Sometimes, the path to the future is right in your backyard. It certainly was for Wyking Jones (pronounced WHY-king). An LMU ball boy as a youngster, a heralded high school player at nearby Saint Bernard, a standout forward for the Lions in the 1990s, and then an LMU assistant coach, he was as local as you can get.
“I chose LMU because it felt like home,” says Jones, who following other assistant coaching stints at Pepperdine and New Mexico is now an assistant at the University of Louisville. Jones’ first exposure to LMU was through Jim Ellis, his elementary school teacher in Inglewood and part-time assistant coach under Paul Westhead. Jones remembers the day Ellis asked if he wanted to be a ball boy at LMU home games. Without hesitation, Jones jumped at the chance, which provided a coveted floor seat to watch LMU’s highly entertaining, high octane offense. “The best part of the job was we were able to play on the court after cleaning up the locker rooms and taking items to be laundered,” he said. Little did he know he would one day put on a Lions uniform and bring fans to their feet with his stellar play in Gersten Pavilion.
As a high school senior, Jones was recruited by several high major colleges, taking official visits to Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and LMU. One of the deciding factors in LMU’s favor had nothing to do with basketball. “I was most comfortable with the coaching staff, and I really enjoyed talking to assistant coach Bruce Woods,” Jones recalls. “With Bruce, it wasn’t all about basketball when he recruited me. I trusted him and he spent time getting to know me as a person. We talked about other things in my life just as much as we talked about basketball. In the end, I decided LMU was the best fit for me.” Jones remembered that lesson well. He used the experience – making adjustments for his personality and style – when he became a recruiter. “I learned a lot from my experience being recruited such that today, I specifically make it a point to convey to every prospective student-athlete we recruit to the University of Louisville that we care about their development on and off the court,” Jones says.
Like so many high school players who make the jump from high school to Division I, Jones’ first two years on the court were uneventful. He was too weak. To say that he filled out his uniform is being overly generous. While he had the right frame at 6-foot-7, he was too skinny for the tough and competitive West Coast Conference. His opponents had their way with him on the court. “I couldn’t post up my defender,” says Jones. “I remember being pushed out from the block so many times that by the time I got the ball, I ended up on the wing.” As a result, he played little his first two years.
Jones knew what he needed to do. “My focus in the off season was to prepare my body to play at the Division I level,” he says. After his sophomore season, he dedicated himself to weight training. While he did not yet have the power needed to compete, he possessed other essential intangibles — work ethic, desire, passion to play, competitiveness, and a love for his teammates, who pushed him to succeed.
Jones remembers working out with teammates Robin Kirksey and Ime Oduok on many nights after study hall. “We had access to Gersten Pavilion, and I clearly remember the nights when it was just the three of us working out. Our weightlifting workouts STARTED at 9:30 pm,” Jones recalls. “We would even work out on Friday nights when many of our classmates were out partying.”
Jones estimates he spent as much time in the weight room as he did working on his game. The workouts and the bonds forged in the make-shift weight room under Gersten Pavilion’s upper level bleachers paid dividends for all three players. Jones bulked up from 190 pounds in his freshman year to 225 pounds as a senior. And his on-court numbers took off, too. From averaging 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in his first two years, he exploded as a junior to 19.7 points and 8 rebounds per game. Kirksey, an athletic and talented 6-foot-5 wing from Gardena High School, was rail-thin and weighed just 170 pounds as a freshman. Those late night workouts left Kirksey at 210 pounds as a senior. Oduok, who was featured in the last Catching Up series, was already a physical specimen and used the workouts to get even stronger while working on fundamentals. Together, the three formed a formidable front line that helped the team to a third place conference finish and 18-11 overall record in 1995. It is not surprising that all three went on to have successful athletic and business careers after graduation and still remain close friends today.
Jones, who played from 1991-95, closed out his LMU career with 1,076 points (25th all time) and 493 rebounds (24th all time). He was a WCC first team selection as a junior, leading the team in scoring and rebounds, and was named LMU Student-Athlete of the Year. As a senior, Jones was a WCC honorable mention selection after averaging 13.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Jones led the team in scoring and rebounding as a junior and in scoring again as a senior. He appears throughout the LMU record book and is in the Top 30 of several statistical categories, including points in a season, scoring average, offensive and defensive rebounds, field goals made, field goal percentage, blocked shots, free throws attempted and minutes played.
After graduating with a degree in business administration in 1995, Jones spent the following year playing professionally in Italy. He returned to LMU as an assistant to head coach John Olive, but that was short-lived as Olive was let go after Jones’ first season. Jones returned to playing basketball and spent the next several years in France, Japan, Lebanon and South Korea.
After his pro days were done, Jones returned to Southern California and while living in Westchester, took an assistant coaching position at Pepperdine University under former NBA player and coach Paul Westphal. In his first season at Pepperdine, Jones helped the Waves to a 22-9 mark, going 13-1 in conference play, tying Gonzaga University for the regular season title, and earning a berth in the NCAA tournament. In his fifth and final year at Pepperdine, Jones served as the Waves’ recruiting coordinator. When Westphal’s time was up at Pepperdine, Jones took a position at Nike’s sprawling corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. There, he worked under legendary basketball coach George Raveling and ran Nike’s grassroots youth basketball program, managing about 45 travel teams across the country. That key position allowed Jones to establish solid contacts and working relationships with young players and AAU coaches nationally.
His work caught the attention of former Indiana University standout Steve Alford, who hired Jones as an assistant coach at the University of New Mexico. Former LMU assistant coach Chris Walker, who coached Jones at LMU and was Alford’s assistant, recommended Jones for the job as he was leaving to take a similar position at Villanova University, Walker’s alma mater. In two seasons at New Mexico, Jones helped the Lobos to a 52-18 record. The 2009-10 team finished with a school record 30 wins while losing only 5 games. New Mexico won the Mountain West Conference tournament and finished the season ranked eighth in the final Associated Press poll.
Around that time, University of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino was in the process of filling two assistant coaching vacancies. Pitino tasked his son Richard to help develop a list of top assistant coaches across the country for consideration. The younger Pitino put Jones on the list. Jones, who met Pitino for the first time during his interview, was hired shortly thereafter. At the time, coach Pitino said of Jones, “Wyking has the experience necessary to help us recruit top-notch student athletes from all 50 states. He is highly regarded in all circles as a tireless worker and an outstanding communicator with young people. After considerable research, it was apparent that he had all of the characteristics necessary to bring to Cardinal basketball.” Video of Pitino’s comments can be seen here. Jones is currently in his second season at Louisville. Last year, he helped Louisville to a 30-10 finish, losing 69-61 to eventual national champion University of Kentucky in the national semi-final game. This year, Louisville garnered the top overall seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament and had a run for the ages culminating in a 16-game win streak to capture the national title against the University of Michigan.
The road to receiving a bid to the NCAA tournament, let alone the Final Four, can be long and arduous. For many, this goal is not achieved in one’s lifetime either as a player or coach. But for the local kid from Inglewood, Jones reached the pinnacle of his chosen profession not only once but twice, helping take Louisville to two consecutive Final Fours and winning it all less than a month ago. When asked about his experiences and what it felt like to be an integral part of college basketball royalty, Jones said, “To be honest, it hasn’t really sunk in that we won the national championship. Having said that, winning the national championship has shown me that all the hard work we ask of our players, of ourselves as coaches, and of our support staff has paid off. As coaches, there are many sleepless nights. All those nights during the season we stayed up late into the night reviewing scouting reports, watching film, and poring over every last detail from top down was well worth it. Ultimately, I am really happy for our university, players, fans and the city of Louisville.”
Now 40 years old, Jones feels comfortable working in Louisville’s pressure-packed environment. He has the support of Estrella, his wife of 14 years, and son Jameel (13) and daughter Zoe (8). He says he is a better coach, with a greater understanding of all facets of the business and game than when he first started. “At every step of my career, I’ve been blessed to work with some of the best and most respected collegiate and professional basketball coaches in the game,” he says. When asked what advice he would give to student athletes, he says, “Try to improve every day as a person, student, and athlete. The road can be difficult, but be prepared by simply starting today.”
What you may find most interesting about Jones is his reflective nature. Jones still has fond memories of LMU. Southern California is known as a hotbed of local basketball talent, so Jones returns to Los Angeles often to recruit and visit his mother. On most visits, he repeats a familiar routine: he parks his car off campus on Loyola Boulevard and takes a walk through LMU. It is usually late at night when hardly anyone is around. He will take a path familiar to all students, staff, and alumni — past Gersten Pavilion, Pereira Hall, Doheny Hall, onto Desmond Hall and Sacred Heart Chapel then down the heart of the campus through Alumni Mall. He does this to remind himself where he is from, never forgetting the lasting memories of his time at LMU as a student and former athlete. “It may seem crazy but I need those late night walks. No one knows who I am, and the campus is quiet and peaceful when I return. The walk keeps me grounded and serves as a reminder of how much LMU means to me and how I have grown as a person. LMU was the right setting for me to push myself and get the most out of my college experience. I will never forget this place.”