The last time Marion Jones played competitive basketball was in 1997. Now, 13 years, five stripped Olympic medals and one prison term later, the former track star will make a return to the sport.
Jones signed a one-year contract with the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock on Tuesday. In December she announced her intentions to play in the women’s professional basketball league, but assumed she’d have to play in Europe first as a tune-up. Shock head coach and general manager Nolan Richardson didn’t think so. He worked out Jones over the weekend and signed her to the rookie’s minimum, $35,000, today.
“Watching her go through drills, I saw a player who’s perfect for our system,” Richardson said at the news conference. “The one thing I do know is she can run, and any player on my team who wants to be successful needs to be able to run.”
Richardson used his press-heavy “40 minutes of hell” basketball to lead the Arkansas men’s basketball team to the national championship in 1994. He plans to use the same style in the WNBA, hence the necessity to run.
The same year Richardson and the Razorbacks were cutting down the nets, Jones was the freshman point guard on the North Carolina women’s basketball team that went 33-2 and won a national title of its own. She started all four seasons in Chapel Hill before leaving the sport in 1997 to focus on her track career.
Jones went on to win five Olympic medals in sprints and long jump but was later stripped of those after admitting to using performance enhancing drugs during her career. During a federal investigation into the scandal, Jones lied about doping and her role in a check-fraud scheme. She served six months in a Texas federal prison for the offenses.
Her comeback is a boon to both her career and the WNBA. Though playing in Tulsa for a mediocre team is far removed from being a star of the Summer Olympics, Jones can rehabilitate her tarnished image with a good showing in the league. PEDs or not, she was one of the best athletes in the world. Even after prison, pregnancies and inactivity, it’s hard to believe the 34-year old has slipped too much.
The WNBA needs Jones just as much as she needs it. The league has been floundering in recent years and any publicity the former Olympic champion can bring to women’s basketball will be well-received.
If Jones starts the season on the roster, she’d make her WNBA debut on May 15.