The pressure is off Mookie Jones. He’s made his college decision, signing with his dream school, Syracuse. Now the area’s most accomplished player can kick back and just do the only thing he’s wanted to ever do â€” play basketball.
Mookie, however, doesn’t look all that relaxed. In fact, he’s never looked more tense on the court. He’s never looked so burdened.
Success will do that to players, and Mookie has always managed to rise above it. When he was elevated to the varsity as an eighth-grader, he found ways to contribute. His smile became as much of a trademark as his jump shot. As a lanky freshman guard, he started at center and helped Peekskill win a state title. Never did he complain about his defense-oriented role or how seldom he got to shoot. As a sophomore, he came the became the go-to player and responded by leading the Red Devils to a Federation title. His swagger for a sophomore was undeniable. And last year â€” with the spotlight following his every move on the court â€” he won another Federation title, this time casually nailing a 3-point at the buzzer in the title game to beat Cardinal Hayes. There was no bravado when he hit it, just a smile and both arms extended to allow his entire team in to celebrate with him.
Every potential road block Mookie Jones has faced in his career, he’s managed to dribble and spin away from it. He’s taken a Ray Rice-like path to stardom, going from hopeful to contributor to star and now to icon, all with the same mettle. He’s as oblivious to his own success as he is in control of it. And he’s recognized at every turn. Most basketball mothers in this area couldn’t tell you how many seconds are on the shot clock. Yet they could probably all pick Mookie out of a lineup.
Mookie, however, hasn’t looked like himself through Peekskill’s first two games. It has nothing to do with how many points he’s scored or his ability to fill the stat sheet. That’s not a problem whatsoever, evidenced by his two-game averages: 14.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 3.0 steals and 3.0 blocks. What concerns me about Mookie is his demeanor. He doesn’t look comfortable. He doesn’t look like he’s having fun.
I’d never seen Mookie look really annoyed about missing a 3-pointer until today. It was weird. In four-plus seasons, I can hardly ever remember seeing Mookie frustrated, not even during his alleged “slump” in the postseason last March. I missed the famous Stepinac-Peekskill game at the County Center. From what I’m told, he was trying to score 70 that night. Never have I witnessed Mookie frustrated. Today, I saw it three or four times.
What Mookie has to realize is that he doesn’t have to impress anyone. He’s already had a career that will go down in the annals among the greats. Gus. Scooter. Elton. Ben. Mookie. Three state titles, two Federation championships, over 1,400 points, 107 victories and an endless number of dunks, fade-away jumpers and 3-pointers through double-teams.
Mookie is clearly pressing. When I spoke to Peekskill coach Lou Panzanaro after the game, he completely agreed.
“I thought signing with Syracuse early would take the pressure off,” Panzanaro said. “I think it did the opposite.”
No question. To set the record straight, Mookie hasn’t played poorly. Not at all. I haven’t seen many players who can recognize when their shots aren’t falling, shift gears and do what they can to get their teammates involved. Geoff McDermott did it incredibly well in his senior season at New Rochelle. Mookie has done it well for three years.
The less points McDermott scored usually meant the more assists he’d rack up. Mookie is the same way. He shot 1 for 6 in the first half. Yet he stopped forcing shots, fed the ball to Ralph Watts in open space and Watts delivered. The junior had 24 points, and he and Dequann Brickhouse held down the offensive duties until Mookie delivered 10 points in the third.
It’s going to take a little time before Mookie understands that he doesn’t have to prove something on every possession. When he does, Peekskill isn’t going to be protecting a one-point lead through three quarters like it did today very often. It will run away from the pack.
Mookie has to set his sights on one number: Four. Winning a fourth state title will require him to settle down, continue to distribute the ball and play the way he’s played the last three season â€” carefree, unselfish and by ignoring the voices and opinions in the crowd.
The picture of Mookie with his arms raised after winning the Federation title last year will be the image I’ll place with his legacy forever. Four could be the number that forever defines him. Because four state titles will officially cement him as the most accomplished player to ever suit up in the history of Westchester basketball.
No pressure, Mookie.