February 21, 2023
How Linnell Jones-McKenney made her hoop dreams come true
Jones-McKenney's story reads like a myth, but she is a legend
As far back as elementary school Linnell Jones-McKenney spent time during many of her classes dreaming about the future. Moreover, as a young girl in the late 1960s, she (then Linnell Jones) dreamed of playing competitive basketball at all. She grew up in Michigan, a big state without a single organized team for young girls, forcing her at age eight to become the first girl in the state to join a boys’ team.
Initially, the boys on the team expressed skepticism in the way young boys frequently do. They followed her home with the intention of starting a fight. She called their bluff and the tension dissipated. Later on, Jones-McKenney says, “When they came to the house, they specifically said they wanted me to come out and play because I had proven that I was capable of playing with them. I made the boys’ team in elementary school, and I started,” converting her first dream to a reality.
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Paying it forward
Even the child version of Linnell Jones-McKenney was not content just making dreams come true for herself. One young girl playing on one boys’ team in Michigan didn’t satisfy Linnell. While some view the hard times they endure as rites of passage, Jones-McKenney worked to make sure others wouldn’t have it so tough.
In most stories, this is the part where the narrative jumps ahead to decades down the line where Linnell Jones-McKenney, as an adult, works to make sure basketball is accessible for everyone; and while Jones-McKenney has devoted much of her adult life to developing young women into basketball players, she didn’t wait around for adulthood to get started.
After earning a spot for herself on an organized team, Jones-McKenney wanted to create opportunities for other girls in and around Flint, Michigan. In her words, “my dream has always been to work with young people, play professional basketball. I had that dream at the age of eight years old. And a number of other things that I was dreaming about. So I decided to work with the young people in the city.”
And she started the work immediately. While still in middle school herself, she teamed up with some of the older girls she knew who also played basketball, convinced local businesses to donate shoes and uniforms and created what she called the Traveling All-Stars.
The Traveling All-Stars visited several schools in the region, where they ran assemblies focused on teaching drills and running scrimmages. At the end of each event, Jones-McKenney, a future motivational speaker, addressed the youth.
“I would talk to them about realizing their dreams,” Jones-McKenney told The Next. “It’s important to have a dream regardless of what you’re going through. In elementary and middle school, I was bullied really, really bad. I mean, every class I went in, it was like, I was being bullied, picked on, chased home, pulled my hair, different things like that. So what I did was I imagined myself doing something great … So I would use my imagination. And that’s what I shared with the young people, what’s your dream?”
Navigating a nascent Title IX landscape
Upon reaching high school, Jones-McKenney finally got to play organized basketball with other girls, but she didn’t initially plan to attend college. It appeared that her competitive career may end when high school did. Before Title IX, attending college did not provide many women an opportunity to continue playing sports.
Meanwhile, the primary alternative for residents of Flint who don’t attend college was to seek employment with General Motors, or as the locals refer to it, “the shop.” Linnell recalls a conversation with her father in which he “came home one day, and he said, ‘Hey, you know, I got a job for you. Tomorrow, just get up at four o’clock in the morning and get ready and I’ll take you.’”
Maybe it was the four a.m. wake-up call, but at that moment, Jones-McKenney knew her career path needed a course correction. She says, “I knew that I didn’t want to work in the shop, because everybody has worked in the shop. It was a great job. But that wasn’t my dream. That wasn’t my vision for my life. And so I told my dad, I said, ‘Oh, Dad, you know, I’m going to college.’”
Jones-McKenney’s ascent through the college ranks came with several bumps and roadblocks, but she maintained focus on her ultimate dream throughout the process. At Ferris State University, she walked onto the basketball team, but without a scholarship, she needed to figure out how to pay her way.
“My focus was: my dream is to play professional basketball. That was my dream. And I would imagine myself doing that.” Jones-McKenney’s name still appears in the record books at Ferris State, ranking first in points per game with 18.4, third in rebounds per game with 10.4 and fourth in assists per game with 4.4.
The next season Jones-McKenney was recruited by conference rival Saginaw Valley State University and offered a partial scholarship, which eased the financial burden. However, shortly after joining Saginaw Valley, the NCAA implemented a rule requiring transfers to sit out a year before resuming eligibility, so Jones-McKenney found herself stuck in school without the gratification of basketball. Thus, she continued to remind herself, “I just want to play basketball,” and to play basketball she needed to stay in school and do well academically.
Linnell’s next stop was Kentucky State University. “They offered me a full ride. Now, Title IX is starting to kick in. But of course, like I said, I didn’t know anything about Title IX. All I knew was I wanted to continue to play basketball because that’s my dream.”
Still locked in on her dream, Jones-McKenney earned All-American honors twice while at Kentucky State and led the team in scoring, assists, rebounds and steals.
Among the lofty visions for her life, Jones-McKenney recollects a particular dream from high school that gave her pause. “We had this one class and they had this big, huge screen and they were talking about Rome and they were talking about all these other countries,” Jones-McKenney told The Next and I’m like, ‘We’ll never go there. I’ll never go there.’”
And yet, years later, she found herself trying out for a European league team located just outside of Rome. She made the squad, and one day after practice, a few people from the team took her on a tour around Rome.
Touring the streets of Rome provides a particularly apt setting for Jones-McKenney to reflect on her journey, as the city’s history contains numerous icons that mirror what Jones-McKenney stood for as she endured adversity.
The Roman Forum, once home to the gilt statues of the Dii Consentes, is the Roman counterpart to the Twelve Olympians of ancient Greece. Among these twelve major deities was Ceres, a goddess of the harvest, known for her matronly relationships and protecting the common people who were often overlooked by high society. As a figure in Roman religion, Ceres represents the act of growing something from nothing via time and hard work, as well as nurturing and nourishing those overlooked by existing social structures. After years spent cultivating dreams and creating space for women in the basketball world, if Linnell Jones-McKenney had come face to face with the statue of Ceres, certainly, she would have seen a bit of herself reflected back.
The connection between Ceres, the Twelve Olympians, and subsequently the Olympic Games forges another bond between Jones-McKenney and the Roman deity. While Linnell’s dream of playing professional basketball remained on hold due to the lack of a domestic women’s league, another opportunity to achieve basketball greatness presented itself.
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During her senior year of college, Linnell’s coach offered to take her and a couple of her teammates down to Colorado to try out for the 1980 Olympic team. Later on, Jones-McKenney’s coach rescinded the offer, but it was too late. The Olympic dream imprinted itself upon Linnell’s mind. So she reached out to her dad, who agreed to buy her a ticket, and she made the trip down to try out amongst a field of roughly 300 women, including a field of special invites — the best of the best.
“So out of [roughly 300 players], they picked 15. And I made the final cut. But of course, [the United States] boycotted [the Olympic Games] that year.” After figuring out her own travel to make it to the tryout, yet another blockage presented itself, attempting to derail her dreams.
At a moment when Jones-McKenney likely felt incredibly dejected, one of the Olympic committee members (a real life, Ceres-esque figure to act as a motherly guide for Linnell) pulled her aside and asked her, “What’s your dream?”
Before answering, Linnell remembers reflecting on her life and everything she overcame to get to that point before replying, “I want to play professional basketball.” Once again, Linnell Jones-McKenney spoke aloud her dream to play professionally when no professional league for women existed.
Or so she thought.
Unbeknownst to her, the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) had formed, and now the St. Louis Streak would be contacting her for a try out. Jones-McKenney recalls the shock of getting the news, “I didn’t even know. I didn’t even know. I say to myself, even now, what if I had given up during the time of being bullied? What if I had given up during the time of not having those opportunities to play on girls’ teams? What if I had a thought, ‘wow, this is it, I’ll never be a professional.’ Here I am, 22 years old, down here in Colorado Springs, Colorado, trying out for a team of 200-and-something almost 300 girls, and you make that final 15 cut. And someone comes to ask you, ‘What’s your dream?’ And I’m able to say I want to play professional basketball. I didn’t know that they had just started a women’s professional league.”
When asked what stands out most about her time in the WBL and the experience of finally playing professional basketball in front of an arena full of fans in her own country, Linnell cared most about what happened after the game.
“These kids would come up to me. Will you sign? Can you give me your autograph? Can you sign? Can you sign? And that was kind of like an enlightenment that you really have to understand and realize and be cognizant of the fact that people are not just watching you, as a basketball player, people are watching your every move, your every step,” Jones-McKenney told The Next.
With that in mind, Jones-McKenney got active in St. Louis, showing up for the youth both on and off the court. She made the purposeful decision to take on “that mindset of community service, community work and mentorship,” providing experiences to kids that weren’t available to her as a child.
After the WBL folded, Jones-McKenney continued her professional basketball career in Italy, playing in Viterbo and Vicenza, bringing the American style of play overseas. By rule, each team rostered only one American player, and meanwhile, the European players and coaches were eager to learn the American style of basketball, “the up and down the court, the fast speed, stop and pop, reverse layup running and gunning,” as Jones-McKenney describes it.
Consequently, it frequently fell to the American on the team to introduce drills and guide the action on the court. “The Americans had so much pressure, so much pressure because they had to carry the team and had to be the scorer, they had to be the defender; you have to play against the best player on the team, you have to score 30, 40 points, 50 points. So, you have to be the one to guide and to lead and to be the example of professionalism,” Jones-McKenney recalls.
She handled the pressure so well that on one particular night, she scored 84 points in a single game with no 3-point line. With such strong performances on the court, Jones-McKenney and her team enjoyed fan support so strong it demanded the construction of a new arena, a colosseum of their own.
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After living out her dream overseas, Jones-McKenney returned home and made it her full-time focus to help others live their dreams. She began a traveling ministry and started youth programs in conjunction with several organizations, including the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, where plans are in the works for a new youth sports complex. Among her many efforts to give back to the community via motivational speaking, working with anti-violence groups, writing a book and hosting a podcast, the through-line remains the same as it ever was, always stemming back to her childhood.
“I would be gazing out the window when I was being heavily bullied. When I think about that, and I’m in the position that I’m in now … I’m trying to make sure that the people I influence understand and realize that there is a purpose, there is a reason, you have gifts, you have talent.”
Despite no longer playing professionally, Jones-McKenney still sees plenty of time on the basketball court. She serves as the assistant coach of the Flint Monarchs of the Global Women’s Basketball Association, a semi-pro league operating in the Midwest. The Monarchs 2022 roster included former WNBA players Brandie Baker-Cunningham and Crystal Bradford. Though she coaches now, Jones-McKenney got her start with the Monarchs as a player, which led to her eventually joining a 3-on-3 team and competing in the senior Olympics put on by the National Senior Games Association.
Jones-McKenney describes her experience at the games, saying, “It was beautiful to see all the seniors down there 50 and over. It was a beautiful sight. It was a beautiful sight and then to win the gold medal. I’m like, okay, we boycotted in 1980. But here we are now, you know, I got my gold medal.”
Alongside her long-awaited gold medal, Jones-McKenney resides in six halls of fame, making her an Olympian, a hero and a true living legend. Someone build this woman a statue already.