Basketball saved family

Mercury News Wire Services/March 23, 2008

The Associated Press' Bernie Wilson profiles Rob Jones, a freshman out of San Francisco's Archbishop Riordan High who is playing a vital role in the University of San Diego's NCAA tournament success:

Rob Jones feels no stigma about being the grandson of cult leader Jim Jones, who 30 years ago this November led more than 900 of his followers in a mass suicide in a South American jungle. When road crowds taunt him about drinking Kool-Aid, he turns it into motivation. He speaks openly about his family's history.

"The reason I do is just to change the Jones name, you know, to keep a good association with the name now," Jones said.

Simply put, Jim Jones Jr. wouldn't be alive and Rob never would have been born if it weren't for basketball.

After Jim Jones moved his Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Guyana in the late 1970s, his adopted son and others started a basketball team. The Jonestown basketball team was playing in a tournament in Georgetown, Guyana, when the cult came to a violent end Nov. 18, 1978.

California Rep. Leo Ryan went to the South American country to investigate whether Jones was holding people against their will. Some cult members chose to leave with Ryan, but the party was ambushed. Ryan and four others were killed.

Jones ordered his other followers to commit suicide, and more than 900 members drank cyanide-laced, grape-flavored punch. Others were shot by guards loyal to Jones.

"My father wanted us to return when the congressman came back down there," Jones Jr. said. "In defiance, we said, 'No.' We wanted to play basketball. You can see why there was guilt around basketball."

Jones lost several family members, including his first wife and their unborn child.

"I wouldn't be alive if I wasn't playing basketball," he said. "With Robert playing basketball, it really kind of gave me the ability to enjoy the game again. I felt guilty. Your family dies, and whether it's just or unjust, you still have the guilt of like, 'If you were there, could you have changed destiny?' The mechanisms of what occurred outweighed the influence that we would have had. I wouldn't be alive if I was there."

Jones returned to San Francisco and eventually remarried. He and wife Erin have two other sons, Ryan, 17, and Ross, 13.

Rob Jones was a basketball and football star at Archbishop Riordan High. Because he's 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, most people thought he'd play college football. But basketball is his passion, and he was heavily recruited by West Coast Conference schools. He liked what he saw at USD, a small hilltop Catholic school with a breathtaking view of Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

"Now that I've been able to focus solely on this sport, I've seen my growth," said Jones, who was named to the All-WCC freshman team after starting all but three games. Jones is third on the team in scoring at 8.8 points per game and second in rebounding at 5.8.

Jones Jr. said he and wife decided early on that they weren't going to allow Jonestown to be a stigma.

"By talking about it and being open about it, it's empowered all my boys," he said.

"It's just part of my past, part of my history," Rob Jones said. "We look at it and just try to keep moving."

Jones Jr. admits he's biased, but said he sees leadership in his son. They talk about life and they talk about basketball.

"That's what I'm trying to teach him about the Jones name - you have the power to affect people positively," he said. "It may be on the court, off the court, in the classroom. Again, he's 19 years old. He's not going to come up with a cure for cancer but I think he'll contribute to society."

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