Many people in the Tar Heels community were displeased that Jones and Hunter had paired up, and they blamed Hunter's influence for Jones's decision to forgo her last season of basketball and track eligibility. "There are a lot of people who care about Marion who feel that C.J. is not good for her," says Hatchell, voicing an opinion that Jones and Hunter have often heard.
Hunter comes with some baggage. He's the divorced father of two children and filed for bankruptcy five years ago. He's large and menacing and very economical with words. Says Jeff Madden, a former North Carolina strength coach and the man who introduced Jones to Hunter, "People are intimidated by him because he's blunt." This blunt: "People who criticize us don't give a damn about Marion," Hunter says. "Hatchell was thinking about her own team." (Point of fact: Hatchell's 1997-98 team had Tennessee down by 12 points with seven minutes to go in the Elite Eight, without Jones. With her, Carolina might have won another national title.) As to the notion that he is piggybacking on Jones's fame or wealth, consider that Hunter was an elite, world-class athlete before Jones was, and he is currently ranked No. 2 in the U.S. in the shot. His Nike contract came first. "If I'm so bad for Marion, look what's happened since we met," says Hunter. "She had her best academic year, and she's become one of the most popular athletes in the world."
Jones stopped training at North Carolina, and she and Hunter closed the circle tightly around themselves. "When you try to keep two people apart, what happens?" asks Hunter. "They get closer." In Jones's last basketball season, Hunter sat in the stands through every practice and monitored every interview. He set her up with his agent, Charlie Wells, and a coach, Trevor Graham. On the European summer circuit they are inseparable and, often, invisible. "You almost never see Marion outside of her room on the circuit, and if you do, she's with C.J.," says Miller.
Where others saw seclusion, Jones and Hunter felt something else. "I've never in my life had somebody whom I could tell everything to," says Jones. "Now I can. I have a companion." She also has what her mother once was: a shadow to her every move. She also appears to have bliss.
Joyner-Kersee, into whose shoes Jones is stepping (as the best female track and field athlete in the world and as a two-sport star), has observed this soap opera from afar. She knows that the comparisons between her and Jones don't end with sports but extend to their relationships with men who have taken charge of their personal and professional lives. "There are plenty of people who have never liked me and Bobby together," says Joyner-Kersee of her husband and longtime coach. "It doesn't matter. Marion and C.J. are a partnership. It's their life, and outsiders don't matter."
Toler is one who has been pushed to the outside. She hosted a graduation party for her daughter on May 11, 1997, then didn't hear a word from her until a phone call just before Christmas, although Jones sent postcards from Europe last summer. "We're not close," Jones said in early April. "We're not on the best of terms."
It's true that Toler is apprehensive about the impending nuptials, scheduled for Oct. 3, but this is hardly unprecedented for a mother-in-law-to-be. "I can't say this is how I wanted it to be for my daughter," says Toler. "A divorced man with two children. Is C.J. right for her? I pray that he is. She is in a little girl's world, with her audience and her celebrity, and my take is that she is looking for her daddy. C.J. comes across as a protector, but in truth, nobody can protect you until you grow up."
Their new four-bedroom house sits at the end of a cul-de-sac in the upscale neighborhood of Apex, midway between Raleigh and Chapel Hill. There's a hoop in the driveway, where Marion can crush C.J. in games of H-O-R-S-E and where C.J. can back Marion down and post her up. When C.J. returns from his workout this afternoon, Marion is flopped on the couch watching The People's Court. They live the streamlined existence of full-time athletes pulling down more than $1 million a year in prize money and endorsements. A typical day at home, says C.J., is "training, a nap and Judge Judy."
On occasion they socialize with C.J.'s coach, Brian Blutreich, and his wife, or with some of Jones's former basketball teammates. More often they stay home and challenge each other in video games. They recently bought a women's college basketball game, but neither is allowed to play as North Carolina, and Tennessee might as well not be on the disc. "No orange in this house," says Marion. C.J.'s passion is Notre Dame football, and he keeps dozens of game tapes in the family room. There's a sense of satisfaction in the air, a feeling that C.J. and Marion describe with a catch-phrase: "What a difference a year makes."
In the spring of 1997, after deciding to turn pro, Jones needed a plan. Initially, she intended to run a little track, then play in either the ABL or WNBA First, though, she needed a coach. Hunter had been working with her, but, he says, "that's the same as saying she wasn't being coached at all."