Melissa Jones, BA '11, will go down as one the most beloved student-athletes in Baylor history. Lady Bear fans adore her as much for her basketball acumen and clutch play as they do for her off-the-court service and engaging, down-to-earth demeanor. At the year-end basketball awards ceremony, coach Kim Mulkey bestowed one of the highest honors an athlete can receive -- Jones' number five was retired. Fittingly, she was also the recipient of the team's inaugural Melissa Jones Hustle and Courage Award.
"It still hasn't really sunk in yet," says the unassuming Thornton, Colo., native, who was named one of the top five players nationally at the shooting guard position by ESPN.com. "Having your jersey retired is one of the biggest honors you can get as an athlete, and for that to actually happen to me is incredible. At the same time, I'm extremely humbled, and I'm not sure how it happened, but I'm ever-so-grateful that the program, that the community, thinks that highly of me, and believe me, it's a mutual feeling."
Baylor fans almost missed out on the chance to see Jones up close. For most of high school, she had every intention to follow two of her brothers to Colorado State University.
"Baylor recruited me really late, and they told me I needed to take a visit down there, and so I did. After that, my mom really encouraged me to go to Baylor," explains Jones, who was rated No. 7 nationally in her class by Scout.com. "When Coach Mulkey and then-assistant coach Karen Aston came to my house for the home visit, my grandfather just loved how real and truthful and honest they were with their answers, and he really thought it was the place for me. Having that kind of strong feeling from my family, with whom I'm very close, made me even more excited about Baylor."
As a freshman, Jones was immediately a heavy contributor, averaging 23.5 minutes a game. As a sophomore, she started 10 games and led the team in steals and was second in 3-point field goals made and free throw percentage. She also shared the Big 12 Coaches Sixth Man Award.
By her junior year, Jones was clearly a key cog in Baylor's engine; the Lady Bears were 17-2 when she was in the starting lineup, but just 9-6 when she was on the sideline due to injury. The 5-11 guard was Baylor's second-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder.
As a senior, the two-year team captain demonstrated her toughness when she missed only one game after a February 27 injury to her optic nerve suffered while diving for a loose ball. Jones completely lost vision for two weeks in her right eye and played the season's final eight games with no or limited vision in one eye, but still earned a place on the Big 12 Championship and NCAA Championship (Dallas Regional) All-Tournament teams.
Jones ended her collegiate career among Baylor's all-time top 10 in free throw percentage (sixth, .789), games played (eighth, 125) and steals (eighth, 199), but her favorite games were the ones with the most at stake.
"I think winning the two Big 12 tournament championships, and last year when we beat Duke to go to the Final Four, those were really exciting games," remembers Jones. "I think the Duke win was one of the best we had, coming from behind when we should have been out of it -- we just never gave up. It was one of those games you never thought you should have won."
After all, Jones says, winning is why you play the game, and with Mulkey on the sidelines, chances are good your team will triumph.
"The reason you play is to win, and I don't think anyone hates losing more than Coach Mulkey," says Jones. "Having a leader with that kind of stature and that kind of mentality really motivates you to share her mentality, and it has a contagious effect. When everyone has it, the experience is that much better."
Still, Jones shined as brightly off the court as she did under the Ferrell Center's lights. A speech communications major, Jones made the Big 12 Commissioner's Honor Roll four times. From going on three mission trips to Kenya with Baylor's sports ministry team, to coaching youth league basketball, to volunteering at the Salvation Army, soup kitchens and hospitals, Jones has been an incredible representative for Baylor.
"It's been my experience off-campus that has made me love being at Baylor so much," she says. "Just the people, the community, with all the love and support, you feel at home and at ease. I wouldn't change that for anything."
Those who have mourned never seeing Jones wear green and gold again have reason to smile -- after considering whether or not to pursue a professional basketball career, she decided to remain at Baylor to pursue a graduate degree. In the future, Jones says she might try her hand at coaching or broadcasting, but this fall, Jones -- an all-state middle blocker in high school -- will be back on the Ferrell Center floor, this time donning a Baylor volleyball uniform.
Imagine all the ways Baylor fans would have missed out had the Lady Bear coaches never made that trip to Thornton. For Baylor and for the Waco community, Jones' decision to extend her stay is an unexpected bonus.