AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Even when his whole body ached just to walk, and everywhere he went meant taking along a chemotherapy bag attached to a tube going straight into his body, Andrew Jones had a goal: Get back to basketball.
That included a mission to dunk, which took about two weeks or three weeks and was celebrated with a video on social media.
“I never knew if I would dunk again. When I was finally able to flush a dunk easy, I thought, ‘OK, maybe I’ll be able to make a stronger comeback,’” Jones said Wednesday, nearly 11 months after he was first diagnosed with leukemia and had to leave the team for treatment last season.
Jones returned to school over the summer and rejoined his team for the upcoming season, which starts Nov. 6 against Eastern Illinois. Jones has been pushing himself hard to get back to playing shape but calls himself “day to day” in terms of being ready to return to live competition.
Coach Shaka Smart has said the team will want to make sure Jones is strong enough to play. He will also have to step away for several weeks for a scheduled treatment in December.
But just getting to this point, where he could sit in front a news conference to talk about a comeback from cancer, is a major victory for the 20-year-old guard.
“My biggest thing is never give up. Only the strong survive. If you’re strong-hearted and strong mentally, you can persevere through anything,” Jones said. “Every day I look in the mirror, I know I’m improving,”
Jones considered leaving for the NBA after his freshman season. He was diagnosed in January after he simply couldn’t keep up with his teammates in practice and felt unusually tired. After practice, he’d take himself to his room and sleep instead of socializing.
“It would take me a long time to recover. I didn’t want to hang out with anybody,” Jones said. “Usually I can get up and down the court with ease, I felt like I was tired, like I was moving slowly.”
Jones immediately went into treatment after the diagnosis. Told at first he would be in a two-year program, that prognosis was cut in half when he transferred his treatment to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
“The disease cancer has always been my biggest fear … I really had to face my fears,” Jones said. He refused to let himself be scared of dying.
“I’ll be optimistic,” Jones said he told himself. “It’s not my time yet.”
Jones also was inspired by the outpouring of support that came in from Texas fans, Big 12 opponents and from across college basketball.
“That’s when I realized people are really fighting for me to survive. People are really rooting for me, Jones said. “I knew I just can’t give up.”
Jones would offer peeks at his progress on social media. He’d post short videos of him dribbling or shooting baskets. Sometimes he’d still be wearing surgical mask to help prevent infection.
“Being able to play basketball really drove me,” Jones said.
Jones re-enrolled in online classes by the summer and returned to training camp with his teammates this fall. A broken toe was a bit of a setback, but he called it a “blessing in disguise” because it allowed him time to put on more weight. He warned his teammates not to take it easy on him in practice.
“They have no choice. I’m coming at them full throttle,” he said.
Jones said when the Longhorns get into the Big 12, he’ll thank opposing players and coaches who sent him get-well greetings and offered support. Then it will be time to play.
“I’m grateful. Before the game I will thank them, but between those lines … it can’t be no buddy-buddy,” Jones said. “Between those lines, we’re competitors.”