Jim Jones' grandson tries to rebuild family name

Rob Jones, who plays basketball for San Diego, was brought up outside the shadow of the infamous cult leader.

Los Angeles Times/November 22, 2007

His name is common enough that Rob Jones could have played college basketball without people making any connection to a grim chapter in history.

But the freshman forward for the San Diego Toreros said he believes stories about his life and what he does on court give his family headlines they can cheer at last.

Jones is a grandson of Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple cult who died after leading more than 900 people to their deaths by mass suicide and murder in Guyana in 1978.

"I'm just trying to change the name a little," said Jones, a contributor off the bench for the San Diego team that plays USC today in Anaheim. "There has been so much negative to my last name. I'm trying to make it positive."

Jones' father, Jim Jr., the adopted son of Jim Jones, survived that day because he was playing in a basketball tournament far from the jungle compound where Jones' followers and their children drank a cyanide potion after a fatal attack on visiting U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan.

Jim Jr., then 18, lost his wife and unborn child along with other relatives, and walked away from basketball.

"I felt being involved with basketball was the reason I was alive. Survivors' guilt," he said. "I felt if I wouldn't have been selfish and playing basketball, maybe I could have been there to change the event. In reality, I probably couldn't have."

Back in the Bay Area, Jim Jr. married again, had three sons, went by the name James Jones and struggled to overcome his anguish.

"There were times when we didn't know where he was at, both physically and emotionally, and it came pretty close to almost breaking up our family," said Rob, now the same age his father was in 1978. "I couldn't even imagine losing everything like he did."

Together with his wife, Erin, Jim Jr. decided the approach with their children would be to keep no secrets.

"I've always known about the story," Rob said. "It's nothing new and shocking. He started out telling me the good parts, him and his father going to movies every Sunday. But you can't miss the fact that he was a part of a mass murder-suicide. I never met him, never came close to meeting him. I pretty much have the same impression you would."

As his children grew, Jim Jr. began to move beyond the past.

"I have a great wife, and I think what she did for me as a wife and a mother was help me explore some of the feelings of shame and guilt and put it behind me and focus on three kids," Jim Jr. said. "That's the testimony of being a parent. Do you want to re-create the past, or move forward?"

As Rob grew, his athletic gifts pulled his father back to the court.

At Archbishop Riordan High in San Francisco, Rob grew to 6 feet 6, 230 pounds and excelled at football and basketball, becoming the city player of the year in basketball. Scholarship offers came from 17 schools, his father said, among them Harvard, Princeton and every school except Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. He chose San Diego, only to be stunned at the firing of Brad Holland and finally relieved at the arrival of new coach Bill Grier, previously Gonzaga's top assistant.

During Rob's senior year, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story detailing his family's history, and ESPN's "Outside the Lines" began production of a segment that first aired this fall.

Along the way, Jim Jr. began coaching young players again.

He understands that, in a way, basketball saved his life.

"I didn't really like living in the jungle. I'm a city guy," he said. "We were enjoying ourselves playing basketball. It was a rebellious act because my father didn't want us to buy into the establishment."

And now basketball, the game he parted ways with for so long, has become his son's passion.

"He's a good guy, of course I'm a little biased," Jim Jr. said. "I think he understands that it's a positive story and I think that he's very proud of what he's done for the family. When you've seen what we've seen and you see your family name written in a positive way, that's a good feeling."

Incredibly, people sometimes make awkward jokes to Rob about Kool-Aid and the family's history.

"It doesn't offend me at all," Rob said. "Like I say, this is really just a story for us. We've always been open. We haven't hidden anything about it."

It can never be just a story to his father, who stops short of talking in detail about what was perpetrated by the man he knew as his father and his sympathy for those who followed him.

"We all know the horrific loss," Jim Jr. said. "But look at the potential. I'm a little anti-movement now, but at the same time I still admire people who were trying to stay to the core value of helping their fellow man and wanting to build a new world. That's the epitaph of Jonestown. They tried. They didn't succeed."

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