It Always Was Duke for Tre Jones
The image of a distraught Tre Jones weeping after Duke’s loss to Michigan State last Sunday will long stay in the minds of those who care about the former Apple Valley All-State and prep All-American point guard.
The 68-67 loss to the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament crushed the hopes of Tre and his Duke teammates to earn their way to Minneapolis for this weekend’s Final Four and possibly win the national championship. Tre had a dream of coming home and playing in front of so many Minnesotans who had followed his high school career. He also carried the burden of being a key leader on a team representing a blueblood program, but there was even more contributing to his grief in seeing the Duke season end before he wanted.
“He dedicated this season to his mom, who is suffering from breast cancer,” Al Nuness told Sports Headliners. “I think it (Sunday’s loss) was a big emotional let down for him.”
Nuness, the Golden Gophers basketball captain in 1969 and a former University of Minnesota assistant coach, is a cousin of Tre and his older brother Tyus, who as a freshman point guard led Duke to the 2015 national title. Nuness has long been a role model and mentor for Tyus and Tre, who refer to him as “Uncle Al.”
In 2010, when Tyus was in the eighth grade and Tre in the fourth, Al took the boys to Indianapolis to see the Final Four. He knew even then the two Jones youngsters were “basketball fanatics,” and so he asked their parents (Debbie and Rob Jones) for permission to head for Indy where he also had business as a Jostens executive.
Family values are important to Al, and there was more to his basketball trip than the Final Four. “It also provided an opportunity for them (Tyus and Tre) to see their biological grandmother (on their dad’s side of the family),” Al said. “…The kids had never spent any time at her home (in Illinois) so it gave them an opportunity to spend a night with her, and then we drove on to Indianapolis.”
In the days leading up to the Final Four, Jostens had a booth at the convention facility in Indianapolis that attracted potential customers for its celebration products. Al encouraged the Jones boys not to hang around the booth but instead wander the facility to see what was going on.
They found a shooting contest and Tyus won uniforms for his Apple Valley team back home in Minnesota. The fact he won the contest probably didn’t surprise some college coaches in attendance for the Final Four. Even though Tyus wasn’t even in high school, he was already being followed by major college programs and was recognized in Indianapolis by the likes of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
Another memory Al talked about in a telephone interview earlier this week was watching Duke practice in Indianapolis. When the Blue Devils finished, Al told the boys it was time to leave but Tre said, “No, Uncle Al, Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) is going to talk to the crowd.”
“Sure enough Coach K picked up the mic and talked to the crowd that was there at their practice.” Al remembered. “After he finished, I said, can we leave now? He said, yes.”
After Duke won the 2010 national title, Al told one of his regional managers who called on Duke to tell Krzyzewski that he had never given Jostens any business. Al was head of Jostens’ championship division and he wanted Jostens to make Duke’s championship rings.
He also had a back-story with Krzyzewski and he asked his regional manager to inform the coach that Al Nuness was his boss. Nuness and Krzyzewski were both honored back in the 1960s as All-Chicago area players by the Chicago Tribune.
Coach K’s reaction? He decided to have some fun with this Jostens sales pitch, but so did Al. The coach said Jostens would get no business unless Al came down to North Carolina and visited Duke.
“Knowing Mike, like I know Mike, he was setting me up,” Al recalled. “I went back and found in my old scrapbooks the picture of me and Mike when we were named to the All-Chicagoland area team. Mike had this flat crew cut. He just looked like the All-American guy. I took that (picture) with me in my briefcase.”
When Al sat down with Krzyzewski the coach went on the attack. “Mike just chews me out. He just says, man, you never passed the ball, you never did anything. He used some other ‘superlatives’ that I won’t mention to you, but he just gave me a hard time.”
Then it was Al’s turn, pulling out the old photo of the crew cut Krzyzewski. A couple of Duke assistant coaches were also at the meeting and they were very amused after seeing the picture of their boss. The photo got a big reaction from Krzyzewski who eventually said, “Okay, you guys got the business. Design the ring.”
While in Durham in 2010, Al told Krzyzewski to remember the name Tyus Jones. Three years later the coach called and asked Al if he would help him recruit Tyus. Al told him no because his loyalties were to his alma mater and also Baylor where son Jared was an assistant coach.
A subtle connection with Tre also began at that 2010 meeting between Al and Coach K. Al told his friend that “Tre Jones is a Duke fanatic.” He asked the famous coach to sign Duke memorabilia including a team poster. Then back home Al also gave young Tre a Blue Devils watch that Jostens made.
Tre created a Duke shrine in his room. Years later when Krzyzewski came to the Jones home on a recruiting trip he saw Duke memorabilia in Tre’s room. “You know it was pretty obvious where Tre had his mind set,” Al said. “He always had an infatuation with Duke and Coach K.”
This season was special for the Blue Devils even if they didn’t travel the final road to Minneapolis. Duke’s record was 32-6, playing some of the best teams in the country and reaching the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament after spending part of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation.
The Blue Devils had a freshmen dominated team including Tre, with three of his first-year teammates projected to be among the top five picks in June’s NBA Draft. As for Tre, he is predicted by some authorities to go later in the first round if he decides to become draft eligible.
As the team’s point guard, Tre frequently played long stretches in games—sometimes on the floor for 40 minutes. “He’s as important a player as we have,” Krzyzewski said last Saturday at a NCAA Tournament news conference televised on the Big Ten Network.
At that news conference the coach was asked about both Jones brothers who have helped him to so much success including the 2015 NCAA championship when Tyus was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “They are big time moment players,” Krzyzewski said.
Tyus was the better shooter and scorer in college, while Tre, even as a freshman, might have been the most effective on-ball defender in the nation this season. Tre had struggles with his shooting, particularly with three point field goals. He made just 26.2 percent of his three pointers. Overall, he converted 41.4 percent of his field goals, while averaging a fourth best on the team 9.4 points per game. He led the Blue Devils in assists at 5.3 per game.
Al offers perspective, though, when discussing Tre’s shooting. He talked about the heavy minutes the teenager played and the enormous pressure to distribute the basketball to highly publicized teammates so they received enough shots. “You gotta remember he is only a freshman, so he is trying to adjust and trying to understand how his body works when he is forced to play 40 minutes a game,” Al said.
Tre has for years handled the pressure of being the younger brother of Tyus, who has built on his high school and college storybook career to become a first round NBA draft choice and four-year member of his hometown Minnesota Timberwolves.
“…My gosh, has this kid handled the pressure,” Al said. “This kid has done and carved out his own way. Regardless of whatever Tyus has done, Tre has been very good in his own right.
“He was (also) a McDonald’s All-American. He’s playing extremely well at Duke. He’s carved out a defensive image…as one of the best defenders in the country, and that (defense) is always what he has hung his banner on. I am so proud of him and I am so proud of what he has become. Whether he decides to stay one year, or go back to Duke…I support whatever his decision is.”
By now you know “Uncle Al” is in the corner of the Jones boys, and with good reason. “It’s just been interesting to watch these two kids grow up, and just kind of follow their success,” Al said. “I cannot be more proud of the two and how the family has embraced them, and really how they turned out.
“I mean they are perfect gentlemen, both of them. You’ve never heard anything bad about either one of them. They are well spoken kids. They were great students in high school. I don’t know anyone that disliked them.”