Robert P. Jones II, a former Army officer and current U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command employee, is an Amateur Athletic Union basketball coach with teams in the local community and dreams that go far beyond the hardwood. (photo by T. Anthony Bell)
Robert P. Jones II, a former Army officer and current U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command employee, is an Amateur Athletic Union basketball coach with teams in the local community and dreams that go far beyond the hardwood. (photo by T. Anthony Bell)
(Photo Credit: T. Anthony Bell)

FORT GREGG-ADAMS, Va. -- Robert P. Jones II grew up in Shreveport, La., to a wholesome, two-parent, middle class family espousing middle-class values.

Nonetheless, he was never far removed from meeting an untimely death due to violence.

“We were two steps from finding ourselves in a (dangerous) situation,” said the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command employee and former Soldier of his upbringing. “Shreveport does not exempt you from anything just because of what you do or who you are. You could turn any corner, and it could be your last.”

Shreveport is Louisiana’s third most populous city. According to the latest FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, it is listed as one of the most dangerous cities in the country for violent crime that includes murder, rape, robbery and assault.

Jones said statistics do not capture the often devastating and debilitating effects crime has on people and communities. The 42-year-old, who still has family in Shreveport, said his childhood was marred by open-air drug dealing, drive-by shootings and other crimes. Current events keep them fresh, he said.

“A relative was just recently walking kids to a bus stop,” he said. “Got shot three times. It’s still the same.”

If that sounded like a tone of resignation, it is not -- Jones has not lost hope in humanity. In nearby Chesterfield County where he lives, crime levels do not begin to approach those of his hometown, yet Jones toils as a volunteer youth basketball coach as if they did, the impetus being the lost lives and opportunities he witnessed as a child in his hometown.

“It’s a way to give back like it was given to me,” he said in a calm but reflective voice.

Jones, a protocol coordinator in CASCOM’s Executive Operations office, is an African American whose thin goatee is accentuated by ready smiles. The Grambling State University alum’s cheery, casual manner seems to hide an intense, deep-seated will to stop at almost nothing to save and change lives. He put it this way:

“I’m humble and hard charging; pretty much set on what I want to do with my life; not too much of a person who is going to back down from anything.”

Jones grew up in a stable household of five. His father was an oft-deployed active-duty Airman who was once stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base located across the river from Shreveport in Bossier City. His mother was the owner of a childcare business. Jones and two siblings were given all they needed, he said, but threats of drugs, gangs and violence lurked just outside the family’s front door. Trouble was often averted by people such as John Mosely, a community foot soldier who Jones sees as a godsend.

“He is a judge in Shreveport, still, and he took me and a couple of my friends and put us on a church league team,” he recalled. “From that point, I saw the difference in how somebody cares about people versus winning in sports and giving people the opportunity to do something other than getting in trouble and doing things like hanging out at night. We had a place to go. That’s what I’m doing for these kids, giving them a place to go.”

A powerful motive pushes Jones to advocate and provide for youngsters, especially those lacking opportunities. At the age of 16, he was pronounced dead due to complications from surgery, he said, surviving through prayers and “the grace of God.”

Robert Jones gestures to team members during a recent Amateur Athletic Union game. Jones, a Fort Gregg-Adams employee and former Soldier, runs a nonprofit organization aiming to provide mentorship and after-school recreational opportunities for youngsters. (Photo by Christina Nickerson)
Robert Jones gestures to team members during a recent Amateur Athletic Union game. Jones, a Fort Gregg-Adams employee and former Soldier, runs a nonprofit organization aiming to provide mentorship and after-school recreational opportunities for youngsters. (Photo by Christina Nickerson) (Photo Credit: Christina Nickerson) VIEW ORIGINAL

The near-death experience was a rebirth by large measure. Jones was cautioned by doctors against performing any activity overworking his lungs, but life’s fragile balance pushed him to do more. He learned how to play musical instruments and basketball at various levels and became GSU’s drum major.

“God has a purpose for us,” he said, “and even though the doctors said one thing, God’s plan for me was just starting.”

Jones’ edition to God’s plan is still playing out in his pursuit of coaching. In that capacity, he has essentially created a virtual “place to go” for local youth interested in basketball. The team is associated with a Chesterfield venue for practices, but it has not a homecourt. Jones himself is -- for all intents and purposes -- the brick and mortar, having built structures around ideas such as familial love, compassion and goodwill, and wherein lies safe spaces for teaching basketball and other lessons, regardless of where it takes place.

Michael Spragley, whose 21-year-old son Michael learned under Jones, said the end-goal is to help provide opportunities for the most vulnerable members of the community.

“This comes from his determination to his intentions to help kids, and his willingness to carry out good deeds,” said Spragley, the deputy chief of staff, CASCOM G4. “He goes far beyond teaching them basketball.”

Basketball, however, is the lure. Denita Caffery, Jones’ co-worker, signed up her 10-year-old grandson for Jones’ Superstars Amateur Athletic Union program. He greatly benefited from the nurturing environment, she said.

“The way he (Jones) was able to get my grandson -- and another one of the smaller kids – to what the other kids were doing, yeah, I appreciated everything he was doing,” she said.

In addition to the patience and teaching skills, said Caffery, Jones is a positive behavior exemplar.

“The teenagers in his program are mature,” she said. “Maybe they don’t show that maturity everywhere, but when they’re with him, they have a different level of maturity. I think if they respect mentors, leaders, their guides or whatever, they don’t want to disappoint because of all the time they’ve invested in them.”

Jones began building the program in 2008, three years after arriving here as a Soldier. He left the Army the same year, all the while coaching recreational basketball. The former field artilleryman moved up to AAU in 2016 and started the Superstars Basketball Club, coaching juniors and seniors. “Superstars” is a tribute to lifelong friends and dedicated to the memory of the late Michael D. Flentroy, said Jones. The nonprofit provides a haven for teens, focusing on their well-being and productivity. The age levels are preferential, he said.

“They’re the ones closer to being adults,” said Jones. “I want to help them become good products of society.”

In helping kids become upstanding citizens, Jones’ program is not a traditional AAU enterprise. It is not solely about winning or getting kids into the best school programs at the high school and college levels. The program has a higher calling, but it has nothing to do with glamorization, a fact that must be caveated when parents sign up for the program.

“I tell them this is not your gateway to the NBA,” said Jones, referring to the often-associated expectation. “It’s a gateway to them becoming better young men, and maybe, the means of pursuing their dreams in basketball.”

Jones is all about growing the human capital entrusted to his care. Alyssa Crockett, a former college basketball player who was a volunteer coach for one year with Jones, said Jones’ house of hoops features an open facade, housing a library of lessons, knowledge and wisdom gleaned from the triumphs and tribulations of his life experiences.

“The most important thing I saw in Rob was that he was more interested in teaching these kids how to be leaders -- ethical, responsible and respectful adults,” said the University of Texas-Dallas graduate who volunteered for Jones between April 2021-April 2022. “It wasn’t just about winning, winning, winning or about basketball, basketball, basketball. It was about these kids … and who they’re going to be when they come out of this program.”

AAU basketball offers competition at the local, regional and national levels for male and female participants ages 7-18. The level of competition is typically greater than in recreational basketball leagues. Tournaments are held year-round.

Playing in the AAU realm also is more expensive than recreational ball, requiring food, lodging and travel to tournaments. AAU basketball typically attracts middle class families who can afford to shell out roughly $4,000 annually and who see it as a steppingstone to higher levels of play, scholarships and more.

In the Superstars organization, participant families range widely in socio-economic background. Because Jones favors greater accessibility, he forgoes thousands in annual earnings. Players are charged only for uniform and equipment items and tournament fees totaling $300-400 yearly.

The fractional costs are clearly a nod to parents who need “to keep their lights on and pay for gas to bring their kids to practice,” said Jones. The difference is made up with help from a few parents, fundraisers and not least, Jones himself.

“I don’t charge a dime for me,” he said. “I don’t get paid to ensure kids have somewhere safe to go and hopefully learning to put themselves in a better position to make themselves better people and players.”

Making “better people” requires making other sacrifices as well. In addition to holding down a fulltime job, Jones conducts four-hour practice sessions four or five days a week, limiting the time he spends with his significant other. She, by the way, is the team’s administrative staff and more, tying up the team’s many loose ends, said Jones.

Another difference in the Jones program of instruction is a cultivated sphere of unity.

“We drive off family,” he said. “I was raised family-oriented, and that’s the way I treat these boys. They’re like my little brothers, so I wouldn’t do anything to them I wouldn’t want done to me – plain and simple.”

For all the work, resources and time put into the program, Jones said the sight of players’ high school diplomas and their willingness to reciprocate makes his work worthwhile.

“Just seeing kids graduate from school and come back and want to help the younger kids (means a lot),” said Jones. “That means I’ve left an impression on them to come back and give back.”

Since he began the program, many have returned to help, said Jones. Furthermore, he often sees parents who enthusiastically express their gratitude for keeping their sons safe, out of trouble or on track toward something greater.

To sustain the organization’s trajectory toward greater goods, Jones said he is working toward an actual Jones’ place, a brick-and-mortar community center of sorts that would fill voids in a county with few relative equivalents. This would be the Superstars’ homecourt and ultimate “place to go,” he said.

“Just like you can access a free city park – ‘here’s a door, come through, educate yourself, better yourself and know you’re in a safe environment,’” said Jones of his vision. “I know everything in this world costs money, but I don’t have to rake your pockets to benefit my happiness.”

Jones’ “happiness” in the form of a community center will be quite an endeavor -- honorable, to say the least, and ambitious, to say more, but not anything a humble, hard-charging, battle-hardened foot soldier from Shreveport will back down from.