In MoMo Jones’ very first high school game, playing as a freshman for a mega-talented Rice team from Harlem, N.Y., a teammate passed him the ball for the game-winning shot.
Jones missed at the buzzer.
That was Dec. 10, 2005. Robeson pulled off the 57-56 upset against one of the best teams in the nation, and young Mr. Jones went home to ponder that final shot, the one that, as he describes it now, still ruefully, was nearly in before rimming out.
“It hurt. I cried for about a week,” Jones said.
“Being a freshman and to miss that kind of shot, it was like, ‘I let my teammates down, I let myself down, I let my family down.’ It hurt. I said to myself that I never wanted to feel that again.”
He says he wasn’t expecting that a senior — Curtis Kelly — would pass him the ball for the potential game-winner in his first outing, but it was what he wanted. It was his shot. His chance to shine.
But he missed.
While the hurt lingered, the desire never faded.
He wanted that shot again. But he had to wait more than a year for redemption.
It came in a February 2007 game against Plainfield (N.J.) High. The ball was in his hands as Rice trailed by two points. This time, Jones drilled the 3-pointer with three seconds left.
“I wanted that shot,” he told the New York Post after the game.
Remembering that game Wednesday, he said:
“I just had to make the shot. I just said to myself, ‘You know what, I got to hit this shot and it has to drop,’ and that’s what it did.”
By now, Arizona fans know there is something about MoMo.
The sophomore endured his share of criticism early this season as he adjusted to the point guard position. No doubt, he’s not a classic point. But, most importantly, he’s cut way back on the turnovers lately and he’s been in a groove offensively, averaging 16.2 points in the past six games.
Ask him which NBA point guard he admires, which point guard he thinks does things right, and he mentions veteran Chauncey Billups, another guy who was once known as misfit point guard, a scoring point guard.
“He’s a very mellow guy. You don’t really see him get to out of tact in any game,” Jones said of Billups. “He stays within himself. He’s a little point guard like me, but he’s really strong and physical. I can see myself being a player like that.”
It might not be a coincidence that one of Billups’ nicknames in his NBA career is “Mr. Big Shot.”
Jones would like that to apply to him, too.
He hit the running game-winner to beat Stanford last season. And he’s coming off a series of brilliant moments in the triple-overtime win at Cal — a three-point play with 16 seconds left in regulation, a 3-pointer with five seconds remaining in the second overtime and the go-ahead layup with about a minute to go in the third OT.
Through his ups and downs, he never lost that fearlessness, that willingness to put himself on the line. Really, what’s going to faze him on the court?
He’s been in the basketball spotlight for a long time already, played at the highest levels of his age groups. His first mention in a New York newspaper came in 2005 when the New York Daily News listed him as one of five freshmen to watch in local high school basketball. One of the other freshmen on the list was a kid from St. Raymond’s: Kevin Parrom.
Jones’ first team at Rice featured, among others, Edgar Sosa (Louisville), Kemba Walker (UConn), Kelly (UConn, Kansas State), Durand Scott (Miami) and Chris Fouch (Drexel).
“We had a squad,” Jones said with a smile. “We had a squad.”
He’s had to earn his respect at every spot, and his cockiness — or whatever you want to call — is part of basketball survival.
Arizona coach Sean Miller says the right way to interpret Jones’ brashness is to view it in the sense of “I believed in myself all along, even when other people didn’t.”
In any case, if Jones keeps playing like he has in the past few weeks, then Arizona has an ever-increasing chance of keeping on winning as the pressure builds for March.
“You can play good all your want when the pressure isn’t on, but when the pressure is on, what type of player are you going to be remembered as?” Jones said.
“And I want to be remembered as that player who takes those big shots that actually go in. Not somebody who takes them just to take them.
“I have been fortunate to make more big shots than I missed. It’s a great feeling. I love that moment.”