Feb. 18, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Next Game: Thursday night, 7:00 p.m. vs. No. 4 Notre Dame at McCamish Pavilion, Annual Play 4Kay Game presented by Atlanta Medical Center.
Zaire O’Neil knew almost immediately that De’Ashia Jones was going to be the sister she never had. That became clear pretty much around the time that her father, Joseph, let her know that Jones was the player that he had to have for his AAU team at the summer camp he was running.
“The first memory I have was playing against her. I didn’t know who she was and my dad was like in love with her,” O’Neil recalled, with a laugh. “He was like, `I’ve got this girl who’s really good.’ We were actually playing against boys. We were girls but we were dominating everybody else and it was like `Why not do it together?’ So that was my first real memory with her.”
“[The camp] was actually for boys and girls but not a lot of girls were in attendance,” Jones remembered. “We were in fifth grade or sixth grade and we were actually playing against each other. So a lot of people were like, `Wow. These two girls playing against each other, it’s something to see.’ It was something to see. After the camp, her father came up to me and asked me how I would like to play AAU and travel and do things like that. For me, growing up, I didn’t see things like that. I didn’t see girls do things like that.”
The two, separated by about five months in age (O’Neil was born Dec. 13, 1995, Jones on May 31, 1996) and about an inch in height (Jones is 5-10, O’Neil 5-11) have been pretty much inseparable ever since.
They played AAU together, they went to high school together, at Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, in Newark, where they’d continue the school’s dynasty, winning back-to-back NJSIAA/ShopRite Tournament of Champions titles and leading the school to its seventh consecutive Group Title, and now are at Georgia Tech, completing their freshman season on the D-I level.
Having a sister was cool for O’Neil, who had three brothers, while having a sister-figure against whom she could improve her game was big for Jones, as, while she had an older sister and an older brother, neither was particularly athletically inclined (“They’re not athletes,” Jones said, with a laugh. “I’m the only person in my family that actually plays basketball.”).
“De’Ashia and I have been playing with each other since we were about 10,” said O’Neil. “We have that sister bond because I have all brothers, so she has been a person I go to. She’s the person I can talk to on and off the court and we just make each other better. We know how to play with each other, we know how to push each other, we know how to help each other through tough situations and that’s what we came here to do. It’s just a great connection with us.”
They’ve continued to grow together, even though their roles have been very different this year.
O’Neil has had a tremendous freshman season, making her first start on Dec. 4, at No. 16/16 Michigan State and starting all but two games since. Heading into Thursday night’s game, in 25 games (15 starts), Zaire ranked fourth on the team in scoring (11.5 ppg), third in rebounding (6.0 rpg), was second on the team in field goals (114), field goal percentage (50.0) and double-doubles (four).
“She continues to learn on the job,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph. “It’s hard for a freshman to come in and be a go-to player and be expected to carry a lot of the load on both ends of the floor but I think she continues to grow and develop.”
Jones has had a tougher road breaking in, having appeared in 12 games, and averaging 3.2 minutes, but she continues to work hard and improve her game — she nailed her second three-point field goal of the season (in six tries) in Tech’s last game at Miami. It’s simply been a numbers game for floor time.
“It’s one of those things where she’s backing up Roddreka Rogers and it’s hard to find minutes for somebody behind Roddreka,” said Joseph. “She’s got Kat [Vuckovic] and Roddreka in front of her and it’s tough for me to go with another freshman.”
O’Neil and Jones also continue to grow academically at Georgia Tech and as young women, where they continue to lean on each other.
“It’s definitely nice,” said O’Neil. “With us being next to each other in rooms, we have that bond if something happens we can talk to each other and that’s just how it’s always been.”
“It’s very nice because it always gives you an edge when you know there’s somebody there with you and you’re not alone,” said Jones. “Our teammates, obviously, are also here with us, so we have great communication and just all around, we’re all there for each other. But in the beginning, you don’t know what to expect. So it’s nice to have that edge.”
On Thursday night, O’Neil and Jones will participate, along with the entire team, in the annual Play 4Kay Game, an initiative which has been taking place since 2007, to help raise awareness of breast cancer and funds for research.
It’s not only an important game because they’re hosting fourth-ranked Notre Dame and are looking to improve their position heading into the ACC Tournament — they’re currently tied for 11th at 4-8, but are only one game out of ninth — but it’s important in saluting the memory of the late Coach Yow and to help further such a worthy cause.
Being out in the community has become part of their growing responsibility as role models, being D-I athletes.
O’Neil and Jones have come to realize the importance of being role models, to the girls following in their shoes at Shabazz and, perhaps more important, to girls that aren’t necessarily athletes but still are pursuing their dreams. They remember being visited by Shabazz alumni that came before them and how it felt to be addressed by them.
“When Zaire and I were younger it meant a lot for us to see Matte Ajavon walk in the gym or [former Yellow Jackets player] Iasia Hemingway,” said Jones. “So I know it means a lot to them when they see us walk in the gym and they run up to us and hug us and things like that.”
“I talk to the players all the time as much as I can, try to encourage them, try to tell them to stay on top of their books and basketball will come,” said O’Neil. “Trying to help them out because that’s what the people that graduated from `bazz did to us. They still try to talk to us even as they’ve grown up. People like [Atlanta Dream guard] Matte Ajavon and [former Yellow Jackets guard/forward] Iasia Hemingway, they still keep in contact with us to make sure that we’re doing the right things, that we don’t make the mistakes that they made going through Shabazz.
“I tell young girls that all the time, `You can be good in books AND you can be good in sports,'” O’Neil added. “So I think all female collegiate athletes are role models just because you’ve gotten this far because of your talent and you’re still getting it done in school.”
O’Neil recalled the words by which she lives, words that she heard a lot growing up from her mom, Toinette, a former college player, and also currently an AAU coach.
“The 10 most important two-letter words are `If it is to be, it is up to me.'”
For more information on the Play 4Kay Game, visit www.play4kay.org/faf/home/default.asp?ievent=1110514.