Jones finds peace living in Tornado Alley

By Steve Keating

TULSA, Oklahoma (Reuters) - When Marion Jones walked out of a Texas prison nearly two years ago looking for a fresh start, she knew Tulsa was a perfect fit.

When you live in Tornado Alley, squarely in the path of violent vortexes that routinely reduce once-vibrant communities to rubble, starting over is a way of life.

Second chances also come naturally in the heart of the American Bible Belt.

That was exactly what the disgraced sprint queen had prayed for since being stripped of her Olympic medals and sentenced to six-months in prison for lying to federal investigators about her use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The Tulsa Shock, a WNBA franchise also getting a new start in Oklahoma after failing in Detroit, have provided Jones with a chance for the 34-year-old mother of three to undo some of the damage done during her stunning fall from grace.

"It is a really good fit," Jones told Reuters. "I knew there would be a day I would be happy and fulfilled again and satisfied that my life was going in a positive direction.

"Where it would lead me was a total surprise.

"Those people who don't believe in fate or faith, I would like those individuals to answer this; how is it possible that I could be here?"

The dark, deceitful road that brought Jones to Tulsa is a path she warns no one should follow.

Once hailed as the world's greatest female athlete, Jones appeared on magazine covers from Vogue to Sports Illustrated and earned millions in endorsements and appearance fees.

Even if Jones were to develop into the WNBA's version of Kobe Bryant, marketing experts say she has little chance of reclaiming her spot as one of America's most beloved athletes.

According to the Davie Brown Index (DBI), developed by Marketing Arm to help companies measure how consumers view celebrities, Jones ranks 2,418 out of the about 2,500 names in their database.

"Her scores are pretty poor," Matt Fleming, a director in Marketing Arm's entertainment division, told Reuters. "She's on par with a number of folks you would not exactly consider to be good endorsers.

"In terms of trust she's on par with Howard Stern, Jerry Springer and Floyd Landis.

"Her move to the WNBA isn't likely to get a ton of attention just because of how little the WNBA is covered.

"People love a comeback story and if she is successful as a basketball player there may be some opportunities but she has a long way to go."

JONES RECONNECTS

Despite the loss of her fame and earning potential, Jones insists her return to basketball is not about money or redemption.

Having helped North Carolina capture an NCAA championship as a freshman point guard, Jones maintains her comeback is about reconnecting with her first sporting love.

But more importantly, Jones says, being back in the sporting arena provides her with a stage to tell her compelling story.

Second chances are also something Nolan Richardson believes in, the mercurial Shock coach returning to the United States after stints coaching the Mexican and Panama national teams.

Richardson, who won a national championship with the University of Arkansas in 1994, faded from the American college scene in 2002 after filing a lawsuit against the school over allegations of racial discrimination.

"She paid the fine and did her time and it's time to move on," said Richardson. "She's been beaten down and she's taken it and she's paid for it.

"I don't know if the word redemption is in her vocabulary but she realizes and understands what has happened in her life and I know she would love that it would not happen to anyone else.

"If you are a person who has admitted (mistakes), paid your dues, you should be able to do something again with your life."

As the season rolls on Jones will see more action, assured Richardson, adding that her skill set is perfectly suited to his up-tempo style of play known at Arkansas as the "40 Minutes of Hell" that places a high premium on hustle and athleticism.

But it remains to be seen just how long the ultra-competitive Jones, her fiery competitiveness and unflinching self-confidence intact, will be content playing a supporting role.

For now, she is an eager ambassador for the league and a vocal advocate for drug-free sport. As the Shock travel around the league Jones will have the platform to tell her story and beat the drum for the WNBA.

Marion Jones says she is right where she wants to be, rebuilding her life in Tornado Alley.

"I'm in a good place, a really good place," Jones said with a smile.

(Editing by Steve Ginsburg)