A Nebraska basketball court helped make him. Now Josh Jones is trying to save it.
By Dirk Chatelain, Flatwater Free Press
June 9, 2023, 7 a.m. ·
He dribbled down the middle of Grant Street, past the brick landmarks that shaped his neighborhood: Zion Baptist Church and the Dreamland Ballroom, the Omaha Star and the Fair Deal.
When he crossed 24th Street and reached the gate on the chain-link fence, he found the shaded hoop beneath the giant sycamore tree. Among the ghosts of North Omaha, Josh Jones practiced his last-second shots.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
Jones didn’t know then all the legends who walked this area before him. Bob Boozer! Oscar Robertson! Mildred Brown! Duke Ellington! But he’d already mapped his future. Central High. Creighton. The NBA.
That’s why Jones spent so many hours there as a kid, solo, shooting at the rundown outdoor basketball park known as Bryant Center. Dribbling. Dreaming. Be home before the street lights come on.
Some nights, he’d sneak away from chores until he heard a shout from home two blocks east. His mother’s voice.
One more shot, he thought. He always took one more shot. Unless he heard a deeper voice.
“My dad didn’t play around. I was out of there!”
Twenty-five years after Josh Jones fell in love with the jumper, he’s returned for one more shot. To revive a dormant landmark. To, once again, make it the beating heart of North Omaha.
St. Benedict’s Church, which built Bryant Center, has asked Jones to rebuild community interest in youth programs. Especially the courts.
The basketball playground, constructed at the peak of Civil Rights tensions, once lured the biggest athletes in the city and nation. Maurtice Ivy, the Omaha Central grad who scored 2,000 points during her Husker career, says it was Nebraska’s version of New York City’s famed Rucker Park.
So why can’t it be that again?
“Those courts, bro? Legendary,” Jones says. “Le-gen-da-ry!”
But for 15 years, Jones has driven by Bryant Center and felt regret. The place is always empty. Gates locked.
“That’s why I’m back, man. I gotta get it back to what it was. … We gotta get new backboards, man! We gotta paint them rims! We gotta re-stripe them lines!”
Then he can start running leagues and tournaments.
He isn’t the first resident to attempt a 24th Street revival. Maybe time is running out on the courts.
But belief has never been a problem to Josh Jones. He won three Class A championships. He survived three heart surgeries. At 33, he can’t play all day anymore. But he can peer into the future and watch others follow his path.
“I still got this picture, I’m telling you, bro, 1968! Oscar Robertson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers. 2,500 people around them. And they’re hosting the opening of the George Bryant Center courts.
“I can do that 2.0!”
Jones’ memories are merely the tip of the steel fan-shaped backboard.
The Bryant Center goes back to 1966, and an era when Omaha segregated Black residents to the vibrant Near North Side.
That July, a dispute between police and residents at 24th & Lake escalated into three nights of civil disturbance, vandalism and looting. National Guardsmen marched south down 24th Street, their bayonets shining beneath the streetlights.
At St. Benedict’s, the largely Black Catholic Church on Grant Street, Father John Killoren wanted to help. So his church transformed an empty lot facing 24th Street into an outdoor basketball palace. They named it after a parishioner, local musician George Bryant.
Nine hoops. Four 1/2 courts. Bleachers. Lights. An electric scoreboard!
Immediately Bryant Center boomed. The best players yearned to compete. Hundreds of spectators squeezed into bleachers and lined up outside the fence.
In September ‘66, Omaha University’s starting quarterback played an exhibition football game, then beelined to Bryant Center for a pickup basketball game. Marlin Briscoe was high above the blacktop when an opponent undercut him. He fractured a vertebrae in his neck and missed the entire 1966 football season.
Two years later, he became pro football’s first Black starting quarterback. In ’69, he returned to Bryant Center with his new Buffalo Bills teammate, O.J. Simpson.
Briscoe might’ve been the best quarterback to play at Bryant Center. But he wasn’t the best scorer. That’s probably Ron Boone, a late-blooming Tech High product who grew 4 inches after graduation and dominated his old heroes.
“One day at Bryant Center,” Briscoe told The Omaha World-Herald in 2019, “he dunked on me like Blake Griffin. I couldn't believe it was the same little kid. He said, 'Now that's for all those years.’"
The asphalt park’s biggest day came on June 9, 1968. Just a month earlier, Robert Kennedy campaigned in the rain on 24th Street. Just 50 yards north of Bryant Center.
Three weeks later, a gunman assassinated RFK in California. Hoops legend Oscar Robertson attended the funeral. The following day, June 9, the Big O flew to Omaha for Bryant Center’s summer kickoff party. There, he stood in a suit with Bob Boozer and football great Gale Sayers, mourning another loss even as they celebrated another hoops season with hundreds of Omaha kids.
The next summer, after an Omaha policeman shot and killed 14-year-old Vivian Strong, the neighborhood burned again. The following day, as more than 200 kids played basketball, smoke drifted across the courts.
By the ’70s, Bryant Center — like the neighborhood — couldn’t withstand the pressure.
Population shifted north and west. The riots and dilapidated housing drove people away.
Boone returned to his hometown after 13 pro seasons and found his old stomping grounds – these courts that had prepared him for the NBA – in disrepair.
“You just wish something like that could go on forever,” Boone said years ago. “You will take those experiences with you to your grave.”
The courts experienced brief comebacks. In the 1990s, Erick Strickland had a fast-break dunk that lives in Bryant Center lore. Some of the venue’s best days came at the Maurtice Ivy annual 3-on-3 tournament, which began in ’97 and lasted nine years.
“The trophies were sometimes bigger than the kids were,” Ivy said. “And they loved that.”
Josh Jones kept all of his championship pictures, like the one from 2003, when his Jesuit Academy team, in long green T-shirts, posed with Ivy and their hardware.
There’s Josh on one end. On the other end, the kid everyone talked about, Ronnell Grixby.
“Let me tell you a story, bro,” Jones says. “This is eighth grade summer. I’m playing on another court. The place is packed. All of a sudden, you just hear a ‘Ooooh!’ Ronnell crossed over, Bam! He was the first person in our grade to dunk.
“Little Ronnell Grixby. That’s when we thought he was a superhero.”
On summer days, the teenage Jones would grab a Kool-Aid pickle, his favorite snack, and dribble to the playground’s southwest corner, beneath the massive sycamore tree.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … shoot!
The more time Josh spent here, the more the community looked after him. Strangers encouraged him. Gangs left him alone.
Under the sycamore, all alone, he imagined facing Ronnell 1-on-1. Every boy needs a standard.
Eventually Jones outgrew him. Eclipsed him. Together, Jones and Grixby won three state titles at Central High. Grixby led the Eagles to a football title, too.
They were talented. Driven.
“The edge doesn’t come from the opponent,” Jones said. “It comes from North Omaha.”
Success didn’t come easy. In May 2006, two months after Jones’ first state championship, his dad died of an enlarged heart.
In September 2007, his senior year at Central, an infection in Jones’ own heart required removal of his aortic valve. He nearly died. Six months later, he and Ronnell celebrated their three-peat.
Jones headed to Creighton on a basketball scholarship. An irregular heart rate derailed Grixby’s chance to play college football at Nebraska. He found a new passion in culinary arts. When Jones reconnected with his old friend, it felt like old times. But they lost touch.
Freshman year, Jones started learning about the history of Bryant Center and North Omaha, too.
He learned about the Dreamland Ballroom and its blaring bands. Duke Ellington. Count Basie. Louis Armstrong. He learned about Mildred Brown, the fearless Omaha Star publisher and Civil Rights heroine.
Jones’ heart condition cut short his Creighton career — and any chance at the NBA — but also delivered him back to North Omaha, where he’s spent the past decade involved in community projects.
Too often, he sees teenagers who look like basketball players but don’t play.
TFN, Jones calls it.
“Tall For Nothing,” he said. “You got these kids that have all this talent and they ain’t got nobody running clinics.”
Two years ago, Jones was directing the Salvation Army community center on North 24th, cleaning the gym before a basketball league. An old teammate called. Ronnell is gone. They found him in a house. Overdose.
Jones hung up the phone. “I couldn’t even think … there would be no Josh Jones if there weren’t Ronnell Grixby.”
Twenty-five years after he cut his path to North 24th Street, the ghosts of North Omaha have become his own.
Jones can’t bring it all back. Not his childhood friend. Not his dad or mom, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2018. Not their three-story house on Willis Street, demolished in 2019 and replaced by dandelions.
He can’t resurrect The Big O and Boozer and he surely can’t restore North Omaha’s heyday.
But Bryant Center? It’s still there. Just as he remembers it. Waiting for him.
“I can hear my mom’s voice right now. ‘Joshua! Joshua!’”
Monday morning, the sun rose over the brick landmarks of 24th Street. Over old Skeet’s BBQ and the new Fair Deal. Over the towers of downtown Omaha in the distance.
Josh Jones walked to the Grant Street gate and fiddled his keychain. “I get flashbacks just opening this gate.”
He entered an asphalt canvas marred by cracks. “This hasn’t been used in so long, look at this,” Jones said, pointing at the ground. “A weed is growing up.”
The past half-century is filled with good-hearted people driven to recreate the past here. Usually their dreams fell short.
The obstacle isn’t just new asphalt and new hoops. It’s credibility and safety. It’s leadership and dedication. Without daily programs, Bryant Center loses momentum fast.
At 33, Jones is determined. The neighborhood is safer than when he was a kid. And he’s built connections across Omaha.
“If you read the history and you look at these courts, there’s no reason why that legacy shouldn’t be carried on.”
Work has begun. On Tuesday, his brother James pulled those weeds peeking through the playground cracks. Wednesday, a volunteer re-painted those lines. On Saturday, Jones is hosting his first free community event on the courts. Food. Music. Games. Inspired by the Bible's Matthew 22, he calls the gathering “Love thy neighborhood.”
History doesn’t stop. There’s another generation coming. One more shot.
On Monday, as kids at the church next door headed outside for recess, Jones grabbed a ball. He walked to his favorite rim beneath the sycamore. A place he hadn’t attempted a jumper in 10 years.
Six dribbles. 15 feet. Rise up. Splash. Josh Jones smiled.
“Oh, I never miss.”
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