Sara Jones apologizes when her conversation meanders off point. It's the drugs, she says. Drugs pumped into her to fend off cancer that has, after a dozen years, become terminal.
"To save my little niece or my close friends, I'd walk every step again," said Jones, a longtime friend to Old Dominion women's basketball coach Karen Barefoot, and known to ODU's community as a beacon for cancer awareness. "Don't think that makes me all super-tough or whatever. It really scares the hell out of me."
That's nothing Jones admits to the Lady Monarchs, even as her walk has slowed. She has recently missed games for the first time in her two seasons as Barefoot's unpaid aide. When that happens, Barefoot feels the absence of her "life coach," the kindred spirit she's known for 20 years. And the Lady Monarchs miss glancing toward the end of the bench for their faithful mentor.
These two seasons have made their mark, seasons in which Jones has been the first to leap from that bench to praise, the first to apply a pat on the back and the last to ever bring attention to her battle.
"She's never down," said Mairi Buchan, a senior forward from Scotland. "She always talks about us; she's never talking about herself. She'll have just had chemo, and she'll come to the game and be the most positive person."
Fellow senior Jackie Cook "can't imagine" enduring such an ordeal with Jones' relentless optimism.
"Sara has given me a new insight on life," Cook said. "It's really taught me that anything I'm going through just doesn't even compare to the struggles that she's gone through. Her fight to live... I can't even put into words how strong she is."
Even in Jones' absence, Barefoot will call on that strength, just by mentioning her name, when the Lady Monarchs' effort flags. Then there are times it's as simple as a glance at their pink-and-white bracelets stamped with Jones' creed: "Whatever it Takes."
"I tell her, 'They look at you and know they can get through anything,' " Barefoot said.
That's why the story of Sara Jones isn't one of loss, but of what those she cherishes and who cherish her back have gained.
It also is a story of cruel irony. A former Florida high school basketball star, Jones is only 40 but has been sick almost a third of her life. Cancer manifested in her breast when she was 28 and at a vibrant physical peak as a Norfolk firefighter, a gym owner and a personal trainer.
By then, Barefoot and Jones had been friends for nearly a decade. They met while playing in pickup games when Jones was new to the area and Barefoot was a record-setting player at Christopher Newport University.
A fast friendship began when each quickly recognized in the other the same get-after-it, keep-grinding zest. Barefoot, in fact, was so impressed with Jones' contagious energy that as coaching jobs took her from Virginia to North Carolina and back, she asked Jones to bring around her positivity as much as possible.
"She's my motivator," said Barefoot, whose office is a shrine to positive thinking. "She just serves other people. For Sara, it's always about making it about somebody else....
It's pretty empowering. It really is a gift, a gift certain people have."
Jones' harrowing medical journey began with an early misdiagnosis of what soon became raging disease. She had a bilateral mastectomy, multiple reconstruction surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation.
When the cancer returned anyway, she spent months at a renowned clinic in Houston for intensive, invasive treatment. It seemed effective; Jones returned to her life and work, and another hopeful, cancer-free run began.
It ended three years ago when Jones learned that the disease was in her bones, organs and brain.
"You feel sad," junior guard Becca Allison said, "but she doesn't want you to feel sad for her. It's upsetting, but there's nothing we can do about that. So we help her keep doing what she's doing."
Barefoot's arrival at ODU from Elon before last season gave Jones a big boost. The coach hired the full staff complement allowed by the NCAA and then made Jones her personal assistant on a voluntary basis, considering Jones was on disability and couldn't be paid.
"This is medicine to her," Barefoot said.
Jones has but one duty with the team: Just be Sara.
In a recent home game against Drexel, "being Sara" even included a strategy suggestion for Barefoot. Jones put down her stat chart, rose from the wheelchair she has used lately, and walked to Barefoot to lobby for a particular defensive strategy she thought would shackle Drexel's best scorer.
Barefoot agreed, and she made the move that sparked a late, winning rally.
"She gives me strength," Barefoot said. "She gives us purpose."
The words strike Jones like sweet music.
"You get so much more back if you care just a little bit more," Jones said, "if you spend just a little more time."
That's the mold she and Barefoot share, Jones said: loving basketball, but loving more the chance to impact lives.
"We're all searching for what we are supposed to do here, right?" Jones said. "I'm supposed to be in this place."
As she spoke, she reclined with her rescue dogs, Rypper and Synder, on the couch in her Colonial Place home. Barefoot and a few other friends and family members mingled nearby. Jones' niece dashed through the room. With no practice that day, Cook soon was at the front door with a loud hello and a large green tea for Jones.
Tired and gaunt, Jones was pleased with the activity and engaged in a conversation that misted her rich, brown eyes just once.
"Am I disappointed that my life turned out like this?" Jones wondered. "Of course. It's crushing."
But as Barefoot reminds her players, some of whom are seeing up-close their first cancer fight, this is the role that's been asked of Jones, unanswerable as it seems.
"I'm a big believer in 'Everything happens for a reason,' " Buchan said. "Sara sees it that way, as well. She's been put here, and she's been given cancer for a reason. We might not know why right now. It might be to help us through our season, to teach us lessons or to help our family in some way. But that was what she was meant to have in life."
Meaning is where we find it. Jones sees it in every guidepost she has helped mark for the Lady Monarchs on their own roads.
"I hope," Jones said, "that we never lose touch, for sure."
Tom Robinson, 757-446-2518, email@example.com