Giants' blue blood admits end is nigh

PETE MCNAE
Last updated 08:05 11/04/2014
Phill Jones
CHRIS SYMES/PHOTOSPORT
BOWING OUT: Fico Finance Nelson Giants guard Phill Jones has decided to retire after the current season – until then, he’s committed to helping the Giants to another NBL title.

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No second thoughts. No sideways glances. Phill Jones has simply looked at life and decided the time is right to wind down his basketball career.

Jones, 40, told his Fico Finance Nelson Giants team-mates and club officials this week that he will end his national basketball league career at the end of this season. His body and his head are fine, it's just time to hang it up.

By the end of the current Bartercard NBL campaign, Jones is almost certain to stand alone at the top of the list for the most career games. He will have taken more than 5000 shots in the NBL. And he will leave an imprint on Nelson sport that few others will match.

After moving from Reefton in 1992 to play high school basketball at Nelson College, Jones made his league debut a year later. He had a season with Otago and eight years in Europe. He played three years for the New Zealand Breakers and two with the Cairns Taipans. There are more than 200 games for the Tall Blacks under the slim guard's waistband, including three World Championship tournaments and two Olympic tournaments.

But all paths led back to the Giants.

"Over the years, I could have played for other teams for more money but I think I have always been a loyal person," he said. "I will go out of my way to look after people who mean a lot to me."

That trait is at the heart of his decision to retire at the end of the season. The father of three owes wife Kat and primary schoolers Maia, Hayden and Ava more of his time. And after a career of professional sport, he is now in fulltime work with the ANZ and has plenty to achieve there.

"It has been tough on the family, Kat has shouldered a huge load with her work, plus the family," he said. "I'd get home from work, the kids would come for a cuddle and then I'd have to put my gear on and get to training while the kids broke down and cried. Everyone is asleep when I get home.

"Don't get me wrong, I love the training and still feel like the practice court is my place, being with the Giants, but the time has come to give the time that I have made for basketball back to the family and my job."

Jones is adamant that his decision to retire can be dealt with in a painless way.

He doesn't want his personal choice to have any impact on what the Giants are playing to achieve this season, nor should there be any fanfare or farewell tour.

A rollercoaster relationship with Giants head coach Liam Flynn is good now and last Friday's loss to Wellington came after the decision was already made, ruling out any "kneejerk" response.

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"Last year was different, last year was harder because there was a new look to the team, a new approach and for the first time in 20 years, the Giants wanted to use me in a way that I struggled to get comfortable with," he said.

"It took me more than half the season and a lot of heart-to-hearts with Liam before I was able to accept the fact that things change.

"There is none of that this year . . . none. Expectations are different and the excitement of training and playing is as strong as ever."

What has changed is that, for two decades, Jones was able to train, lift, shoot and rest when he needed to, to be the most potent scorer New Zealand basketball has produced, a pure shooter who had the second-highest scoring average of all the players at the 2004 Athens Olympics, multi-millionaires included.

Now life gets in the way of play and that has showed a little in the past two seasons, with his scoring average down and his role changing.

Jones doesn't believe any lasting contribution to Nelson basketball will be tarnished, nor does his friend, former coach and team-mate Nenad Vucinic.

Contacted by the Nelson Mail in Lebanon, where he is coaching Byblos in Division A, Tall Blacks coach Vucinic said: "There is nobody in the history of Nelson basketball who has affected the game as much as Phill Jones.

"All of us have to feel privileged that we rubbed shoulders with a player of that ability and a man of that stature."

Jones isn't dead, though. He's not even finished playing. He'll be on court tomorrow when the Giants host the Canterbury Rams at 7pm in Saxton Stadium and none of his competitive fire has dimmed.

"Early on, my life was just basketball, everything about the game was taken as personal but that changed years ago," he said. "About the time Maia was born, I grew up and put things in their place.

"I'm still a competitive person, I want to win at everything, but it shows in a more balanced way - I'll be giving what I have left at every training and every game, but I know I can walk away when this season ends."

Jones told the Giants of his decision at training on Tuesday night. They clapped, which was awkward, one player shook his hand. After so long, most were probably unsure how to process the fact the No 13 will not keep floating up left-handed jumpers forever.

The lack of fuss suited Jones and he hopes that is how the remainder of the season will play out.

"The Giants will always be bigger than any individual, there have been lots of players move on but the people who run the show ensure the Giants go on," he said.

"I'll miss it, no doubt. Basketball in Nelson has been a massive part of my life since I was 17 but I think I have managed to find a few other things since."

Jones has made many hundreds of fans over the past two decades but his most loyal supporters remain his parents, John and Carol, who travel from Reefton and barely miss a match.

"When I first came up here to board at college the Dahlbergs and Fitchetts looked out for me, but the folks were never far away, they were - and still are - the biggest fans."

Bartercard National Basketball League, Fico Finance Nelson Giants versus Canterbury Rams, 7pm tomorrow, Saxton Stadium.

- Nelson

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