About 10 years ago, when I worked at a bookstore in Mountain View, CA, a coworker was a fan of Stanford women’s basketball. So was I, though our perspectives diverged. When I showed a blissful unawareness of the basketball rules, he was scornful. Fair enough – we’re all wired differently; but I saw no reason to scramble to memorize the rule book so that I could speak more knowledgably.
I love watching successful sports team cultures and trying to understand what makes them tick. It’s a hobby that is particularly easy to pursue in the age of the Internet. There’s hardly a day when I don’t find some tidbit of inspiring news on the sports pages or in a sports blog.
Speaking of Stanford women’s basketball, the Cardinal teams have nearly always been fun to watch, in no small measure because of the thread of joy that has run through the program.
Sometimes it was a special team chemistry, as with the NCAA champion teams of the early Nineties. At other times, it was individual players – the Ogwumike sisters, Candice Wiggins, Jennifer Azzi…trying to list them all is futile.
Haley Jones joined the team this year as the nation’s top-ranked recruit. In a recent game she combined with fellow freshman Hannah Jump for 41 points. Of course that says a lot, but I’ve been particularly moved by her demeanor on the court.
During a 15-point loss to the US national team, Jones was just so…joyful. She was so obviously happy to be on the court, and she was so infectiously encouraging and inclusive, smiling at her teammates, as if to say, “Isn’t this just too wonderful for words?”
I thought: “That’s what makes Haley Jones such a special recruit. Far beyond the basketball skills, she’ll infect the team with her joyful spirit, and it will be a powerful performance-enhancing drug for everybody during her career at Stanford.”
I included these words in my book The Joyful Athlete:
In his wonderful biography, Playing for Keeps – Michael Jordan & the World He Made, David Halberstam ties Jordan’s phenomenal success to his happy spirit:
Jordan seemed almost innately joyous. His pleasure seemed to come from playing basketball, and he generated the most natural kind of self-confidence….
He was going to be a great player, Loughery [Jordan’s college roommate] thought, not just because of the talent and the uncommon physical assets but because he loved the game. That love could not be coached or faked, and it was something he always had. He was joyous about practices, joyous about games, as if he could not wait for either. Not many players had that kind of love. All too many modern players, Loughery believed, loved the money instead of the game. But Jordan’s love of what he did was real, and it was a huge advantage.
The following are excerpts from newspaper articles written while Haley was in high school:
“I think a lot of kids at our school are intimidated by her [Haley Jones],” guard Charlize Andaya said, “but she’s so friendly. She’s the funniest person I know.”….
From early childhood, [Haley’s father] Patrick said, Haley served as a social director.
“She has fun and wants everyone around her to have fun,” he said. “She’s very inclusive as a person. When she was in elementary school, she was always the one organizing games on the playground or after school.”
When Jones reached seventh grade, she began playing for a club squad in San Francisco that traveled the West Coast for showcases. The team consisted mostly of high school players, including juniors and seniors. Jones was a seventh grader — and a starter.
“I didn’t realize how big that was,” Jones said. “I was just like, ‘These are my girls, this is my team.’ They were like, ‘You’re a seventh grader playing with these 16- and 17-year-old people. They were just like, ‘You’re big time,’ and I was like ‘OK, just calm down.’”
Her teammates started calling her “Baby UConn.” Now she could easily make that a reality.
More than a nickname, though, Jones received a playbook on how to be a good teammate from that team. The players could have ostracized her because of her age or jealousy over her prominence on the team. Instead, she said, they went out of their way to include her, even offering to drive her home when they hung out together off the court.
Jones now tries to do the same for her Monarchs teammates. Even with her fine shooting touch and ball handling skills, that was one of the qualities that made [Archbishop Mitty High School girls basketball coach Sue] Phillips giddy about Jones’ decision to spend her high school career at Mitty.
“Haley is hardwired a certain way in terms of wanting to excel in the classroom and on the basketball court, but she has this compassion,” Phillips said. “She’s the first one who wants to integrate maybe one of the players who doesn’t get as much playing time. I think that speaks to her upbringing as well. They [Haley’s parents] tell her, ‘You may be the best player on the team, but are you the best teammate?’ …