The question has been asked more than once of Rob Jones by well-meaning but obviously history-challenged inquirers. Essentially, it is: Where were you when family patron Jim Jones led more than 900 of his cult followers in the infamous mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid at Jonestown, Guyana?
The answer Rob said he has given, with a touch of understandable incredulity, is: “He’s my grandfather. I’d have to be like 35 years old now to have been alive then.”
Rob Jones is 18. The same age his father, Jim Jones Jr. – the first African-American child in the state of Indiana to be adopted by Caucasian parents – was on Nov. 18, 1978, when the tragic events occurred in the remote, jungle outpost built by Jim Jones Sr. and his People’s Temple church after leaving San Francisco.
Jim Jr., who was playing in a basketball tournament in Georgetown, Guyana, lost his first wife and unborn child that day. Rob is one of three sons from a second marriage and a new life. A 6-foot-6, 230-pound forward, Rob has come to USD to play basketball.
He has come as one of the most highly regarded USD recruits in many years, arriving as a celebrated two-sport star out of Riordan High in San Francisco.
He is here with no intention of disassociation from the family history, but with every intention of continuing to write a new, far more positive chapter.
The basketball connection – the sport that saved the father is the passion for the son – seems obvious. But Jim Jr. says that for a long time he was too close to the picture to see it himself.
“I never thought in terms that basketball saved me until just recently,” he said. “Through 28 years you kind of wonder why you were spared. People have told me, and I’ve kind of adopted (this view), that it was by the grace of God.
“I am somewhat in awe that Rob has a deep passion for and commitment to basketball. But I look at it as this is what he wants. Maybe, deep within him is the thought that, ‘What saved my father is something that I’m going to be great at,’ but I don’t know.
“Life presents interesting tales, and sometimes you stop asking why and just start accepting the bounty of blessings of it.”
Says Rob: “That’s the funny part. How basketball kind of saved his life and has made a pathway for my life. Basketball has really been a key part of our life. Without basketball, I wouldn’t be alive today.”
It’s the sport to which he has gravitated – although it’s not necessarily the one he’s best built to play.
“In size and body type, Rob’s a stereotypical tight end and everybody told him his ticket was football,” Jim Jr. says. “I don’t know what has made him so focused on basketball and such a hard worker, but it is deep.
“It may be from our family legacy, but I don’t know that for sure. What’s great is that Rob keeps up the family name. And it’s not splashed across the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle in association with death and tragedy. That may seem very trivial, but it makes a father feel good.”
The Jones boys, Rob and brothers Ryan, now 16, and Ross, 13 – nicknamed “Little Rob” – grew up in a three-story, four-bedroom house in Pacifica, right outside San Francisco. Rob’s athletic prowess was nurtured at rec-center playgrounds and gyms to start, later at Riordan and with a liberal sprinkling of trips to the University of San Francisco for AAU or pickup games.
He was around 5-10 as a seventh-grader, a head taller than most of the kids in his class, and just kept growing.
Rob scored more than 1,000 points and pulled down more than 1,000 rebounds in his high school career, helping make Riordan a Northern California power in his junior and senior seasons. His senior season, he averaged 17 points and 14 rebounds.
As a tight end in football, his 75 catches in 23 games were school career records. But his dream was to play college basketball. And when his perceived status as a “tweener” – fitting neither the ideal guard nor forward mold – apparently precluded the basketball offers he desired from top-tier Pac-10 schools, he turned down football overtures from several major programs to commit to USD in August 2006 and sign a letter of intent last fall.
“I felt it (USD) would be a good fit for me; it was a question of where I wanted to be, locationwise,” Rob said. He was on a bus with the Riordan team to a Northern California playoff game at Sacramento High last March, what would turn out to be his final high school basketball game, when he heard USD had fired head coach Brad Holland.
“My parents didn’t call me because they didn’t want me to worry about it during my game. But all my friends texted me and called me on my cell when they heard about it on ESPN,” Rob said. “It was a really awkward moment. I was on the bus, trying to gear up mentally for the game and then this craziness happens.”
Jim Jr. said that at first the family was “floored” by news of the firing.
“What surprised me about Rob was he had a real commitment to San Diego,” said Jim Jr., who is an account executive for the San Francisco and Hawaii regions for San Diego-based medical technology firm Biosite. “He and Coach Holland got along so well, both being dual athletes. The synergy was there. My impression was that 50 percent of the decision was based on the coach. But Rob clarified it and said it was only one-third. He really loved the school and his teammates. He wanted to be with a group of guys he felt he could depend on and they could depend on him.”
Rob said he had thoughts of looking into getting a release from his letter of intent after the firing “because I didn’t know who was going to be the new coach for what seemed like a long time.”
A phone call and visit from longtime Gonzaga assistant Bill Grier soon after his hiring at USD put those thoughts to rest.
“I’ve said many times that in my opinion Rob is the best player, coming out of high school anyway, that Coach Holland ever recruited to USD,” Grier said this summer. “I knew a lot about him from watching films and seeing him play while I was at Gonzaga. We haven’t had a chance to work with him much, but I believe he’s going to help us in a lot of ways.”
Said Rob: “He wants me to go out my freshman year and have an impact. He says he has no problem starting a freshman if I’m good enough. I’m planning on working hard to improve my game, and I hope to bring a lot of energy to the team.”
“I hear Kool-Aid jokes every now and then,” Rob said. “You know, ‘Don’t let him make the Kool-Aid, he’s a Jones.’ But really, the people who make those jokes are close friends and they know I’m open about it, so I’m not really hurt by it.”
Who knows what clever but mean-spirited chants and displays he will have to endure from opposing student sections at Toreros games in his career?
“I’m not too worried about it,” Rob said. “It motivates me when the crowd is against you. Kind of an underdog thing. It makes (success) all that much better.”
In the gut-wrenching dilemma of when and what to tell their sons about the family history, Jim Jones Jr. and his wife, Erin, chose early and everything.
“My sister didn’t tell her children until shortly before she passed away with cancer, just last year,” Jim Jr. said. “It was an individual decision and a lot of people had counseled me, or coached me, that it was a whole separate world I didn’t need to open up with my kids.
“But I guess Erin and I felt that if they didn’t have a stigma about it, and came from the positive side that I came from, they could draw from that and be empowered.”
They answered questions in basic terms as they came up, provided details as Rob grew older.
“My dad went through a long time where he struggled with the fact that everyone he knew and loved was gone,” Rob said. “I was very young, but I remember it all (the struggles). He went through some tough times and our whole family went through some tough times because of it. He had a wife and a child on the way when it happened. That’s hard to let go, but he eventually did.
“Eventually, he wasn’t ashamed anymore.”
Nine years ago, the family made the 18-hour journey to the Jonestown site.
“I’m glad that it went the way it did, but I could see how it could have gone in an opposite direction,” Jim Jr. said. “Rob’s at a stage in life now where I can’t shelter him from the outside world. And, even though I know this sounds like a dad speaking, I’m constantly amazed at how well he handles it.
“He said: ‘You know, Dad, it’s only a story to me.’ ”
Oct. 5, 2007