DURHAM, N.C.-- Overcoming life’s challenges is nothing new to Alexis Jones; it’s something she has witnessed and participated in since middle school.
That’s when the Duke sophomore learned that nothing is guaranteed, and things can change in the blink of an eye.
Similarly, Jones has seen the shape of the Blue Devils’ roster change dramatically in each of her two seasons because of injuries to Chelsea Gray, Duke’s point guard.
With Gray’s career cut short by knee surgery on Jan. 17 as a result of a fractured knee cap suffered in Duke’s win over Boston College five days earlier, Jones finds herself running the offense for the second year in a row.
“Alexis is a great player in her own right,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “There’s no ability to replace Chelsea Gray, none whatsoever — you simply evolve.
“(Alexis is) a point guard. That’s what she does. I’ve talked to Lex the same way I’ve always talked to Lex, which is getting the team ready for (the next game). There are some things you don’t have to talk about, either. It’s just too much.”
It has been painful for Jones to watch Gray, who helped coach her through the 2013 season from the sideline, see her college career end abruptly.
“It’s her senior year, it’s her last year to get the feeling of playing college basketball and now she doesn’t get to come out with a nice senior year,” Gray said. “I think the feelings are more toward the seniors, since Chelsea was a senior this year. They’re missing a big part of who they have been with for the last four years and who they were hoping to end the season with.
“I don’t know what really happened, but it’s just a shock.”
But that isn’t the most stunning event that Jones has had to overcome — not by a long shot.
A path altered
By the time Alexis Jones was in the seventh grade, she already was excelling on the basketball court, one of the stars of the AAU team that her father, David, coached.
“She started playing probably when she was 4 or 5 years old,” David Jones said. “She was always the youngest one on the team, but she learned how to play defense and fundamentals ... She’s been around the game a long time.
“That’s one thing we always drill ourselves on — defense is the way you start out. Make defense turn into offense. She’s been taught that ever since she’s been playing.”
But a trip to Dallas for practice in 2007 nearly ended in tragedy.
“That morning, it started off clear,” David said. “Usually in April, if it snows in the morning, it’s gone by afternoon but not that day ... I had told myself that we were going to turn around.
“It started to get a little worse, and all of sudden I hit some ice and the car started to turn around.”
Alexis and her brother were thrown from the car when it flipped repeatedly. They escaped with minor injuries. Two of Jones’ teammates also walked away from the crash.
David Jones, however, was trapped inside the car upside down. His injuries left him confined to a wheelchair and paralyzed — in more ways than physical.
“I was glad all the girls were safe,” he said. “They all could heal from the accident.
“The first two years, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was down and out on myself. It took me two years to get my head back on, learn how to ask for help, take control of the things I can control.” Alexis saw her father struggle during his recovery.
“He just got down on himself a lot because he couldn’t do the things he wanted to do,” Alexis said. “He just didn’t know how to help himself. He was in the predicament where he was always there for other kids and other parents, and then he’s at the point where he thought that he couldn’t do anything at all.
“Then he ... realized that he could help other kids and still be a coach.”
Watching Alexis play under her middle school and high school coaches also sparked David’s recovery, though he had obstacles to overcome.
“Her freshman year and eighth grade year, it motivated me,” David said. “Once I got my voice back, started breathing correctly ... I really wanted to get back out there.”
And that’s what David Jones did.
“My sophomore summer, he turned around and realized that he was able to coach,” Alexis said. “Basically, he saw that some of my friends needed help, they needed scholarships. That’s when I knew that he was getting back on his feet, because he was taking in kids and paying for tournaments. He was doing everything for them. “He was really focused. We got that team together, and he really made an improvement on those girls. You could tell the difference ... about how much their game changed and how much they fell in love with having my Dad there.”
Alexis’ “best friends” — Ayriel Anderson of Texas State and Khoria Newman of Alabama-Birmingham — are two of the players who benefitted from David’s return to coaching.
He still helps coach Alexis’ younger brother, Andrew, who is a sophomore playing on the varsity team at his high school. That keeps David and Alexis’ mother, Carla Seldon, from getting to many Duke games, though they were in Durham for a pair of games in December.
“One of us will be up there more in the next two years,” David said.
While no one is calling it a blessing, the Jones family is stronger since the accident.
“Actually, I think having the accident brought our relationship a lot closer,” Alexis said. “He started seeing a whole lot of different things in life. It got a whole lot easier to talk to my Dad a lot. We always had a close relationship; it was just a tough, close relationship. “When he got into the accident, it got a little easier for me to talk to my Dad and just really explain things and go through this with him. I see that he sees that you really can’t take anything for granted. He’s enjoying every moment of his life right now, being in this position.” Now it is Alexis and her Duke teammates who find themselves recovering from adversity. The Blue Devils saw a 15-point lead disappear after halftime and won by four at Virginia Tech in their second game after Gray’s injury.
“There’s a lot of different people who can score,” McCallie said. “There’s a lot of different people who can do certain things, and that’s how you build a championship situation. You have to have many different players playing well together — that’s huge.”
Jones’ experience from her freshman season taught her many things.
“I was a freshman, and I was just trying to get in there and get the rhythm of (the college game),” Alexis said. “Coach P was preaching to me that whole entire year that you don’t have a role to play — you just have to go out there and play. But when you’re young, you don’t really know how to react to a new environment.”
To cope, Jones went back to the fundamentals emphasized by her father.
“I was just more focused on trying to get the ball (on defense),” she said. “My passion was more on the defensive side during my freshman year because I knew I had a big role when I came in. I was picking up the ball, and I knew if I was getting down on defense, I’d be fine.
“What I learned is: Don’t be passive in your game. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake ... This year, I feel like I still had a big role on the team. I was averaging more points than I did last year, so I feel like I was getting comfortable with the team.”
David Jones believes that Alexis not only is ready but comfortable with running the Blue Devils’ offense.
“She’s able to take that lead role, ready to demonstrate composure, continue to make the team flow,” he said. “With that experience from last year ... I think they’re all going to pull together. I think they’ll step up to the challenge.
“They want to do it for themselves, and they want to do it for Chelsea.”
Duke still has the talent to persevere, and Jones said the Blue Devils are ready for the challenge.
“It’s something that we’re going to have to play through,” Jones said. “We really just have to come together and become one. It doesn’t change our goals.”
It just changes the path they’ll have to take to get there. And that’s nothing new to Alexis Jones.