Former NR star made her mark at Bluefield State
By Mike London
Tampa women’s basketball coach Tom Jessee says he’ll be glad to offer 7-year-old Danielle Baker a scholarship right now.
He’ll take that chance because Danielle’s mother, Lola Jones Baker, made him a very smart coach at Bluefield State in the early 1990s.
Jones, a North Rowan graduate, was a back-to-back All-American at Bluefield and was among the top three NAIA scorers and rebounders nationally. As a junior in 1992-93, she averaged 26.5 points, while shooting 55 percent from the floor and pulling down 15.5 rebounds a night. Her Bluefield teams were 46-12 and cut down numerous nets.
“Lola was an unbelievable player,” Jessee said. “She was the first first-team All-American out of Bluefield. She could shoot, and she could run like crazy. She could make that outlet pass and still be the first one down the floor on a fastbreak. She could block a shot and beat everyone down in transition.”
Jones, who had a 39-point game for Jessee, racked up three triple-doubles that included double-digit blocks. She was 6-foot, but her unusual wingspan gave her the length of a 6-5 player.
“I remember the coaches in our West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference saying we should just go ahead and rename our player of the week award the Lola Jones Award,” Jessee said.
That’s because Jones was honored 10 times in two years, including four straight weeks.
Jessee will never forget Bluefield’s trip to Jackson, Tenn., to face Union, the NAIA tournament host and the nation’s second-ranked team in 1993.
“It was sold out and so loud you couldn’t think,” Jessee said. “After two minutes we were ahead 10-0 and you could hear a pin drop. That was Lola Jones.”
Jones found basketball late as a ninth-grader.
“But once I picked a ball up,” Jones said, “it was hard to put it back down.”
Jones grew up in Mocksville, but her father had played at Dunbar in East Spencer prior to integration. That helps explain how Jones turned up at North Rowan. Coach Gary Atwell was the beneficiary.
“The kids called her Manute Bol because she was all arms and legs,” Atwell said. “She was a sweet kid, a real treat, and she had as much fun playing ball as anyone I ever coached. She was probably also the best natural athlete I ever coached.”
The North girls posted one winning season in their first 29 years of competition, but Jones and teammates such as Bobbi Sims changed that in the late 1980s.
“I started Lola on the jayvees her sophomore year just to make sure she’d handle things OK,” Atwell said. “Then we brought her up about halfway through.”
Jones scored 15 points as North ended a 20-game, two-season losing skid against Southwest Guilford. That victory was the start of a six-game winning streak, and things stayed upbeat at North the rest of Jones’ career.
“Coach Atwell taught me how to use the block,” Jones said. “It was on after that.”
Jones made a huge leap her junior year. As a sophomore, she averaged 7.3 points. Her junior year, she averaged 19.3 points and 15.0 rebounds, with highs of 33 points and 22 boards. She led the Cavs to a 15-11 record and third place in the CCC.
“Lola could do anything athletically,” Atwell said. “She was dadgum good at softball, volleyball and track. She was state champion in the high jump (5 feet, 4 inches in 1989). She had all the natural stuff, and she also worked hard to make herself a great basketball player.”
Jones was Rowan County Girls Basketball Player of the Year in 1988 ó a first for North. She repeated in 1989 when she boosted her scoring to 23.8 points a game.
Jones’ senior year was the year of the measles. The epidemic cost the Cavaliers four games and they had to cram in many others as makeups, always playing three times a week. The Cavaliers were 15-7 overall and finished third in the CCC.
Jones scored her 1,000th point against Lexington and ended her career with 1,142. She was No. 2 all-time at North when she graduated.
She set school records for points in a season (523), points in a game (41) and season scoring average (23.8) that have since been broken by the great players that followed her ó Stephanie Cross and Sophilia Hipps.
While double-teams and measles epidemics couldn’t stop Jones, cookies could.
“I’d have to go to the cafeteria and made sure Lola ate her lunch every day,” Atwell said with a smile. “If I didn’t, Lola would just just eat seven or eight cookies and she’d be hyper, running wild and wanting to shoot some 3s.”
Atwell recalls sitting Jones down in a chair at midcourt while the team practiced around her, but she was never much of a problem. She loved the game too much and wanted to be out there.
“I practiced hard,” Jones said. “I remember running suicides and Atwell telling us the suicides were for us, not for the coach. I would never cheat an inch on them.”
Despite her high school success, Jones hadn’t given serious thought to college. But a coach at North Greenville Junior College saw tape of her.
“I was like, ‘Wow, really, a scholarship!’ ” Jones said. “It was good there. Very uptempo. We had some bomb teams.”
Jessee discovered Jones by accident when he was recruiting a player for Bluefield at a junior college tournament. He lost his target to Coastal Carolina, but he landed Jones.
“You could do things differently recruiting back then in NAIA,” Jessee said. “We invited Lola and North Greenville’s point guard, Veda Reid, up to Bluefield. I figured if I could sign Lola’s buddy, she’d help out with Lola.”
It worked. Reid said she was coming, and Jones stuck with her. Jessee got signatures from both girls before they left his office.
“I stole Lola,” Jessee said. “She was gifted, the cream of the crop. A post player who runs like her coming out of school now will have the D-I schools all over her.”
It hailed when Jones visited Bluefield.
“I also saw more snow that day than I’d seen in 20 years in North Carolina,” Jones said. “But I signed.”
Neither Jessee nor Jones ever regretted her decision. Jones grabbed 440 rebounds ó still a league record ó her first year in West Virginia.
Jessee had as much fun as Atwell coaching Jones. Like Atwell, he forbid 3s.
“I told Lola great post players shooting 3s is what gets coaches fired and if she ever took one she was coming out,” Jessee said. “But she shot one. We were playing Charleston, our big rival, and we had the game in hand. Lola pulls up in transition and just lets it go. Then she laughs and walks over to the scorer’s table. She knew she was out of there.”
Jessee and Jones have reconnected recently. They were reunited for a ceremony when both were named to the WVIAC’s 25th anniversary team in 2007.
Jones now carries a nightstick and badge as an emergency room security officer at Forsyth Memorial Hospital. It’s a good job, but she wouldn’t mind adding coaching to her list of duties.
“I wasn’t scared to get dirty and I understood you can’t pass the ball to yourself,” Jones said. “There are things I can teach the kids.”
Jessee, who taught her, says he still hasn’t coached another player like her.
“I’ve had some girls go play overseas, but Lola was the best,” he said. “I imagine she could walk into our gym today and get 15 and 12.”
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.