By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It will be difficult to imagine that sometime around 6:45 p.m. today, West Virginia senior Kevin Jones will come striding down the carpet and out onto the Coliseum floor for his final home appearance as a Mountaineer.
He will be met at half court by Darryl “Truck” Bryant, the team’s other senior and his roommate for the past four years. The two will go through their normal routine and then end it with a heart-felt hug before going out to play DePaul in a crucial game that could decide their NCAA fate.
For both, it will be a bittersweet moment, marking the end of a wonderful time in their lives, a time that saw them earn an education and place in the Final Four, a time when Jones became one of the school’s all-time greats and when Bryant became one of the school’s most charismatic and enigmatic players ever.
While Bryant was a hero one day and some days not quite so heroic, Jones became the best player in the Big East by this, his senior year. He leads the league in both scoring and rebounding and is the leading candidate for Player of the Year.
“I don’t think he’s getting the notoriety nationally he ought to get because he’s not a high flier,” Huggins said. “He does it every day and at the end of the day he’ll get his 20 and 11 and does it on an incredible, consistent basis against a tremendous schedule.”
And to be honest, he does it without a great supporting cast.
“He’s taken a team of eight new guys and put them on his shoulder. We wouldn’t have won a game without him,” Huggins said in answer to the argument that his team is not leading or near the lead in the Big East.
There are a lot of other coaches in the conference who agree with Huggins.
Tonight’s opponent, DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, was asked to describe Jones.
“If I had to describe him it would be one word — warrior. He’s been a warrior since I’ve been in the league. He does what he does. He rebounds, he scores, he leads. He’s an inspiration to his team.”
Jim Boeheim, who coaches the league-leading Syracuse team, put it this way:
“He’s having a great year,” Boeheim said. “He’s scoring and rebounding and he’s a very good defensive player. He’s probably having as good a year, or better year, than anybody in our league this year.”
And even Notre Dame’s Mike Brey agrees, even though he has beaten WVU twice.
“He would be my Player of the Year candidate right now,” Brey said earlier this month. “I’m very impressed with him, and as much as the numbers, I love how he leads and sets the tone when I watch him interact with his teammates. He is such a man. He’s such a mature guy.”
The early days
You have to go back to early days, the days when he was a gangly, rail-thin teen trying to learn the game of basketball.
In those days he would go off on the black top court in Mount Vernon and play one-on-one with his older brother, Gerard, who was about double his age at the time.
Jones was in the eighth grade the first time he beat his brother, probably putting an offensive rebound back into the netless hoop for the
winning shot, as has become his trademark.
“I remember running around the park,” Jones said. “I was so happy that I’d finally beaten him.”
By the time he was in high school he was standing 6-7 and weighing 215 and regularly thumping his brother. A host of schools from Indiana to Pitt were knocking on his door, along with Bob Huggins and West Virginia.
“I kind of had an advantage because of Lowes Moore,” Huggins said, referring to the Mountaineer great from around his playing era who went on to play in the NBA.
Moore was living in Mount Vernon.
“I’d talk to him — he ran the Boys & Girls Club in Mount Vernon — and he’d tell me KJ was a great guy. You see them play on the AAU circuit but you don’t know what people are made of. Lowes knew all the kids in Mount Vernon and he had nothing but great things to say.”
And so Huggs put the full-court press on him.
“We recruited him more because of what I thought he could be than what he was,” he said.
He wasn’t disappointed in any way.
“He told me we would have a great chance to win the national championship if I came here, and I believed him,” Jones recalled. “I came down here on a visit. I loved the atmosphere and the people and everyone was so passionate about their sports here.”
Like Huggins, the school did not disappoint him.
“I never had a second thought. It was better than I imagined,” he said.
And Jones was better than Huggins could ever imagine, in all ways.
“He’s such a good kid,” Huggins said. “I know I keep saying that, but you can’t imagine what a good kid he is. You can’t imagine how much he really cares. A lot of guys give you a lot of BS about how much they care, but actions always say more than words.
“He doesn’t talk a lot, but his actions are the way it’s supposed to be. He’s a little bit like (Joe) Alexander and Da’(Sean Butler), you kind of wonder if there isn’t a time when they should take a day off.
“He’s always in the gym. He wants to get better. It sincerely bothers him if he doesn’t play well. Some of these guys will talk to you guys and tell you how terrible they feel and then they are downtown having a big time.
“He’s not like that.”
And that is what separates him from so many other players that Huggins has had here and at his other stops.
“We’ve had quite a few guys who if they spent more time in the gym and a little less time somewhere else, they’d be a whole lot better off in a lot of ways.”
That was the attitude he brought with him from New York.
“The thing I remember is the second or third week he was here someone was supposed to pick him up and he was afraid they weren’t going to get him on time, so he ran all the way from Lincoln Hall to the weight room to get there on time. It was summer and he was soaking wet from running and I asked him, ‘What’s wrong?’”
“Nothing,” Jones answered. “I ran because I didn’t want to be late.”
That wasn’t the only thing he brought from New York.
His brother, Gerard, whom he had beaten on the black top all those years before, came with him, moved into a place in Morgantown, working in New York some of the time, the rest of the time being in Morgantown with Jones.
Jones did not live with him, moving in with Bryant and forming a friendship for the ages.
“It’s been crazy, never a dull day living with Truck,” Jones said. “He’s been a great friend on and off the court. We have a connection that will extend way past college. We will definitely have a relationship past college.”
And what will he remember about Bryant?
“How funny Truck was, how charismatic he is, how he can go up and make a conversation with anybody and make it seem like they have been friends for years,” he said.
But his guidance, his leadership has come from Huggins and from brother Gerard.
“As a coach, he was more a father figure, more stern, telling guys what they have done wrong, but after practice or the game is over he goes right back to consoling you and being a friend. He never took stuff that happened on the court off the court with you,” Jones said.
He went to Huggins for advice, did the same with Gerard.
“He’s been around all my life,” Jones said. “He’s always been my coach on the side. He’s been a father figure to me. He has been there to support me when I needed him. If there was something I couldn’t go to Coach Huggins about, I’d go to him.”
The problem was, if he was looking to be consoled after a tough game, Gerard was no different from Huggins. He was always honest with him.
“That’s the kind of people you need in your corner, people who are going to keep you in line and help you grow as a man,” Jones said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter@bhertzel.