LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) --- It's a cruel script for Louisville guard Chris Jones. Louisville leaves for Memphis and the American Athletic Conference Tournament Wednesday, just 11 days after Jones' step-brother and best friend Demetrius Ray was shot and killed there.
"I don't trust that city at all," said Jones Saturday, after the Cardinals' win over Connecticut. "I've been there all my life. I know the things that go on in that city, and I don't trust it at all."
And why should he? His best friend since elementary school was shot and killed in Jones' neighborhood the same day as his homecoming at Memphis March 1, the game Jones had circled on the schedule since arriving at Louisville.
Jones has since dedicated the rest of his season to Ray, but his second trip back home in less than two weeks must focus around basketball, as hard as that may be.
"I'm not going to go out. If my mom and aunty want to come see me, I think they'll come to the hotel. They understand," Jones said. "People in Memphis understand too."
Jones' high school coach Jermain Johnson certainly understands.
"I'm glad he's matured enough to know he's not going home for Spring Break. This is a business trip. If it was junior college, he'd see everybody," said Johnson, who will be in Memphis Friday and Saturday to hopefully see Jones play. "Now, he's matured enough to know this is a business trip. Just like his coach said, it's a one-day contract mentality."
Now on the staff at Georgia Southern, Johnson took to Jones and mentored him at Melrose High School in the rough Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis, one of the most dangerous areas in a city consistently ranked among the most dangerous in the country.
"Tough neighborhood. They have a very, very high crime rate, and it was a struggle," Johnson said of Jones' environment. "It was a struggle for him growing up, because there were so many influences that could have lead him in either direction."
Jones avoided selling and using drugs and decided to play sports. Even then, nobody gave him much of a chance of getting out of the neighborhood, not even Jones himself.
He was cut from his middle school basketball teams. Johnson said people looked at Jones as the "rotten apple".
"It wasn't until ninth grade when I got him that he started to want to change," said Johnson. "Throughout his younger years, he was always an outcast. Besides his family, I don't think anyone took the time to, because his dad wasn't there, show there was light at the end of the tunnel."
But in high school Jones still didn't totally buy in. He was still immature.
"The road I was going down, I didn't really go to high school. I only went to school on game days," said Jones. That led to a year of junior college, but Jones gives Johnson credit for standing by him. In his Louisville biography page, Jones says it's Johnson who has had the greatest influence on his athletic career.
"For my high school coach to take me, put me under his wing, I think I'd be in jail or dead right now, to be honest, if I wouldn't have gotten a scholarship or had good coaches along the way," said Jones.
It's with that mentality that Jones goes back to Memphis so soon after his closest sibling and best friend was gunned down. He's come too far and worked too hard to get to this point in his life. Basketball will be his first priority in his hometown this week, even if Jones is very much still grieving the loss Demetrius Ray.
"I wouldn't say personal, but I think I'll do what I have to do to win," said Jones when asked if returning to Memphis for the AAC Tournament after his step-brother's death would make it more personal. "That's all I really want is to win. So, I'm not going to take it personal, but I will dedicate this to him."
And Jones' teammates will be there to offer whatever support they can.
"You're there for him, but you want to give him a little space. People handle those things differently," said Louisville senior captain Luke Hancock, who lost his father to cancer in June. "I think everybody goes about it their own way. You just try to tell him that you're there for him and if he needs anything you're going to have his back. That's like your brother. It's just a tough situation."
"I think I owe this year to him and the rest of my life to him," Jones said of his step-brother. "Every time I step on the court, I will play hard for him."
This conference tournament will be emotional for Jones. There likely will be more tears, but he says he's not the same person he was when he lived in that city.
You can take the man back to Memphis, but you can't put that Memphis back in this man.
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