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December 31, 2007
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December 31, 2007

Escape From Jonestown


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Forgive himself for what? Jim's eyes mist. "For still living."

The red dust of Jonestown would remain with him forever, Jim knew, working in crevices so narrow no brush could ever reach it. But now another realization arose from that dust. The only answer to what had happened lay in the future, not in the past. It lay in his sons.

Jim began playing more ball with Rob, banging with him one-on-one, testing his grit. The kid flared—why, it wasn't fair that his old man was heaving his 250 pounds against a fourth-grader. "You'll survive!" his father would reply. "We're Joneses! Our name demonstrates to the world, We survived. What doesn't kill us only makes us stronger!" Rob had heard that from his father before. But now he understood exactly what it meant.

Jim knew his limits as a coach, and what his son's would be if the boy kept playing suburban-white-boy ball. He knew he'd have to take Rob to where Jim didn't want to go, the place he'd avoided for two decades: the Fillmore District in San Francisco, the African-American neighborhood where Jim had played high school ball and lived on the third floor atop the Peoples Temple.

Jim and his fourth-grader got in their car one day in 1999. Jim began to drive toward Fillmore, where an AAU team, High Hopes, played ball. Rob was dying to play for it. Jim's dread grew. He turned onto Geary, his old street. So many memories still living there—of people who were dead. So many friends and relatives of those dead people still living there too. What if they saw him and challenged him? The sneaker was on the other foot. Now Rob and his love for basketball were testing Jim's new grit, tugging him further and further ... back toward himself.

Rob made the team. Nobody raised the ghost of Jonestown, but sometimes Jim saw it in people's eyes and felt it on his skin. He blocked it out and began, in that ever-cheery, High Hopes way of his, to help the team raise money, to work the ticket table and concession stands. That didn't hurt, but nothing helped like knowing that the team needed your kid.

One by one—gym by gym—Rob and his new team pulled Jim to the old haunts, the last playgrounds of his innocence before it had been crushed. They had plenty of car time now to talk. Now and then Rob would pop a question, each a level deeper. How did it feel to lose both your parents when you were only 18? Why did your dad kill all those people? Why didn't you name me Jim Jones?

Jim would take a deep breath and answer as best he could, each airing of the issue diminishing its charge. So that Rob, by the time he was a high school junior, would suffer only a moment's indecision when the subject of cults and Jim Jones Sr. suddenly reared itself in a Life Issues class, then raise his hand and declare, "That's my grandfather." And only wince in a bookstore checkout line when his eyes fell on 100 Most Infamous Criminals and he opened it to find Grandpa nestled among Hitler, Charles Manson and Jack the Ripper.

WHERE'S JIM? On the floor now, beneath the opposite basket. It's late in the fourth quarter. Riordan's rolling. Rob's got 30 points and 17 rebounds. Jim looks up. The students are chanting, "Rob who? RobJones! Rob who? RobJones!" Jim's nephews and nieces are waving and making faces to try to get Rob to smile. Forget it. The kid's still breathing fire. Damnedest thing.... Jim spending his life trying to turn a white-hot ember into ashes. Rob spending his turning an ember into flames.

The kid knows he's going to need all that fire. He knows that college is not going to be like tonight, knows the knock that has kept the big-time college coaches away. He's a 6'5 1/2" forward with a power game, a bull entering a land of gazelles and giraffes, and only a few such men have excelled at the modern game's highest level—Adrian Dantley, Mark Aguirre, Charles Barkley—men whose furnaces had to be as large as their haunches to pull it off. Why, RobJones wonders, don't the big-time coaches understand that his is?

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