By Charles Vanegas
Jahmal Jones looked at the CIS bronze medal around his neck, earned on home court at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. It's the first in team history, but the wrong colour.
"[Coming into this game] it wasn't a big rah-rah, and you wouldn't expect it because I think then it would be manufactured," said head coach Roy Rana after the game. "But I think to some degree we're a reflection of Jahmal. [With] his intense competitiveness, there's no way he's going to step on the floor and not compete. That just never happens with him."
Jones would be named player-of-the-game after racking up 25 points in the 82-68 win over the Victoria Vikes, but the gold would be played for by the Rams' fiercest rivals: the Ottawa Gee-Gees and Carleton Ravens. Jones was held to just two points against Ottawa the day prior in one of the worst games of his career. At the end of his final season, he'll never get the chance to get even.
"I don't have any feelings right now. Usually at the end of each year you're getting ready for the next season," says Jones. "I haven't really thought of not playing."
Since 2010, Jones has served as the cornerstone of Ryerson's revamped basketball program under Rana. Jones received several offers from both CIS and NCAA schools after a dominant senior season at Mississauga Secondary School — playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Rana and Ryerson Athletics assisted Jones with getting the necessary MRI and surgery on his knee, which told Jones that he could trust them to take care of him during his university career. Declining offers from both Ottawa schools, Jones chose Ryerson in the hopes of creating a new legacy in the GTA, alongside Björn Michaelsen — a top forward prospect from an elite Quebec program, and Jordon Gauthier, a three-point specialist from Windsor. Jones had played alongside Gauthier earlier that year on an Ontario select team that travelled to Italy, coached by then-Roy Rana assistant Ajay Sharma, with the trip overseen by Rana himself.
"We're both the kind of people that tend to stay in our own lanes, so at first we didn't really talk until we knew the other could hoop," Gauthier says of his first encounter with Jones.
Yet Jones is the first to admit that he's not the most approachable person.
"People have to warm up to me," he says. "I'm not going to approach you with smiles and hugs and all that. That's not me. But after I get to trust you a little more, you get to see my fun side."
If you haven't seen him around campus, that's on purpose. Although he attends the majority of his classes, Jones always sits at the back — much like in team film sessions — where he can observe everything. Although the star on the team, he prefers to keep a low profile, never wearing his Rams gear outside of team functions.
"I don't want that [attention,] I don't need that," he says. "Because when it comes to athletes, people have this perception about you without knowing you and sometimes it's not always positive. So I'd rather be able to just blend in as a regular student. Me personally, I don't care what people think, but when your face is everywhere, you've got to conduct yourself in a certain way."
Traditionally, Jones has led by example. Described by teammates and coaches as "the first guy in, last guy out," Jones spends an incredible amount of time in the gym — a trait emulated by his teammates. If Jones isn't finished a workout, neither are they; they keep going. The post-surgery period taught Jones the value of taking care of his body. Ever since, he's iced his body after every game and practice, and spends an hour every day in physiotherapy.
"We practice harder than we play at real games sometimes. You've got to ice your body," says Jones, who encourages teammates to utilize the extra time with team trainers. "You realize that next day in the weight room that your body is still sore."
Jones says he "didn't see the point of beating guys in practice" until his experience playing for the Canadian national team in the summer of 2011 at the Pan Am Games in Mexico and at the University Games in China, alongside the top players in the CIS. While he made a few contacts, he says he prefers to limit friendships to players on his team to maintain an edge on the court.
"There's no relationship with anyone not at Ryerson. There are no handshakes or friends. If I know you, I know you, but I don't talk to you," says Jones. "We don't follow each other on Instagram or anything like that."
Fred Grannum, one of his high school coaches, attributes Jones' dogged approach to having had a chip on his shoulder from an early age. At just six foot and "150 pounds soaking wet," he always had something to prove.
Once criticized for demonstrating poor body language, Jones could be seen dancing in pre-game introductions the past two seasons — something assistant coach Patrick Tatham says sent a message to his teammates that their leader was ready to go. Able to bring out his voice on the court, Jones now even helps rookie Filip Vujadinovic with improving his own court conduct.
"Since day one he's been helping me with the transition," says Vujadinovic. "In games he's been teaching me how to play defense, how to play offense. He's basically been an older brother to me on and off the court."
Over the years Jones has roomed with younger teammates, currently living in a townhouse with third-year forward Juwon Grannum and second-year forward Jean-Victor "JV" Mukama.
Jones' older sibling persona comes naturally, as he has a younger brother: Jaren, 15. Ryerson's close proximity to home allows for Jaren to watch his brother's games in person and hang out with the team. In the summer, he spends weeks at a time living with Jones and his roommates, while participating in Ryerson's basketball camps. Though he is a talented point guard himself — taller and more athletic, according to his older brother — Jones says he never puts pressure on his brother to follow his footsteps.
"We don't talk about that. We just talk about getting better," says Jones. "People put pressure on themselves. He's his own person, I'm my own person. If he wants to play [for Ryerson] he'll play."
While a guaranteed presence, the Jones family never sits together at games. Jaren will find a spot and split time between the game and his phone. Their mother, Verona, sits in the student section, where she is sometimes the loudest voice in the crowd.
"She likes being a part of everything — she's our number one fan, but sometimes takes it to another level," says Jones. "That's why she sits by herself — she gets so agitated."
Seeing Jones' father Devon is like a game of "Where's Waldo?" Much like his son, Devon likes to be able to observe everything — moving throughout the bleachers, sometimes settling for a spot amongst the other team's fans. He likes to hear how other people talk about Jahmal.
"I'll just be sitting there laughing and smiling and they don't know why," says Devon. "I was at a game at Kerr Hall. [Another player's] father, he was one seat above me. He was like 'pass him the fucking ball!' I was like, 'what's wrong with this guy?' They were winning the game and Jahmal was just running out the clock. The game finishes and he said to my wife, 'where's your husband, why haven't I seen him?' And I was right there beside him. The floor could've opened and taken him in when he was going on and carrying on like that. Guy didn't know who I was."
Since before arriving to Ryerson, Jones and his father have always discussed carrying out "the plan." While Jones worked at the AMC theatre, his parents have always helped him — bringing supplies and home-cooked meals every Sunday for the past four years.
"I said, 'when you get to university, whatever you do, stay out of trouble. You've already got a plan. Try not to derail the train,'" Devon says. "'I'm going to stick with you no matter what you decide … because I've given you everything I've got. I'm going to try to give you what my father didn't give me — anything you want, you just make a phone call.'"
With the plan almost complete, the Rams now have to prepare for life after Jones, the only player in team history to be named an OUA All-Star in five consecutive seasons.
The business technology management major hopes to eventually combine his love of sports and statistics by working in the growing industry of fantasy sports, but according to Devon, he has received several emails and phone calls regarding a future as a professional. But Jones has yet to respond, saying he just wants to focus on graduating in June.
He says he now feels less motivated to do well academically, as he has always maintained good grades to stay on the court.
"People always say, 'if you didn't have sports, school would be so much easier.' But some people are in school for sports. They have to get good grades to be on teams because it's a privilege."