Fear was not in the falling. That felt normal, just a typical tumble in a typical basketball game. Nor did Baylor forward Melissa Jones worry much about the crash of a player on top of her, or the thumping of her head upon the floor. These things happened all the time. She stood up afterward and ran down the court. No, panic wouldn’t come for several more minutes when the vision in her right eye clouded, then slowly faded away..
Until there was only darkness.
That’s when she knew something was very, very wrong.
This was just two weeks ago, at a game at Oklahoma, right before the end of the regular season. As a senior she was already facing the final month of her college career. And standing there that night on the court in Norman, she was filled with a flood of dread.
Was she going blind?
Was this something more?
What about basketball? What about her career?
Then nothing seemed normal anymore.
It would take more than a day before doctors told her this was the result of swelling around the optic nerve. And once she learned that this was not serious, that it would indeed go away and that someday the vision would return, she did what any basketball player would do with the last postseason of her career coming fast.
She said she would play.
“I want to help the team any way I can,” she said by phone on Tuesday night, not long before Baylor beat West Virginia in the second round of NCAA tournament.
So a week after wondering if she’d be blind forever in one eye, Jones pulled on a pair of dark glasses like the kind a bicycle racer might wear and walked onto the court in Kansas City for the first game of the women’s Big XII tournament. The glasses provided protection for her good eye in case she got poked or hit there. In a way she felt awkward wearing them. "I feel like a big goof," she said.
Then Jones played 25 minutes in the conference tournament opener against Kansas, running the court just as she had for the 3 ¾ seasons before, only this time with sight in only one eye. The other was still dark.
It was an odd experience, playing basketball with one eye. At first she was certain her depth perception would be off, and everything would be too short or too long. Instead, her muscle memory took over. Shooting turned out to be easy. Playing defense, the one thing she thought she’d be able to do with little trouble, was much harder.
“You can’t see the screens,” she said. “And when you are guarding someone you can lose your man. Over there everything is black.”
This lasted through the tournament which Baylor, the country’s 3rd-ranked team, won. Early last week, as the NCAA tournament selections were made, Jones' vision slowly started to improve. It isn’t much -- recovery will be slow -- but now she can see vague shapes and fuzzy color. She can tell when someone is coming at her to set a screen, and the player she’s guarding doesn’t disappear quite as fast as she might have before. But even with the improvements, as welcome as they are, she is still a one-eyed player in the NCAA tournament.
Most of the attention Baylor receives for women’s basketball understandably goes to the team’s 6-foot-8 center, Brittney Griner. She is impossible to miss. But Jones is the one who pushes the Bears, a nearly 6-foot-tall guard who ironically has such vision of the court. Jones is the one who always finds the critical rebound or the loose ball on the floor.
After the Kansas game, her coach, Kim Mulkey, sat at a press conference and said she had been trying to drive with one eye closed just to see how difficult it was for Jones to look at the world.
“How does this kid do this?” Mulkey asked.
“I think it’s the making of her personality,” Mulkey continued, “that, ‘OK I’ve been given this little obstacle and I’ve been given the blessing that is they tell me sight is going to come back and I can choose to feel sorry for myself and pity myself or say ‘Coach let me do what I can.’’”
The night before the Big XII tournament, they had talked -- coach and player. Jones looked at Mulkey and after confessing to mixed emotions about playing, she said she wanted to be on the floor.
“Just don’t let me embarrass myself,” Jones told Mulkey.
Given the way she has played, taking control of games, shooting well despite the partial blindness in one eye, it seems a silly thing to say. Of course she wouldn’t embarrass herself. And she hasn’t.
Really, after the terror of that first night, the worst she felt was when she went to see specialists at a hospital near Waco. One doctor examined her and told her she might never see out of the eye again, only to be told a few minutes later by another that she should expect complete recovery.
Otherwise, she was mostly overcome with shock.
“I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t see,” she said.
Once she understood, the eye wasn’t a problem anymore.
After that, she wanted to play.
“I know I’m not at my best,” Jones said. When asked why, she said she feels like she’s being turned in circles on the court.
Then again, the fact she’s even on the court might just make her the most amazing story this March has seen yet.
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