By Riley Zayas
Mahatma Gandhi once said,
“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your inner strengths. When you go through hardships and decide to not surrender, that is strength.”
It is hard to find a quote that sums up Texas guard Andrew Jones better. He did not surrender, he did not back down, even as he was faced with a diagnosis of leukemia in 2018. He exemplified true strength and won quite a bit on the basketball court this past season. His drive to overcome a tremendous amount of adversity is what made him the Big 12’s 2020 Male Sportsperson of the Year, earning the honor over other nominees such as Oklahoma football’s Jalen Hurts and Kansas basketball’s Udoka Azubuike.
While each nominee for the prestigious honor had a valid case to win the award, Jones prevailed, thanks to his emergence as a standout basketball player to his diagnosis of a life-threatening condition to his inspiring return to the court.
“Our entire Texas basketball family congratulates Andrew on this well-deserved honor,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said. “His courage, strength, and resiliency have served as an inspiration to so many. It has been especially rewarding to see Andrew’s positive impact extend well beyond the basketball arena. What’s equally exciting is the fact that Andrew continues to grow and develop, both on and off the court. The best is yet to come.”
With Jones and fellow guards Matt Coleman and Jase Febres leading the Horns, Texas posted a 19-12 record in 2019-20, Jones' first full season back in a Texas uniform.
Back up to January of 2018. Big 12 play was about to kick off, and the last thing Jones had on his mind was that in a matter of weeks, he would be diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer. He was just a sophomore then, but the No. 19 recruit in the class of 2016 was becoming head coach Smart’s “swiss army knife.” He could score from anywhere on the floor — he shot 52 percent from the field and 46 percent from three-point range in 2017-18 — and had brought down a total of 24 rebounds. Losing Jones was going to hurt the team, but at that point, everyone in the program had greater concerns.
In response to a question as to whether Smart might have him back in the lineup by the end of the season, Smart said, “That’s not even what we were focused on right now. We’re focused on the young man.”
For the remainder of that 2017-18 campaign and throughout the 2018-19 season, Texas took on the moniker “AJ1,” rallying the entire Longhorn family around a young, promising player and student.
The path to recovery was not going to be an easy one, but Jones took it on like he approached everything else: with confidence, fearlessness and hard work. That included finding time to polish his basketball craft, even as he received treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
— Andrew Jones (@DrewdotCash) February 7, 2018
Fast-forward to the fall of 2019. There had been speculation about Jones being out on the floor for the home opener against Northern Colorado, but nobody who attended that game could have foreseen what lay ahead. He had played just two games during the 2018-19 season while receiving treatment that lasted until September 2019.
However, there in the starting lineup was Jones, the guy who had been diagnosed with leukemia not even two years before. Just making an appearance in the game would have been inspiration enough, but he thrilled the home crowd with a career-high 20 points in his first game back in a Texas uniform. And as I watched him lead his team in a close loss to Texas Tech in early February, it was obvious he was a player around whom the team rallied because of his performance on and off the court. He was a born leader, so it didn’t surprise many when he finished the regular season at the Horns’ second-leading scorer with an average of 11.5 points per game. Jones played in all 31 games this past season, scoring in double figures on 15 different occasions.
Jones has said often that his faith in God has driven him and shaped him. Multiple times he has been quoted saying, “With God, all things are possible."
Longhorn community reacts to Jones' recent award
Several in the Texas family praised, encouraged and expressed their excitement to Jones, either through the media or on social media.
— Matthew McConaughey (@McConaughey) May 28, 2020
— Shaka Smart (@HookEmSmart) May 27, 2020
An enormous congratulations to Texas guard @DrewdotCash for winning Big 12 Sportsperson of the Year.
Andrew Jones deserves all the awards. Awesome.
— Bob Ballou (@BobBallouSports) May 27, 2020
Jones eyes his upcoming junior season, with momentum on and off the court
As he heads into his junior season, a journey of triumph will be set to continue. Jones' story brings to mind former Texas football player Freddie Steinmark, whose inspiring story was captured in the 2015 film, My All American.
Jones has reached a mountaintop in his basketball career. Being named the Big 12’s Male Sportsperson of the Year is a tremendous honor.
“It’s been a true blessing,” Jones told Longhorn Network. “I just want to thank everybody who has been following my story, my journey and has built inspiration from my hard work.”
Among those who gave him inspiration and have continued to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic are the front-line health care workers who have sacrificed so much.
“I just want to start off by thanking the front-line workers that provided the care that I was able to get during my time of need and those who are currently helping those battling COVID-19,” Jones told Longhorn Network's Lowell Galindo. “Without the medical system, I don’t know where I’d be.”
ESPN’s Holly Rowe, who is also a cancer survivor, asked Jones whether he thought going through his battle with leukemia had made him a better person. Jones said that not only did it make him a more humble player, but also put things in perspective on what is truly important in life.
“I am,” Jones said,”because, honestly, like you said, the description of me being the 'jack of all trades' guy — doing this, helping this — normally I was self-absorbed. Everything was about me, me, me — getting to the league, playing basketball, making millions. Now that I’ve had this experience, it has opened my eyes a lot to the world and made me a better human, a better version of myself.”
That “better version” of himself includes using his voice and increased platform to speak out on social issues, such as the recent protests over the unlawful death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On Monday, he responded to a tweet that told him “just stick to basketball” with multiple comments, including, “This issue has to be addressed. ACCOUNTABLY no one is exempt from this. Everyone involved has to be held to this standard. Remove the hatred from you hearts and your own actions." The media quickly rushed to his aid, with Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman tweeting, “Let’s be clear here: @Drewdotcash can say whatever the hell he wants. Some of you are typing way, way above your weight class.”
Let's be clear here: @DrewdotCash can say whatever the hell he wants. Some of you are typing way, way above your weight class.
— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) June 1, 2020
Jones will not back down — not now, not ever. Not after what he has been through to simply return to the court over the past couple of seasons. Texas fans may be unsure of what the upcoming basketball season will look like, or how the Horns will fare, but they can be confident in the fact that the Big 12’s reigning Male Sportsperson of Year is leading their favorite team with a goal to lead by example, both on and off the floor.