The Odyssey of Cal coach Wyking Jones

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He’s had bit parts in film, but by no definition would someone call him a movie star. The Odyssey of Wyking Jones in attempts to become a head coach, however, played out like some kind of Steven Spielberg flick.

“Israel started bombing Lebanon,” Jones told me as he began when discussing his overseas career.

“Hezbollah, which is a militant group in Lebanon, kidnapped an Israel soldier on the border. What they did to get back was, and they didn’t bomb cities, is hit bridges and power plants to cripple them.”

The Golden Bears are entering a new era. Gone is Counzo Martin, who left to take the Missouri Tigers job. In his place is Jones, a man considered one of the most interesting people in all of college basketball.

For good reason, too. He’s not a one-trick pony, lacking versatility or balance in life. He’s learned to be Wyking Jones by way of living through experiences most will never encounter. A journey some more streamlined to the top coaches might be without.

Having played his college basketball for Loyola Marymount, Jones’ journey to become a head coach was as long as it was strange. There was success as a player early. That was followed by fear, culminating with going home and abandoning his professional playing career.

Jones began his post-collegiate career as do a lot of guys, hopping across the ocean to play overseas. Stints in Lebanon, Japan, Italy, South Korea and France, each provided him with a unique opportunity to grow both his basketball mind as well as who he is as a person.

“I learned how to communicate,” Jones told me. “If I was at the supermarket, and there was a can of vegetables, I had to think to myself ‘now, do I take this home and see’ because I didn’t know what it was. At first, it was a risk each time. “

“At the same time, it taught me how to communicate with anyone. It was a very maturing process.”

It wasn’t only trips to the grocery store that provided challenges for the now first-year Cal coach. While playing professionally in Lebanon for a franchise called Tadamon in the LBL, Jones was in a best-of-five series against defending league champion Sagesse.

The games on the hardwood, however, were not the difficulties he found himself navigating. Rather, it was the war happening around him.

“Here I am, on my balcony, unsure if they’re going to bomb my apartment.”

A younger version of Jones, not fully sure of the scope of the bombings, admits fear set in.

“My Lebanese teammates call me, you’ll be fine … go to sleep,” Jones laughs. “They tell me they’re not going to bomb the city, but you don’t know that. I was terrified. I decided to come home early. I told my team, ‘as much as I love you guys, I need to get back home because I just don’t feel safe.’”

Unlike how others might react to an iffy stint in the Middle East, Jones is pulling the positive out of that experience. Instead of placing blame or imagining the woes all over again, he uses his time spent in Lebanon to help him appreciate being home, in the states.

“Sometimes we take for granted that, wars and things like that, it has in the past, but it just doesn’t happen here. In other countries, they don’t have the same {safety} assurances. I appreciate here now more. I don’t take it for granted.”

That was Wyking Jones the young man. He experienced more travel than most average people do in a lifetime. Moreover, probably the worst possible work situation someone can have while attempting to apply a trade. It isn’t normal to go to work with bombs going off around you.

Most of us would have taken that as a hint. Walked away maybe. Hung it up forever. For Jones, it was just another chapter in what is becoming a real-life version of a gritty Disney movie. If an average coach’s journey to being a head coach was Val Kilmer’s Batman, Jones’ has been more similar to that of Christian Bale’s Dark Knight.

In the abstract, it is all surreal.

Playing overseas, nor the lessons learned, were not what made him want to be a basketball coach, though.

“I was bullied {into being a coach}.” Jones said jokingly. “John Olive, my coach at Loyola, basically forced me. I told him, ‘yeah, yeah when my career is over,’ but then I gave it some thought. He thought my voice and leadership would do well coaching. I agreed.”

For it to dawn on him becoming a Division I head coach was a sincere possibility, it took several years. Stops with Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine didn’t do the trick. It wasn’t until after he started with New Mexico, under then coach Steve Alford, that he realized he might be well on his way to become a head coach.

Jones speaks highly of Alford, as he did for every coach he’s worked with, and it was with New Mexico where the obsession began to take over.

“I started to think about what I would do, how I would run plays, if I were the head coach. Everything we were doing, I was imagining it as if I were in charge.”

He was still several years away from reaching that point in his career. Rare is the college coach who gets a head coaching position immediately. Even rarer is a man this well-traveled finding his way through the coaching ranks to land near the top of the mountain.

After all, if cameos in films were where all the next head coaches were to be found, someone who have poached Bill Murray from the set of Zombieland.

Jones, who also spent some time working for Nike, would eventually wind up on Rick Pitino’s staff at Louisville in 2011. It is with the Cardinals he learned a priceless idea; delegation is good for a head coach. Let assistants take ownership of something. Allow the head coach to learn by teaching.

“Rick {Pitino} really let assistants coach,” Jones said. “A lot of other coaches just like to hear themselves talk. He was big into preparation. Leave no stones unturned. Never overlooking an opponent.”

“He let coaches learn on the floor by being vocal. Almost demanding us to be active and present during practice.”

Possibly a method actor, the coach with cameos in The Wood and other Rick Famuyiwa films, has worked under numerous name-brand coaches – Pitino, Alford, as well as Paul Westphal at Pepperdine and Counzo Martin at Cal – admits part of him growing as a coach is stealing their ideas. Allowing the basketball wisdom from Westphal seep into his mindset, incorporate the family atmosphere Olive had at Loyola Marymount, to taking the culture Martin has already implemented with the Golden Bears and building off that.

The closest thing college basketball has to a renaissance man, Wood gets a decent chuckle whenever pressed for acting stories. He downplays his cameos, the result a lifelong friendship with Famuyiwa — the man who wrote in the character Slim, based off Jones, for the movie The Wood.

His eyes aren’t set on Hollywood, however. The Cal faithful need not worry about him becoming the next George Clooney or leaving for regular guest appearances on Stranger Things.

“I’m a basketball coach,” Jones said when asked if he’d show his grandkids his movies before telling them he was a basketball coach. “I will always be a coach. This is who I am. Wanting to have a direct impact on kids and turning them into men. That is what I want.”

Those kids, they are still that when they reach campus. And as are most kids, they can’t be helped when meeting a star.

“When I was at Pepperdine,” as a story about being ribbed as an actor by players began. “Two players came up to me and asked if I was in The Wood. I told them I was and that Slim was based off me. They were blown away.”

Now Cal hopes Wyking Jones can leave the Golden Bears fans breathless. He’s ended his long, made-for-Hollywood journey to become a head coach and embarks on a new expedition– starring as one.