Jonquel Jones has the pride of an island on her shoulders.
On Nov. 28 in Freeport, Bahamas, about 1,000 people rose to their feet in the St. George’s High School gym to welcome Jones back to her hometown.
Over Thanksgiving break, the women’s basketball team traveled over 958 miles to compete in the Junkanoo Jam, marking the first time that Freeport-native Jones has displayed her talent for her mother and grandmother in her GW uniform.
Fueled by the confidence and energy that usually comes with a home-court advantage – this time stemming from the support of an entire community – the Colonials won the Freeport Division title after knocking off N.C. State and Purdue, and Jones was named most valuable player.
“That was definitely a wonderful feeling to be back home, seeing everyone the moment I stepped out of customs and was able to come out to the main area. A lot of my family and friends and people that have watched me grow up were there to greet me, so it was a great moment,” Jones said.
During the tournament, Jones had two goals: to expose her teammates and coaches to her Bahamian culture, and to show off her collegiate skill to Freeport.
Even as she walked off the airplane to see gifts, flowers and a hoard of loved ones, Jones’ focus remained on her teammates and coaches. She said she wanted to show that the Bahamas is full of “people that love to welcome our visitors.”
“She wanted it not to be about her because that’s her personality,” head coach Jonathan Tsipis said. “I think even when we were going through customs, they had all her people there and all the flowers, the TV stations, but she wanted to wait for every one of her teammates to clear customs, so they could all go out together. That’s her unselfish nature, how she is both on and off the floor.”
U.S.-imported sports like soccer and basketball are the most popular spectator sports in the Bahamian Commonwealth, so Jones quickly rose to fame as a child when she excelled at both. Before pursuing a collegiate career in basketball in the States, Jones played soccer and ran track for Bahamian youth national teams. One of her former soccer coaches, Mary Knowles, cancelled her local league’s Saturday matches to cheer on her former player.
On Thanksgiving eve, Knowles hosted a feast complete with traditional Bahamian cuisine – like conch fritters, cracked conch and fried whole fish – in the garden around her house. Teammate Hannah Schaible described “dancing around with [Jones’] mom and niece and having a great time, interacting and connecting with her family,” and watching Jones’ great aunt churn out conch fritters.
With the traditional music of rhythmic drums and cowbells playing in the background, the night was a chance for the team to relax with a home-cooked meal, Schaible said, and learning more about their upperclassmen leader gave the Colonials even more motivation in the tournament.
“We wanted to win because that’s the goal of sports, but we also wanted to win because there was this whole island behind JJ and behind our team,” Schaible said. “It wasn’t just GW winning, it was the whole Freeport community supporting us winning.”
Jones had the opportunity to address her hometown crowd, with the prime minister in attendance, at the tournament. Even with the prime minister and other prominent government officials there, Jones stole the show.
“I felt bad for the prime minister because he was still second fiddle to Jonquel,” Tsipis said with a smile.
Jones was especially excited to show her teammates the beaches in the Bahamas. During the team’s off-season trip to Europe, where they tested the waters on the beaches of England and France, Jones teased her teammates that they wouldn’t know a real beach until they visited the Bahamas. During some downtime last week, she got the chance to show the group the sand she used to play on as a child.
But what Jones said she will treasure most was the opportunity to play the game she loves in front of family and friends. Though her father was able to see the team play last year, her mother was never able to get time off of work.
“It was great to have them see me play, especially my grandparents,” Jones said. “My grandparents haven’t seen me play since I was playing at home in the Bahamas, so for them to be able to see me grow into the person I am now.”
For the time being, the taste of victory comes with hints of Jones’ great aunt’s conch fritters and the salty Freeport air.
After their success in the Bahamas, the Colonials return to action in the Smith Center on Saturday to host Fresno State at 2 p.m.