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Of course, Jones is the Shock's most intriguing acquisition. She suffered an epic fall from grace that began when she was linked to the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) doping ring in 2004. In '07 Jones pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about her use of performance-enhancing drugs and her knowledge of a check-fraud scheme involving a former boyfriend, Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery. She was sentenced to six months in jail and banned from track and field for two years. She also lost her five Olympic medals, as well as endorsement deals worth millions of dollars.
Despite her forced admission, Jones continues to insist that she never knowingly took PEDs—she claims she believed she was ingesting flaxseed oil—an assertion that is disputed by Montgomery, BALCO mastermind Victor Conte and Jones's ex-husband C.J. Hunter, a former shot putter who tested positive for steroids in 2000 and was also linked with BALCO. When discussing her past mistakes with schoolkids as part of the 800 hours of community service that she must complete during her two-year probation, she emphasizes not that the decisions themselves were wrong but that she rushed into them.
The WNBA, meanwhile, is giving Jones a clean slate. The league says it will not subject her to any testing beyond what's outlined in the collective bargaining agreement, which mandates a maximum of three random tests per season and imposes a one-year ban on first-time offenders.
After Jones was released from prison, in September 2008, she returned to Austin, where she lives with her husband, sprinter Obadele Thompson of Barbados, and her three children. (Jones has a son with Montgomery and a son and a daughter with Thompson.) When her longtime attorney and adviser, Ron Nichols, texted her last May to gauge her interest in playing in the WNBA, Jones, then eight months pregnant with her third child, replied LOL. But three months later, after mulling over the notion with Thompson, Jones traveled to New York City to meet with league brass and make her bid official.
WNBA president Donna Orender says she was keen to "look [Jones] in the eyes [and] listen to her story" and was won over when Jones "demonstrated that she has a true passion for this game." Orender effectively ended her vetting there and gave Jones her support—with the caveat that making a team wouldn't be a layup.
"I walked away from that meeting with even more motivation," Jones says. The 5'10", 150-pound Los Angeles native is hardly a basketball neophyte. As a freshman at North Carolina in 1994 she averaged 17.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists while leading the Tar Heels to a national championship the day before Richardson's Razorbacks won the men's title. Jones played two more seasons in Chapel Hill before abandoning basketball for a full-time sprinting career. On the court, as well as the track, she distinguished herself as a fierce competitor, a tireless worker and a quick study. "Show her something one time," says Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell, "and she'll not only pick it up right away but do it better than anybody else."
In June 2009 Jones gave birth to her daughter, Eva Marie. By August she was commuting to San Antonio three times a week to train with Silver Stars assistant Olaf Lange, who helped pare her body down to its current, apparently fat-free, form. Her first tryout, with the Seattle Storm, was in December, but the second, with the Shock, had to be delayed for six weeks after Jones injured her right ankle. Once recovered, she worked out for Richardson three times, compensating for her rusty dribbling skills and balky jump shot with sharp defensive instincts and a knack for finishing at the rim. Richardson was most enamored of Jones's intangibles. "She's a leader and a winner," says the coach, who signed her to a one-year, $35,880 deal in March. "You don't go wrong with that."
And yet the fact that so much has gone wrong for both Jones and Richardson in the past makes it easy to be skeptical about their prospects. Jones's credibility issues call her commitment into question—not that she cares about winning over her detractors. "There are certainly a lot of people who would like to see me disappear," she says, "but I [also] have a large number of people who want to see me succeed. I felt that by crawling into a hole and disappearing, I'd be letting them down. I let them down once. I wasn't planning to do it again."
Richardson is equally determined to make his breakneck system work in the WNBA. "I love proving people wrong," he says. "I love saying, I. Told. You. So."
None of the naysayers are eating crow just yet, however. At 2--3 the Shock is still a work in progress. Rotations are unsettled; the players suffer mental lapses and labor to sustain the level of intensity demanded by 40 Minutes of Hell. Still, while some players, such as Jones, are struggling—she averaged 0.4 points and 4.6 minutes through the first five games of the season—others, such as Black, have flourished. A rookie in '09 whose modest contributions off the bench belied her status as the 10th-overall pick out of Duke, Black has become a mainstay in the starting lineup, thanks to boosted averages in scoring (9.0), rebounding (10.8) and blocks (2.0). She had a career-high 17 rebounds in the Shock's 94--82 win over Minnesota, its first victory of the season.