THERE ARE two men named Jones coaching Ivy League basketball, brothers with trim physiques, shaved heads and scared-of-nothing demeanors. James, who turns 40 on Feb. 20, is in his fifth year at Yale, and Joe, 38, is the rookie coach at Columbia, and they're so similar that even their father, Herman, can't keep the two JJ's straight. Some Ivy observers have wondered if the brothers are in cahoots, sharing secrets about plays and players and helping each other in order to end the Penn-Princeton stranglehold on Ancient Eight hoops. They don't know the Jones brothers.� James was working in his office in Payne Whitney Gymnasium, the Gothic fortress for sports at Yale, last Thursday when his cellphone rang. He looked at the caller I.D., saw it was Joe, picked up the phone and said coldly, "Yo." In season, their relationship is mostly by phone.
"Yo, James, how do you get to I-93?" Joe asked. He was driving to New Hampshire, to scout a high school player the day before Columbia played at Dartmouth. James wasn't about to log on to MapQuest and sort it out for his brother.
"I don't know, man," James said. "I gotta go." He had Penn game tape to watch. The Quakers, 14-0 in Ivy play last year, were coming to Yale on Friday night.
Ivy League basketball is really about two things: finding legit players with SAT scores well into in the four figures, and never letting up in a short, fierce season. Win the title—claimed in part or in whole by Penn or Princeton in 42 of the last 48 years—and you go straight to the NCAA tournament. (There is no conference tournament.) Despite impressions that still linger from the Bill Bradley era at Princeton 40 years ago, there's nothing genteel about the Ivy League game, which is ultimately why the Jones brothers are where they are. All they want to do is win. Columbia lost all of its Ivy games last year, and the well-liked coach, Armond Hill, was fired. Joe Jones came from Villanova, where he was an assistant in charge of recruiting. He beat out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bobby Hurley Jr., among others, for the job.
People who know the brothers say that talking to one is pretty much like talking to the other. The most obvious similarity is their energy. The differences are subtle. "I manage my money better," James says. "I saved money as an assistant coach making $29,000 a year." Joe offers no argument. "I'm more of a taxi guy than a subway guy," he says. He figures the money will come from somewhere.
Both brothers are, at times, comically profane. Preparing the Lions for the Dartmouth game, Joe said to his players, "I want you to step on their d----s!" That is, rebound aggressively. Revving up 6'6" guard Matt Minoff, the Yale captain, for Ivy League play, James said to him, "You're gonna be a motherf-----!" That is, a player who dominates games with his skill and strength.
The bulk of the Ivy season is contested over six consecutive weekends in the dead of winter, when teams play every Friday and Saturday night. Last weekend, in the first full slate of Ivy League play, the Bulldogs had their hands full: Penn on Friday, Princeton on Saturday. Yale had already been defeated in its first two Ivy games, upset losses to Brown. The Bulldogs needed two wins to have any realistic chance of repeating their success of 2001-02, when Yale, Penn and Princeton tied for first with 11-3 records. (In a playoff, Yale beat Princeton and then lost to Penn, after which the Bulldogs received a bid to the NIT. In their first postseason appearance in 40 years, they beat Rutgers but lost to Tennessee Tech in the second round.) After playing Dartmouth, Columbia had another road game, at Harvard on Saturday. There was pressure, of a sort, on the Lions, too: Before the season Joe had promised Ivy League victories, but Columbia had opened inauspiciously, losing its first two games, to Cornell.
And so, in a league rooted in WASP privilege and power and wealth, the central figures last weekend were the Jones brothers, with their dark skin and working-class roots. The two seemed right at home. James, especially, has the legacy thing down. He reminds his recruits that George W. Bush went to Yale (class of '68) and that Bill Clinton (law school '73) did too.
The journey the Jones brothers took to the Ivy League is an episode from the American dream. Their father's grandfather, Sydney, was a Louisiana minister who also worked in a barbershop. Their parents moved to Long Island, N.Y., where Herman found work in the dry cleaning business and mother Edna was a nurse. The marriage ended in divorce when James was in seventh grade and Joe in sixth. The boys, along with their younger brother, John, and younger sister, Kizuwanda, moved with their father to working-class Wheatley Heights and attended Half Hollow Hills High West. A lot of their good friends were Jewish kids from affluent Dix Hills who were the children of doctors and lawyers, and James and Joe became comfortable in a mostly white environment. It was at Half Hollow Hills that they first heard about the Ivy League, and it was at Half Hollow Hills that they first realized the value of education. James, a 6'1" shooting guard-forward, went on to SUNY Albany, and Joe, a 6' 2" point guard, attended SUNY Oswego.
They received bachelor's degrees (both in communications), followed by master's degrees (James in educational administration, Joe in counseling). They started on the bottom rungs of coaching as young single men; now they are at Division I schools and are married with young daughters. There are 326 major college positions in the nation and thousands of people who want them. James and Joe are one of three active pairs of head-coaching brothers in the college game (chart, left).