LEXINGTON, Ky. — Maybe for Dontae' Jones, these things do not seem particularly impossible, but he is the only living man known to have performed either one:
Sixteen days ago, the light-hearted, bubble-eyed Mississippi State junior forward almost single-handedly ran and gunned down the running, gunning Kentucky Wildcats with a live-wire 28-point performance in the Southeastern Conference tournament title game, triggering the Bulldogs' mad rush to the Southeast Regional berth in the Final Four.
And, perhaps more remarkably, Jones habitually brings a smile to the face of Mississippi State Coach Richard Williams, known to many as the most uptight man in the Western world.
Sometimes, when Jones drops an especially goofy one-liner, Williams even snickers.
"Coach, he doesn't normally joke on game day, and you can tell he's not too fond of the media either," Jones said the other day. "But I try to keep him loose and try to keep the team loose. Because I don't want us to get all uptight. The ballgame's enough pressure itself. If you get to thinking, 'Oh, we've got to play UConn, we're in the Sweet 16 . . .' It gets to be too much pressure."
This was a team of mostly small-town Mississippi players who had been dominated by Williams' peevishness. They were talented but tight, and with much the same cast lost in the West Regional semifinals to UCLA last year.
Suddenly this season, quiet center Erick Dampier and polite country singer forward Rex Walters and agreeable point guard Marcus Bullard and to-himself shooting guard Darryl Wilson and the wired coach were all exposed to a 6-foot-7, wild-shooting, fall-away free spirit from the big city, Nashville.
"Coming in, I wanted to bring emotion and excitement to the team," Jones said. "That's pretty much what I thought they could use. I knew we had guys that were capable of scoring, guys who were capable of rebounding, guys who were capable of playing great defense. I just wanted to add some emotion, add some excitement and hope that my offense would give them a lift."
Joking with Richard Williams?
Said Bulldog senior Wilson, "First time it happened, it was like, 'This guy's crazy! What's wrong with this guy?' "
But things just are different for Dontae' Jones, whose most lasting minor miracle has been a wobbly journey from high school drop-out to the Southeast Regional's most valuable player, by way of Kenny Rogers' Roasters restaurant, the midnight recreational basketball league in Nashville and two seasons at Northeast Mississippi Community College.
After scoring 23 points and grabbing 13 rebounds against second-seeded Cincinnati in the regional final and averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds in the Bulldogs' four tournament victories, Jones can't help but laugh at the success and the fulfillment of his dream.
Jones, who still isn't anywhere near a perfect student, says he will make himself available for the NBA draft this summer if he believes he'll be a high first-round pick. And that only increases his enthusiasm for what's happening right now.
"You can't ask for anything better than this," Jones said. "NCAA tournament, still having a chance to play for the championship . . . The dream is going on and on. I never imagined anything like this."
Said Bullard, "He's added another dimension that we needed on this team--an outside shooter, inside shooter, inside-outside play. He's probably playing better than anybody in the country right now. He'd had some good games, but the Kentucky game was when he just exploded. And he's continuing it through the tournament."
Jones dropped out of school after suffering a knee injury his junior year at Stratford High in Nashville--"Without basketball, I just lost focus, I wasn't interested in school," he said--then starred in Nashville's midnight league on Saturday nights.
That's while he was working as a food preparer at the chicken restaurant, but Kendall Stephens, a former Tennessee State sports information director and someone who helped coordinate the rec league, saw his obvious talent and suggested that Jones could still fulfill his NBA dreams by passing the General Educational Development test and going to junior college.
"I was at the crossroads, the point where I either go this way, and end up on the street or whatever, or go this way and pursue a dream," Jones said. "And I'm pursuing the dream."
Jones passed the GED, and at Northeast earned junior college All-American status, averaging 28.3 points his sophomore year. Even so, he had to earn 36 credits last summer to be eligible to play at Mississippi State.
How did an admittedly unfocused student accomplish that?
"I wouldn't put anybody else in that situation," Jones said. "Going to summer school 8-12 in the morning, then 6-9 at night--and then you still have correspondence work to do--it takes effort. You've just got to do it. If you want to accomplish something, it's going to take a lot of self-discipline.