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  • Writer's pictureBen Rappaport

Crystal Jones Is Forging Greatness at CUNY

Snow fell in New York City when Crystal Jones exited the rehab center. She had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and conversion disorder while trying to readjust to life in a wheelchair. Her sister and mom had rented a car so they wouldn’t have to push Crystal in her chair through the snow.

Unfortunately, her sister, Chniell, still had to get her from the center to the car. With the wind swirling and snow lightly falling, Chniell put her whole body into pushing her sister’s new wheelchair.

“I’m skiing! I’m skiing,” Crystal squealed as she slid through the snow.

It was a small moment of exuberance amid a difficult time.

It was also emblematic of the type of delight Crystal Jones takes in going through life. Even in moments of extreme adversity, she cherishes the good through relentless resilience and boundless joy.

“If she’s in trouble, she’s smiling. If she’s happy, she’s smiling,” Chniell said. “Anything that happens she would just smile through it. She’s still like that today.”

It is that same positivity that makes Crystal an innate leader on the CUNY women’s wheelchair basketball team both on and off the court. In its inaugural season as a collegiate team, Crystal Jones has set a culture of leadership and communication for generations of CUNY women to come.

The Caretaker

Crystal has only been playing wheelchair basketball for two years, but in that time basketball has been her haven.

“It’s like my processing tool,” Crystal said. “It really lets me clear my head and just focus on the game.”

She had played stand-up basketball her whole life, and the game had always given her a type of therapeutic energy. So when Crystal got sick, getting back on the court was one of her primary goals in readjusting.

“I needed a way to have an outlet,” she said. “This was my way to start leaving my house and start meeting people that were just like me.”

Soon enough, Crystal’s passion for the game had another perk: a community of people who understood what she was going through. She said her teammates at all levels of the game have become like a second family — supporting her through her adjustment to wheelchair life and her adversities.

“Joining this sport was the best decision I could’ve made,” Crystal said. “We all have so much love for one another.”

Through the encouragement of her teammates and her drive to be the best, Jones has now made it to the collegiate level as a natural leader for the CUNY women. She said she was drawn to CUNY because it had a holistic approach to the game and fostered a community-oriented team.

“I told her, ‘hey this program can be a beacon to make this program an opportunity for disabled folks across the city,’” CUNY Wheelchair Basketball head coach Ryan Martin said. “I knew Crystal had the opportunity to be a true student-athlete here.”

Martin said he has an emotional attachment to Crystal because of her resilient spirit. He said it was well worth it because of the type of person Crystal is off the court, the type of player he was more than willing to fight for.

So, with the promise of a second family and the ability to help others through her efforts on the court, Crystal jumped at the chance to play for CUNY.

Her second family became especially important over this past year when Crystal lost her mom due to cancer in June. She said her teammates have been consistently there for her throughout the grieving process.

Carrying the Legacy

The pain of her mother’s death is still a touchy subject for Crystal. In many ways, Crystal sees herself as a reflection of her mother. Her mother taught her from a young age to approach life with relentless enthusiasm and a desire to lift those around her.

Every morning before she left for school, her mom would yell from the porch “think of yourself as the best thing in the room.” And so Crystal did. Those consistent affirmations from her mother are what give her the confidence she still carries today.

“She would always tell us the best things about us,” Crystal said. “And we were forced to agree.”

Through a lifting spirit, Crystal’s mother made her into a patient, honest and resilient woman. But Crystal takes those lessons of her mother one step further and gives the gift of compassion to her teammates and peers. Her family members say Crystal is the one most like her mother because of the way she seeks to help others.

“She lives the values of her mother in everything she does,” her cousin, Rondayah Williams, said. “It feels like now she strives for more because mama is watching her.”

One of the main ways she keeps the legacy of her mother alive is through her participation in praise dance, a style of worship that uses movement and dance for prayer. It has been a family affair since Crystal was five years old.

Now in a wheelchair, Crystal can’t fully participate in the dances but she still teaches the moves to younger members of her congregation through speech.

Crystal said she now wants to start a wheelchair dance team in New York. She said it would be her way of passing down the gifts that have been given to her throughout her life, especially from her mother.

“She has just always been so positive no matter what,” Chniell said. “It’s not every day a girl goes from celebrating their 21st birthday to suddenly in a wheelchair but Crystal never questioned why me.”

Chniell said Crystal took the “why me” framing and flipped it upside down. She began questioning why not me and found ways to use the gifts she did have to help those around her.

Passing down her gifts also makes Crystal a leader on the court.

Her coaches said she is always the person cheering on her teammates, especially when they make mistakes. A missed shot, a failed defensive rotation, or a lack of energy on the floor are things Crystal sees as opportunities to make those around her better.

“My mom always taught us that being the best is being able to make mistakes and correct them for the better outcome,” Crystal said.

Nothing but the best

On the court, Crystal describes herself as a floor general with a comp to Chauncey Billups, although her coach compares her more to Candace Parker. Crystal says it doesn't matter who you compare her to, she will just get her work done.

“Anywhere you put me, I’m there,” Crystal said.

Martin said she is the type of player he hopes to run the offense through. She can work the low post and Martin expects her to do a little bit of everything. A well-balanced stat line featuring double-digit points, a half dozen rebounds, and a half dozen assists is within reach.

She’s the type of player that is the first in the gym, the last to leave, and the most likely to be found watching film by herself. She is constantly hungry to make herself, and those around her, better.

Before her time at CUNY, Crystal played for the Brooklyn Wheelchair Nets, a local club team. She said going from club to collegiate ball was a big jump, especially when it comes to improving her game to keep up with people who are playing at a Paralympic level.

Jones said she practiced every day over the past summer to prepare herself for the college game.

“I want to be one of the best one day,” she said. “You have to put in the time to get those rewards.”

Her desire to be the best is more than personal, it's an energy that she extends to everyone she meets — constantly encouraging others to push for more and thrive in whatever passion they have.

“Everyone around me is the best because I want nothing less,” Crystal said. It’s a lesson she learned from her mother.

Coach Martin said her mix of generosity and tenacity spreads like wildfire amongst the team.

“That woman has fought and fought for this opportunity,” Martin said. “She’s just a strong character leader who is really resilient.”

Martin said Crystal is the first person her teammates look to for guidance on how to do better, sometimes even before they look to him. He said Crystal has a way of relating to her teammates that is both encouraging and constructive.

She is a caretaker on and off the court. Martin says it's her intangibles that make her such a special piece of the CUNY roster.

“We always tell the girls about bringing your full toolbox to the court,” Martin said. “Crystal brings all the tools she needs plus enough for her teammates as well.”

Martin said she often acts like a player-coach. When the team messes up on defense, needs to bring more energy, or fails to meet expectations, Martin said Crystal often points out what’s missing before he has the chance to address the team. Crystal is the type of soft-toned, yet vocal presence needed on a team trying to forge a culture for future generations.

“All of the success we have as a team is a testament to her,” Martin said. “And the character she brings is the exact type we want here.”

That attitude also carries over from home, to practice, to the games. She’s calm, cool, and collected both on the court and off. She never gets too down and never yells at her team; she just softly smiles and goes about her business on the court.

“When I’m calm out there, it helps me keep my mind clear,” Crystal said.

With this mindset, Crystal slows the game down, finds the best outlet passes to her teammates, and sees the scheme of the defense. She is an asset to a CUNY team in need of all the help it can get as it begins its journey in the increasingly competitive world of collegiate wheelchair basketball.

Big Apple, Small Victories

The bonds Crystal and her CUNY teammates have forged are incomparable. Now, in their inaugural season as a collegiate program, it is their combination of unique team chemistry and desire to see future generations thrive that is propelling the CUNY wheelchair team forward.

“Crystal is symbolic of our entire program,” Martin said. “It’s people like her that are the reason New York City should’ve had this program decades ago.”

2021 is the first time CUNY will face other college programs like Alabama or Illinois. Preparing for high-level competition like that has been especially difficult for the team because, unlike their opponents, CUNY is one team spanning 22 different campuses across New York City.

On top of those challenges, the team has had to build their chemistry in a pandemic world.

“Our team was basically built online,” Crystal said.

Before their first regular-season games last month, the CUNY team had less than 20 practices together. While other teams were meeting at least daily for weight lifting or game drills, the CUNY wheelchair squad was hopping on Zoom from all different boroughs in the city to watch game tape or watch drills to replicate at home.

“We realize our program isn’t for everybody,” Martin said. “But the girls that are here, like Crystal, want to be changemakers and have a real opportunity to be.”

In the Big Apple, a city with more than eight million people, Martin said it is shocking that there are not more chances for disabled individuals to play basketball. He said creating a hub in the CUNY program will hopefully inspire further growth of the sport nationwide.

That effort also comes with a lot of pressure. Because of CUNY’s unorthodox approach to building a college program, Martin fears funding won’t be there in the future if the team doesn’t find success relatively quickly.

Despite all the hurdles, Crystal said she is proud of the way her team has come together and leaned on one another.

“The way we have been able to come together is really amazing,” she said. “The chemistry on the floor is just impeccable.”

She said because the team faced so much adversity together off the court, they have developed a culture of communication and trust on the court. Both literally and metaphorically, the team is always there for each other when they fall.

It’s a culture Coach Martin has purposefully leaned into.

“When you give the players autonomy to drive the direction of the program, they gain a vested interest here,” Martin said.

Martin said he believes in creating an atmosphere of accountability through the leadership of the players.

Jones and Martin agree this year is about more than the wins and losses, it is about steering the CUNY ship for the future of the wheelchair basketball program.

“Whatever we put into motion this year is what sets the stage for what is to follow,” Jones said. “It’s all about making sure we are constantly developing this season.”

On top of communication and trust, CUNY is also trying to put loose energy into motion this year. They want to be the team that hangs out outside of practices and makes up quirky team cheers based on TikTok trends.

While the culture is still building at CUNY, Crystal and the girls have set the stage for a fun-loving atmosphere in the locker room. And it's an energy that will only grow over time. With many of the girls on the team, including Crystal, being underclassmen, this team will have the chance to grow together for years to come.

Whether skiing home from rehab or lifting her teammates, Crystal Jones goes through life and the game of basketball with a delightful charm. And it is because of people like her that CUNY is, and will be, a hub of wheelchair basketball for hundreds of disabled folks throughout New York City.

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