Not the wheelchair.
Screaming in agony, his right leg useless, Verdell Jones III had one request. Not that wheelchair.
With 5:46 to go in the first half, the senior guard was leading a fast break down the court when Penn State guard Jermaine Marshall stepped up to defend him. Jones stopped at the foul line, and with his left foot planted, rose up with the ball and immediately felt pain.
The ball bounced innocently beside him as Jones held his right knee with his right hand and used his left to support the fall. His face showed
Jones helplessly laid down for three years as the opposition walked all over him and the Hoosiers.
This time, though, he couldn’t get up.
“When a guy like that, who does so much for your team, goes down like that, it’s real heartbreaking,” freshman guard Austin Etherington said. “He’s an amazing brother to all of us.”
Alone on the court, Jones curled up in a ball, holding his injured knee until the team trainers arrived to assist him. The crowd — made up mostly of IU fans — watched in silence. A wheelchair was brought out, its empty seat beckoning the fallen senior to finally retire.
Jones sat up, a small sign of life that brought cheers from the crowd.
Etherington and senior forward Kory Barnett rushed to help their fallen brother.
“Once I saw him go down, it wasn’t a question,” Barnett said. “I wanted to go out there and help him and pick him up.”
With one arm draped over Barnett to his right, and the other over Etherington to his left, Jones hobbled off the court, careful to not put pressure on his right side.
The foreboding wheelchair waited for him in the tunnel.
“He didn’t really say anything,” Etherington said of Jones. “He just said he didn’t want to be in the wheelchair. He didn’t want a wheelchair. He wanted to go off the court on his own.”
Maybe Jones wasn’t doing what was best for him. Maybe he was being stubborn. But he was being the man who has gotten him to this point in an embattled college career.
“It’s a sign of toughness,” Etherington said.
As Jones was toughing out what is officially being called a right knee sprain the rest of his “brothers” and their paternal figure were sharing his pain.
“It’s tough,” Barnett said. “Just as a senior, being with him as a roommate for three years, I love the kid. I’ve seen him go through so much. He’s matured so much, and to go down like that in a game like this — we’re just praying
IU Coach Tom Crean doesn’t cry.
He didn’t after upsetting the No. 1 team in the country, and he didn’t throughout a six-win season.
But following Thursday’s game, in a postgame interview with the Big Ten Network, Crean’s emotions came out.
While talking about being stagnant in the second half during the interview, you could hear the pain starting to creep up into Crean’s throat, as he spoke about Jones and his prognosis.
“It’s not good,” he said.
The IU coach continued at the postgame press conference.
“Just watching him in pain, that’s hard,” Crean said. “It’s like there’s no worse feeling than when your own children are sick or hurt, and it’s really a lot like that when you coach.”
The Hoosiers are wandering into unchartered territory.
Never before in the Crean era have they won a postseason game, and now IU is poised to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament before tackling its first NCAA Tournament berth with Crean at the helm.
And unfortunately, I think this journey will be without a healthy Jones.
No official word has been given on his injury or return beyond that the injury is a sprained right knee — a ligament tear by definition.
But seeing the suffering on Jones’ face and his inability to walk, I think he has played his last game in an Indiana uniform.
The Hoosiers will not continue this climb without their senior leader, as I’m sure he will still be a presence on the sidelines.
But it won’t be the same without the depth and leadership on the court.
“I could feel it, when he’s not in there,” Crean said.
Jones eventually succumbed to the wheelchair, sitting in it as he entered the tunnel and Etherington and Barnett returned to the court.
“It’s unbelievably painful for him and his family,” Barnett said. “How hard he’s fought, it’s not fair.”
In his last season, Jones is finally on a team that has a legitimate chance to cut down the nets.
But even if the Hoosiers reach that point, Jones might not even be able to walk up the ladder to get to them.