May 18, 2022
‘There’s only been one Asjha Jones’
Connecticut Sun honor Asjha Jones to open franchise 20th anniversary celebration
When Connecticut Sun president Jen Rizzotti approached Asjha Jones about honoring her number in the rafters for the Connecticut Sun at a UConn game last December, Jones wasn’t sure if it would actually be real.
Jones doesn’t seek out the spotlight, saying she prefers to do her work in the background. But on Saturday night Rizzotti and the Sun placed the spotlight directly on her.
At the Sun’s 20th home opener at Mohegan Sun Arena, the team honored Jones as one of the franchise’s foundational players – hanging her number in the rafters along with other Sun greats in the “Ring of Honor.”
Renowned for her work ethic, consistency and her quiet leadership, Jones was a constant presence in the Sun’s formative years. With the team from 2004 to 2012, Jones shared the court with every Sun Legend who her number now stands next to in the rafters: Nykesha Sales, Lindsay Whalen, Margo Dydek, and Katie Douglas.
“I was anxious all day thinking about it – I don’t really love the spotlight,” Jones told reporters after the ceremony. “But it was amazing to be honored that way. To see that all the sacrifices I made over the years – body, time, family – that it was all appreciated.”
The game was relatively uneventful, as the Sun took a quick lead against the Los Angeles Sparks and never gave it up. But the Sun faithful who packed the arena – some wearing Jones’ No. 15 jersey – kept up the energy to show their appreciation for Jones – who ended her nine years with the Sun as the franchise’s second-leading scorer with 3,336 points and second all-time in rebounds with 1,447.
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Jones was a constant presence in the Sun’s early years, playing 271 games, and starting 175 of them, on her way to becoming one of the franchise leaders in every statistical category – fourth in blocks, sixth in assists and eighth in steals. She made two All-Star game appearances in 2007 and 2009, and earned All-WNBA second team honors in 2008.
Jones has won on nearly every level of basketball throughout her career. She’s one of a handful of players to have won a NCAA Championship, WNBA title, World Championship, and Olympic Gold Medal. More recently, she won a WNBA championship as a coach for the Washington Mystics when they defeated the Sun in the Finals in 2019.
A fourth-overall draft pick for the Mystics in 2002, Jones landed in Connecticut after her second season via trade. She found her footing as a player in Connecticut, stepping into a larger role than what she had previously experienced. Her career really began to blossom.
The team went to the Finals her first two years with the team. The Finals teams were stacked with talent, including Sales, Douglas, Whalen, and the late Margo Dydek – who Jones said was a “gentle giant” with a love for people and their languages and culture that made being around her beautiful.
She’s still friends with the others, who are all great people, she said. Douglas, she said, taught the younger players like herself so much about how to be a pro, and how to go about their business. And since Jones was older than Whalen, she said she enjoyed watching her grow as a player and a person.
“We were a great team,” Jones told The Next in March. “We didn’t win a championship, but we were right there. We made two Finals, and there’s a lot to be said for that.”
But contracts end and players move teams, and by 2010, all that remained of that core was Jones and the No. 1 draft pick that the Sun obtained by trading Whalen to Minnesota.
“I feel like I had a few different careers there in Connecticut,” Jones said. “I was the young person on the team, then all of a sudden became the oldest person on the team.”
It was that transition that Jones said shaped her as a leader. She went from listening to what Katie Douglas said to do, to being the person everybody looked at for direction. Jones wasn’t a big talker, she said, but that transition forced her to become more vocal.
That No. 1 pick turned out to be another UConn standout, Tina Charles, who was coming into the league right off of two consecutive national titles. Jones said some veterans could have been intimidated by adding a young superstar to the roster, but Jones saw it as an opportunity to grow as a mentor and a leader.
“I think our games kind of meshed,” Jones said. “I was a four, she was the five at that time, and I understood how to get her to ball, to kind of showcase her. And I was happy to do that because that was a part of my game.”
Rizzotti said it was actually Charles who first brought up retiring Jones’ number, telling Rizzotti at a game at Mohegan Sun last season that it was time to honor the franchise legend.
Rizzotti, new to the franchise after being hired as team president last year, said that she started diving into the franchise history. It was immediately obvious that Charles was right, she said – and the Sun’s 20th anniversary season was the perfect time to honor her.
Jones was happy to have the support of her friend and former mentee.
“She didn’t have to do that,” Jones said. “But just knowing that she had my back and that she understood what we meant to each other during our time – it made me very happy.”
Jones finds a new role
Jones work ethic and demeanor were a coach’s dream – Geno Auriemma attested to that at her jersey retirement ceremony, saying he needed her to balance outspoken players like Diana Taurasi.
Mike Thibault – who coached the Sun when Jones was on the team, and now coaches the Washington Mystics – would tell Jones from time to time that she should consider coaching after her playing career.
Jones was always adamant that coaching was not for her, but a few years after she retired from the Minnesota Lynx in 2015, Thibault came calling. He wanted her to be a coach, and he had a job in mind – joining his staff on the Mystics.
“When I was a player, I was always kind of instructing – telling people where to go, explaining things so they could understand it. I enjoyed that,” Jones said. “But to the thought of actually, like having to watch film and breaking it down, and doing scouting reports, I saw how hard that was on our coaches.”
But after three years away from the sport, Jones said she was more open to the idea. And working with her former coach was the perfect opportunity. She said she doesn’t think she would have said “yes” to anyone else, but she had a lot of trust in Thibault because of how he treated her, and how she saw him treat other players.
“He’s always been my guy. I could call him for anything,” Jones said. “And when he called my phone that night – it was a Sunday night, I’ll never forget it. It was because it was him that I said yes. Because I trusted that he wouldn’t put me in a bad position, ever.”
She joined Thibault’s staff in 2018. That year, she coached in the WNBA Finals and then returned again to win it all in 2019 against the Connecticut Sun. Jones became the first person to win a WNBA championship as both a player and a coach – just neither of them came with the Sun.
Coaching quickly led to another opportunity, and the Portland Trailblazers hired Jones as the team’s director of basketball strategy right before the 2021 WNBA season began. Jones is a key member of the Blazers’ front office, with a hand in everything that goes into building and maintaining an NBA roster, from scouting and drafting to free agency and trades.
She said she would never be in this role today if it wasn’t for Thibault bringing her back into the sport. After she retired as a WNBA champion with the Lynx, an NCAA champion with UConn, an Olympic gold medalist and a world champion with Team USA, Jones said she felt like she had done everything she wanted to do in the sport.
But coaching showed her that she needs to be involved in basketball, and it gave her a new avenue to pursue. Now that she’s working on the back end of an organization, seeing how the sausage of an NBA team is made, Jones said she’s blessed to have the opportunity to stay in the sport.
“I did all the other stuff, now there’s another part that I can expand and grow at – just all in the background,” Jones said. “I’m not on the court, I don’t have to be seen – which is my personality.”
It’s perfect for someone who doesn’t crave the spotlight. And it’s a lot better for her knees than being on the court, she said.
“Players take being traded in different ways. For me, it was like going back home.”
When Jones returned to Connecticut in 2004 after spending her first two seasons in Washington, Sun games at Mohegan Sun Arena were like a UConn reunion.
“Players take being traded in different ways. For me, it was like going back home,” Jones told the crowd before unveiling the new banner in the rafters.
“When I was traded, I didn’t know what kind of player I was. I wasn’t being used on the team until I got traded here. Coach Thibault gave me my confidence back. He showed me what kind of player I can be and here I really blossomed. In college I had great teammates, played hard, won championships, took my game to the next level, so when I came back home I found more of that.”
The franchise was only in its second season, and UConn fans would show out for Jones and fellow Husky Nykesha Sales at games. It was a seamless transition, though it took some prodding to get the fans to swap out their UConn gear for Sun gear.
“It’s the same fans, they’re basketball junkies, you know?” Jones said. “But it was also fans who couldn’t get up to Storrs – it’s far. So now all those fans actually get to go and watch basketball live. So it was the perfect synergy.”
The Connecticut fans always showed out for their beloved Husky, Jones. And Saturday’s Sun Legends Ring of Fire ceremony was no different. More than 5,600 people attended the game before the ceremony – many fans were decked in old Sun jerseys, including Asjha Jones jerseys.
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said during his remarks that it was a “breath of fresh air (for Jones) to come to UConn,” especially with her class of Sue Bird, Swin Cash, and Tamika Williams. He admired her work ethic and said she never missed a practice in all four years at UConn.
“There’s been a lot of great players at UConn, at the Connecticut Sun, in the WNBA and on the Olympic team,” Auriemma said. “But there’s only been one Asjha Jones.”