SAN DIEGO - In the boisterous aftermath of helping his San Diego Toreros clinch an NCAA tournament berth, Rob Jones slapped one of his prominent tattoos, the one with the cross and the name Jones, and pointed to his proud father, Jim Jones Jr., in the stands.
The Toreros had just upset Gonzaga to win the West Coast Conference tournament and reach the NCAAs for the fourth time in school history.
Between the freshman forward and his father, though, there was something much deeper going on.
Three decades after the horrific mass suicide-murder at Jonestown, it was good to be a Jones.
“The win was great, but when he did that, well, I’m a grumpy 47-year-old man and it brought a tear to my eye,” Jim Jones Jr. said. “Rob has just given me the opportunity to enjoy it again.”
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,” said Jones, whose underdog Toreros will face Connecticut on Friday in a first-round game in Tampa, Fla.
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.
“That was our rebelliousness. We still wanted to be connected to the real world. We were Rob’s age,” Jones Jr. said.
Rob Jones knows the story.
“When it all happened, they happened to be out of town,” he said.
The Jonestown basketball team was playing in a tournament in Georgetown, Guyana, when the cult came to a violent end on 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.
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 WCC schools. He liked what he saw at USD, a small hilltop Catholic school with a breathtaking view of Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Jones was recruited by Brad Holland, who was fired last spring. When Bill Grier was hired away from Gonzaga’s staff, one of the first things the new head coach did was visit the Jones family to tell them that Rob was one of the players he wanted to build his young team around.
“I remember when they signed him, that I thought, ’That’s a good get. He’s going to be a nice player in our league,’ Grier said. “So I just felt that hey, I need to go make sure he’s on board.
“He still has a ways to go, but it’s because he has such a good upside. He’s nowhere near tapped out,” Grier added. “Off the court he’s got a personality that’s pretty endearing to all types of kids. I think they like being around him. I think he’s got just a really, really bright future.”
Rob Jones developed a passion for basketball in the third grade and his father was his first coach.
“I’ll put it like this — I beat Rob in the eighth grade and haven’t played him since,” Jones Jr. said with a laugh.
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.
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