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'I want to do everything'

DeLisha Milton-Jones still making waves

POSTED: April 19, 2017 5:00 a.m.
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Riceboro native DeLisha Milton-Jones, center, talks to a player on the Pepperdine University bench last season while serving as an assistant coach. Milton-Jones was named the California school’s head womens’ coach last month.

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Beverly Milton, this “Hi, Mom,” is for you.

It’s from your daughter, DeLisha Milton-Jones, two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA star and Pepperdine University’s new head women’s basketball coach.

“I love my Mom so much for the sacrifices she made and for being the serious, God fearing woman she is,” Milton-Jones said. “I’m proud of her, and I love her.”

There’s this hello from Milton-Jones to Liberty County Probate Judge Nancy Aspinwall, an ever-faithful friend and supporter.

“She even went and got accredited as an agent back in the day because she didn’t want anyone to take advantage of me,” Milton-Jones said.

And there are still more long-distance hellos, to former high school teammates Warnella Smiley, now Liberty County High School athletic director and assistant principal, Keely Hailey, and Milton-Jones’ high school coach at Bradwell Institute, Janet Reddick.

There’s a shout out to Hattie Hargrove, who introduced a then-12-year-old kid to the game. 

Someday Milton-Jones will come home for another visit. She’ll do it sooner rather than later, she says.

“I’ve got to get back home and do another camp,” she said, not long after she was named head coach at Pepperdine.

But finding the time isn’t easy, especially when you’re on the other coast and in a time zone where they set the clocks back three hours.

Especially now that you’re a new college head coach leading a program that annually expects to compete with Gonzaga and Brigham Young, among others, for the West Coast Conference crown.

It’s Milton-Jones’ first women’s head coaching job. She was an assistant coach at Pepperdine last season, and got the opportunity to interview for the top job when head coach Ryan Weisenberg was fired.

“I was told they still wanted me to be a part of the team, and they would advocate for me with whoever the new coach was,” Milton-Jones said. “I asked them if I could be a part of the interview process and vie for the job of head coach. I must have interviewed well, with my philosophy being in alignment with the culture and philosophy they had in mind.”

In a nutshell, hers is to provide a team-oriented culture centered around loving the game and life.

While as a team she wants her players to “do everything by committee, it’s going to be a ‘we mentality,’” she also wants them to take advantage of their opportunities and love playing the game she loves.

“I want them to go be great women, great athletes and great students,” Milton-Jones said. “My philosophy is to empower, in every facet of life and sports, powerful women who have powerful voices, who are strong and independent. Even in the society we live in, where, as women, we’ve made up tremendous ground, we still have a long way to go.”

And, as Milton-Jones knows as well as anybody, the game can take you anywhere you want to go, let you be what you want to be.

“I know what this game has meant for my progress in life, on and off the court,” she said. “This love affair I’ve had with basketball has been tumultuous at times, but it’s also been rewarding. And the reward at the end is always to win championships, raise trophies.”

 

Playing career

Milton-Jones has said a near-death experience — she almost drowned in a rec pool — when she was 11 taught her early that life is precious.

She’s played like it. A two-time Naismith High School Player of the Year while at Bradwell, Milton-Jones went on to star at Florida, earning All-America and Division I Player of the Year honors. Then, after being the No. 2 player chosen overall by the Portland Power in the 1997 American Basketball League draft, she became a first-round draft choice of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks after the ABL folded in 1998.

Her pro career lasted 17 years and 497 games, a WNBA record. Her teams won two WNBA titles, and she’s a two-time all star and one of only five WNBA players with more than 5,000 points and 2,400 rebounds.

Her Olympic career includes gold medals in both 2000 and 2008, and the only reason she wasn’t on the 2004 team was a knee injury.

She even landed a role in the movie “Love and Basketball.”

Milton-Jones might still be playing yet, but the opportunity to coach in California, which has become a home base for Milton-Jones and her husband, Roland Jones, was too good to pass up.

As a result, she now has a four-year contract with Pepperdine, which last won the WCC in women’s basketball in 2010. Milton-Jones said she’s grateful and excited for the opportunity to get the Waves back on top, and noted Florida coach Carol Ross told her she’d be a great head coach someday.

“I never understood what she meant by that, then,” Milton-Jones said, so she asked and was told it’s something innate, something she was born with, honed by a road to stardom that wasn’t easy.

“I’ve come up the hard side of the mountain, I played for 17 years, I can relate to every type of player,” she said. “And, I think people take a liking to me. People know I care about them, and I see them as a human first.”

 

Changing times

Over the years, Milton-Jones has seen the game change as players become more athletic and fan bases grow in size and passion.

Last month, Milton-Jones was in Dallas for the NCAA women’s Final Four.

That’s where former U.S. Olympic teammate, coach and good friend Dawn Staley was busy winning a national title with South Carolina.

Milton Jones said she will follow Staley’s “protocol,” as a coach.

“I told her I was getting a head coaching position and that ‘you’re going to be my mentor,’” Milton-Jones said. “We both started in the exact same situation. We went straight from being a pro player to being a head coach. She went to Temple and turned that program around, and then went to South Carolina and has created a dynasty. That’s what I want to do, the same thing.”

But there’s a sense that’s not the limit to Milton-Jones’ desire to keep finding new challenges in and outside of basketball, the game that has helped her scale the mountain and accomplish much.

“I want to do everything,” Milton-Jones said. “I want the novel, not the Cliff Notes version.”

 

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