NEW YORK – As her first season in the WNBA comes to a close, Marion Jones is pleased with her progress and committed to continuing her development.
"I'm encouraged that every game I feel more confident," the former world-class sprinter said. "I feel I'm starting to get the hang of this basketball thing. I'm just encouraged that personally things are getting better."
Jones, who played basketball at North Carolina and was on the Tar Heels' national championship team in 1994, hadn't played the sport since graduating three years later.
Known for her accomplishments as a sprinter at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and later for being stripped of her five medals for doping, she returned to basketball with the Tulsa Shock this season.
As a rookie at age 34, when most players in the league are retiring, she has averaged 3.5 points, 1.5 rebounds and 9.0 minutes for Tulsa Shock. However, she has progressively received more playing time as the season has gone on, including four games in the past 12 in which she logged more than 15 minutes.
"The most difficult is when you're on the bench and can't contribute like you want and you feel like you have all this to give and to contribute, and you can't because you're not out there," Jones said. "When I get on the court, even if it's two minutes, one minute, (I) just make sure that I try to do everything I can right and bring the energy."
Jones isn't sure of her plans in the offseason, whether it's going overseas like most players, or staying in the U.S. to work on her game. However, she was adamant that she wants to play in the WNBA next season.
"Absolutely. My husband and I made way too many sacrifices for me just to stop now," Jones said. "I want to play as long as I can contribute and as long as I see I have a lot of potential left, and I think I haven't even come close to reaching that so why would I leave? I'm 34, but that's just a number."
Looking back on the season, Jones says the biggest surprise for her was how strong and physical the players are, adding that she needs to do "build more mass" to avoid getting pushed around as much.
"I'm quick, but they're quick, they're strong, they're fast, they're smart and they've been playing forever," Jones said. "This is their world, this is their life and now I've kind of jumped in the mix."
The Shock close the season at home against Chicago on Saturday night, finishing their first summer in Tulsa after moving from Detroit.
Starting the season without any of their big stars from Detroit — where they won three titles between 2003-08 — and finishing without any players remaining from last year, the Shock have struggled to a 5-28 record in the '40 Minutes of Hell' system of first-year coach Nolan Richardson, who led Arkansas to the men's NCAA title in 1994.
Jones, who makes the league minimum — around $35,000 — used to earn nearly double that in most track events and millions in endorsements and bonuses while traveling the world.
Now, the one-time world's fastest woman is playing in arenas that are more than half-empty and leaving her family for days at a time while husband, Obadele Thompson, takes care of their three children.
"It's tough," Jones admitted. "I'm a mom who has to be away from her kids on the road, but I'm a career woman. Millions of them all around the world who have to make certain choices, and we've had to make sacrifices for me to pursue this journey."
This year's journey included a stop in New York earlier this week in the Shock's lone trip to Madison Square Garden. The Liberty won the game 95-85, pulling away down the stretch.
Jones, who said she attended concerts and basketball games and participated in track meets in the arena, was still somewhat awe-struck on the court.
"I felt like a little girl out there, looking up at the banners," she said. "You realize ... the history. People that have walked through these halls, have played and performed, and to say I have a little bit of that is nice."
Jones served about six months in prison after admitting she had lied to federal investigators about doping, and says she has moved on from her past mistakes and just tries to focus on the future.
"I am who I am today because of my experiences ... because of certain struggles in my life," she said. "Although I wish sometimes I wish I can go back and have changed stuff, I like who I am today and I'm in a good place in my world."