100-mile drive to San Antonio, where two coaches from the W.N.B.A. Silver Stars — the closest W.N.B.A. team to Austin — have, until recently, trained Jones three hours a day, three days a week. Because there is no nanny, mother or mother-in-law to help out in the Jones-Thompson household, Jones was dropping her two sons off at their parochial school (Thompson stayed home in the mornings with Eva-Marie) before heading south for San Antonio.
Jones is that unusual athlete who has as much passion for training as for competing. “I love when people create workouts that they think will push you to the point of almost giving up,” she said, her voice infused with zeal. “It’s almost breaking my body down and then forcing myself mentally and physically to do the next drill. There’s a moment when I question my existence because the workout is so hard. Then I make it to the next moment. At the end of the workout, I’m still alive. I’ve made myself better. The high is unbelievable.”
At San Antonio’s Antioch Community Sports Complex, aside from a bit of banter about Mo’Nique with the Silver Stars’ strength coach, LaTonya Holley, Jones was mostly quiet and focused, filtering out the noise and the goings-on around her, during an hour that included figure eights with a medicine ball, squats and lunges with twists.
“Her work ethic is second to none,” says Olaf Lange, the associate head coach of the Silver Stars, who trains Jones on the court. “She is a sponge. Some players can’t handle their own mistakes. But she is very positive and a natural believer in herself.” When Jones started training last October, she could manage only about 30 percent of Lange’s typical workouts and would not have lasted through a two-hour W.N.B.A. practice, he said. During the first weeks, he subjected Jones to “pure monotony”: 30 minutes of dribbling, 30 minutes of stationary shooting, 30 minutes of finishing drills. As time went on, he added pick and rolls, coming off screens, defensive drills and, when he could, five-on-five games.
On the day I visited, Lange, who said Jones’s training was now on par with that of W.N.B.A. players, put her through almost two hours of baseline drives, along with transition, shooting and passing drills. Then Jones went off to run 16 sprints across the court, which she would increase to 32 the following week. She finished the series in one minute — a few seconds shy of the fastest W.N.B.A. players. As Jones walked over to collect her duffel bag and get ready for the drive back to pick up her kids, she couldn’t help herself. From across the court, she asked Lange, “What’s the fastest time?”
About 600 students filed into the auditorium of David. W. Carter High School, a largely poor African-American school in Dallas, for Marion Jones’s “Take a Break” talk. The presentation, which she has done at three schools over the past six months and says she plans to take nationally, is Jones’s attempt to encourage kids to learn from her own mistake of lying to federal officials and to “take a break” before making impulsive decisions — about drugs, about relationships — that could change their lives. It also helps fulfill Jones’s 800 hours of community service while she remains on probation until September. Last fall, her first “Take a Break” presentation closely coincided with Jones’s announcement that she was training for the W.N.B.A., which was several months after she agreed to allow John Singleton to make a documentary about her that will be shown on ESPN in the fall. Together with a book she plans to write about her “life lessons,” Jones is trying to roll out her next chapter.
At the school auditorium, she showed a short video with highlights of her career and of her downfall. Then, dressed in black pants and a gray cardigan, Jones spoke from a lectern to the hundreds of kids in a down-to-earth and animated manner, like a favorite, cool aunt who had returned from seeing the big world. She entertained them with her glory stories — racing against the greats, meeting presidents — before she turned more somber: “I’m the one who decided to lie about using performance-enhancing drugs. I am the one who decided to lie to myself because I was trying to avoid certain consequences. I lost my reputation. I suffered public humiliation.”
The moment when, she says, she should have “taken a break” came in November 2003, in a conference room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose. Flanked by her two lawyers, Jones sat across the table from a federal investigator. The meeting was just one of many that federal officials conducted with athletes as part of an investigation of Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (Balco), the California lab that produced and distributed performance-enhancing drugs, including the steroid known as “the clear,” which was, at the time, undetectable in drug tests.
Jones had immunity from prosecution on that day, but her lawyers had emphasized the potential consequences of lying. The agent pulled out a plastic bag containing a vial of what looked like light olive oil. He asked Jones if she had ever seen or used it. As Jones tells it, she recognized it as the same substance that her coach, Trevor Graham, had given her repeatedly, telling her it was flaxseed oil and to place it under her tongue before swallowing it. It was only then, in the room with the agent, she claims, that she realized that rather than a nutritional supplement, she had been taking “the clear.” In those next moments, Jones thought about her years of training and her successes. She thought about her money, her sponsors, her family. The agent asked Jones if she had ever seen or taken the substance. No, Jones said. He asked her again. No, she said.
If in the coming weeks and months she regretted lying, there was no public indication of it. Using a crisis communications team that included Chris Lehane, who guided Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she began an expensive and aggressive campaign to hold on to her medals and her ability to compete. Several months after lying to the federal agent, she criticized the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which threatened to ban her from the 2004 Olympics based on, among other things, Balco ledgers and doping calendars labeled “Marion J” and “MJ,” which were seized in a federal raid of Balco and which Balco officials said referred to Jones.
Though she knew she had not told the truth about ingesting “the clear,” she voluntarily took — and passed — a polygraph test in which she said she had never used performance-enhancing drugs. Then she sued Victor Conte, the head of Balco, for defamation after Conte claimed on ABC’s “20/20” and in ESPN: The Magazine that Jones used steroids, as well as three other performance-enhancing drugs, before, during and after the 2000 Games. Conte and Jones’s ex-husband, Hunter, said Jones was complicit in taking drugs; each said he watched Jones inject herself with human growth hormone. I asked Jones about their claims. “I don’t know why they made the decision to say or do certain things — what I say is true,” she said, referring to her assertion that she took only “the clear,” and without knowing it. “And people can believe it or not.”
By 2007, Jones, who reportedly once earned at least $3 million a year, was sinking into debt. A bank foreclosed on her $2.5 million home in Chapel Hill, N.C., and, she said, she was down to about $2,000 in liquid assets and living off the money Thompson earned from his own sports endorsements.
Then she ran out of options. She wanted to set a better example for her sons by coming clean, she told friends. She also risked an ugly trial and a longer prison sentence if she did not make a plea deal. Finally, in October 2007, Jones admitted in court that she lied to the federal agent about the drugs, as well as about her knowledge of the check-fraud scheme involving her ex-boyfriend Tim Montgomery, which was designed to cash millions of dollars’ worth of stolen or forged checks.
“It was a waste of a great athlete,” says the former Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Ron Rapoport, who wrote a 2000 biography of Jones, “See How She Runs: Marion Jones and the Making of a Champion.” Rapoport says he believes Jones was so talented that she probably would have won in the 2000 Olympics without performance-enhancing drugs. But by how much, no one knows. Also, given the longevity of female track stars’ careers — some have competed in the Olympics into their mid-30s — if things had gone differently, Jones might be training now for the 2012 Summer Games.
There were other scenarios too. If she had immediately told the truth to federal officials, she would have lost her medals, but she might have remade herself into a compelling spokeswoman for the hazards of doping and the pressures that elite athletes face in a culture that quietly condones cheating. Instead, she was in a Dallas high school recounting how much she lost. Her talk had the tone of a confessional, but one with too many unsettled questions, particularly given the critics who have closely followed Jones’s case and say she has never admitted the full extent of her drug use.
Not that the students cared about that murkiness. For them, Jones is a celebrity with a story to tell; she is and was — drugs or not, full truth or not — an amazing athlete. At the end of the talk, Jones invited the female track athletes to stay. Jones asked their names, posed for pictures, wrapped her arm around their shoulders and signed the cellphones, asthma inhalers and sneakers the girls piled on the lectern. After their coach finally shooed them back to class, a pack of girls lingered, heading slowly out of the auditorium. One of them turned around and, walking backward, shouted, “We loovvveee you, Marion!”
Before Marion Jones went to prison, she meticulously prepared for the coming months. She asked friends and family members to send titles of their three most inspiring books. She filled out birthday and anniversary cards and asked a friend to mail each one while she was gone.
She did not want her sons to know she was in prison, much less visit her there, so she sent them to Barbados to live with Thompson’s parents. She mailed her in-laws presents for the boys before leaving for prison, including recordings of her reading some of Monty and Amir’s favorite children’s stories and a DVD of her singing “Happy Birthday” to each boy (Monty would turn 5 and Amir would turn 1 while she was in prison). She needed four or five takes before she could sing the song without crying.
Once she reached prison, Jones had a top bunk in a room with four other women. Several inmates befriended her and showed her how to barter with prisoners for manicures, hairstyling, laundry services; how to hide sticks of butter; whom to avoid among the prisoners and guards. She earned about 12 cents an hour working in the kitchen bakery and sweeping floors. And every day she received about 30 pieces of mail, much of it from strangers, including a woman who said her church prayed for Jones and put $30 on her commissary account. The letters both buoyed and embarrassed her. At mail call, a guard would shout out “Marion Jones” again and again for every letter or package, while other women, who had been in prison for a decade, showed up daily, waiting in vain for their names to be called.
Jones read voraciously: Time, The New York Times, National Geographic and fitness magazines; biographies of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King Jr. And she ran. When she couldn’t get out to the track, she ran in place for an hour in her cell. Some weeks she did 100 push-ups a day, 100 sets of squats, along with situps and weights. The punishing workouts were one thing she knew could make the days tolerable.
Though the hardest times in prison were her sons’ birthdays, the two weeks of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing brought their own particular pain. Two years earlier, Jones planned to compete in the games. Instead, as inmates crowded the TV room on those steamy August nights watching track-and-field events, Jones walked quickly by, averting her eyes. Often, one or two women stopped by her room with a report on who had just won a race, which event was under way. They asked Jones if she was going to watch. Maybe tomorrow, she said.
Back at the basketball court in Tulsa, Nolan Richardson had spent the last hour focused on Jones: her jump shot needed work, and her ball-handling skills were too weak to make her a likely point guard. But he liked her speed. He was impressed by her defensive skills, her fearlessness on the court. Her celebrity wouldn’t hurt his new team, either.
Richardson also liked the idea of giving Jones a second chance, something he knew about himself. The legendary coach, who is 68, led the men’s team at the University of Arkansas to the N.C.A.A. championship in 1994, the year Jones won with U.N.C. But after accusing the school of racism during a contract dispute in 2002, Richardson was fired. He was eventually named coach of the Panamanian national team and later of Mexico’s Olympic basketball team. This season marks his return to U.S. basketball and his first time heading up a W.N.B.A. team.
It is a fortunate match for Jones. She is too much of a gamble for many W.N.B.A. teams in a year when rosters are down to 11 players. Because the Shock relocated from Detroit and not all the players moved with the team, Richardson had multiple openings. Also, Richardson’s coaching style — defined by fast breaks, speed and intense pressure defense — suits Jones’s strengths.
At the end of the tryout, Jones headed to a bench to lie down while a trainer stretched her hamstrings. Meanwhile, Richardson walked up to Rich Nichols, Jones’s longtime attorney and business manager, and Susie Jarosch, Jones’s basketball agent of the past several months. “She’ll be on the squad,” he said almost casually. “She’s done well. . . . You can see the rust, but you can also see the glitter.”
As Richardson talked to Nichols, Obadele Thompson brought Jones, who was still lying on the bench, a bottle of Gatorade and touched his wife’s head lightly. They have sacrificed much for this moment. It is unclear, though, how the future will play out. Jones might be on the team a few years. Or it could be a few weeks. As a rookie, Jones does not get a protected contract, which means that during training camp, which lasts until mid-May, she can be cut. And instead of the millions of dollars she made during her track career, she will earn a starting salary of about $35,000 a year. She says she hopes that she will earn back some public trust, new fans and, eventually, corporate endorsements. Sports marketing executives aren’t so sure. Marion Jones is both trailing a long shadow and working from a much smaller stage than the Olympics.
Later that afternoon, I sat next to Jones and Thompson in the Tulsa airport as they waited for their flight back to Texas. Jones was slumped in a chair, exhausted. She was headed back home to her three kids and to ramped-up workouts to prepare for the crucial first days of training camp. And inevitably she was returning to renewed media scrutiny.
For now, in the airport lounge, she seemed as relaxed as I had seen her during the several days I spent with her. Her voice was light, almost bouncy. “Today was a confidence booster,” she told me. “Coach Richardson saw me play and immediately wanted to sign me. He’s only got 11 slots. Everyone has to contribute. It’s not like I can just sit on the bench and smile.” And if she played well, then maybe the past would recede enough for people to watch not Marion Jones the disgraced Olympian but Marion Jones that rare professional athlete who pulls off a comeback in a second sport.
And if she is cut? She would return again next year, she said. She would be one more season behind in a professional sport that has only two players on the court who are older than 35. The window of time was narrowing. But Jones was not thinking about that. “The coaches would just have to tell me what I need to do, and I’d do it,” she said. “I’ve tasted it now.”