TULSA — On the day Marion Jones dared to return to the sports spotlight, as a reserve for the WNBA's Tulsa Shock, Pete Schultz was preaching salvation on a downtown street corner.
With a Bible in his raised right hand, the Tulsa resident was exhorting visitors to the city's Mayfest celebration Saturday to repent their sins lest they spend eternity in hell.
Jones has been there — at least a version of it — serving a six-month prison sentence and a two-year suspension from track and field and losing her five 2000 Sydney Olympic medals (three gold, two bronze) after lying to federal investigators about her use of performance-enhancing drugs.
And now she's back.
She played 3 minutes, 19 seconds in an 80-74 season-opening loss to the Minnesota Lynx, committing one foul and otherwise posting a stat line full of zeroes. But afterward Jones, 34, was wearing her familiar broad smile.
"I know that I want to share my story and I want to share my experiences and I'm on the right path," she said.
She says she isn't seeking redemption. Yet whether she finds it in a sport she hasn't played in more than a decade — she helped lead North Carolina to the 1994 NCAA title — could be the story line of the season for the 12-team WNBA.
"If Marion is as successful as I think she can be and will be," said Shock coach Nolan Richardson, making his own comeback after a messy firing from Arkansas in 2002, "then it's a plus-plus-plus for the WNBA and more than a triple plus for Tulsa and Oklahoma. Because Marion is global news."
Her debut drew a standing-room-only crowd of 7,806 to Tulsa's BOK Center, television crews from France and Spain and an Italian newspaper reporter. But WNBA president Donna Orender, also in attendance, said Jones was not a mere publicity stunt for the league or for the Shock, trying to gain traction after relocating from Detroit in the offseason.
"Marion had to prove that she could play," Orender said of Jones, the oldest rookie and seventh-oldest player in the WNBA. "Because we have rosters of 11 (players) and competition is so intense, I don't think anyone has a position to give up for a gimmick."
Jones was nine months removed from her prison release and nearly eight months pregnant when her longtime attorney and adviser, Rich Nichols, texted her with a question a year ago. Hal Biagas, deputy counsel for the WNBA players association, was inquiring whether Jones, drafted in the third round by the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury in 2003 (she never played), might be interested in playing in the league.
Her initial reply: LOL.