Remembering the Akron Basketball Coach Who 'Reflects the Heartbeat of the City'
The Akron community is remembering a longtime girls basketball coach who died this past week. Yontami Jones died after a three-year battle with cancer. She was 49. WSKU sports commentator Terry Pluto said Jones leaves a legacy that’s much more than the titles she won over 25 years at Kenmore.
A Kenmore native
Pluto said Jones was known throughout Akron for her love of the game, her character and her kind heart. Which is why her death has had such an impact on the community.
“We always talk about when some famous coach dies. Once in a while we may hear a lot about a great high school football coach. But we’re talking about a girls’ basketball coach at Kenmore and then later when those two schools combined, Kenmore-Garfield,” Pluto said.
Jones graduated from Kenmore High School in 1989 and went on to play basketball at the University of Akron from 1990-1994. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education and master’s degrees in coaching and sports science.
She started coaching junior varsity girls’ basketball at Kenmore in 1994 as an assistant to John Floyd, and then became varsity coach in 2000. She was physical education teacher who also worked with eighth-grade students at Innes.
Finding strength in the church
Pluto wrote an article about Jones when he worked as a columnist at the Akron Beacon Journal in 2004. “She revived the program where they were having a hard time for a while even getting kids to come out for the team, and suddenly they were pretty good. So, I went to check it out.”
Pluto said the story was more interesting than he thought. He learned that her father, Bishop Robert Bell, was a pastor at a small church in West Akron called House of Prayer.
“She began to tell the story about how when she was 18 at Kenmore and an honor student and a great athlete, she had gotten pregnant. And let’s face it. Anybody who’s ever been around any church circles knows that when the daughter of one of the minsters becomes pregnant, it can be a huge scandal. Instead, this small church really did circle the wagons around her,” Pluto said.
Jones coached her daughter, Paris Caldwell, who is an assistant coach at Kenmore in recent years.
“We could talk about the seven city titles [Jones] won and six-time Coach of the Year and the Beacon Journal gave her the Clem Caraboolad Memorial Coach of the Year award in 2019. She’s got a lot of honors. She also had a lot of chances to leave Kenmore-Garfield and go coach somewhere, I mean she was good.”
But Pluto said her calling was at Kenmore.
“She would say, 'I’m in ministry.' But her ministry was in coaching and teaching. Sometimes a role model to somebody else seems so perfect and never made a ‘mistake’ And she would say, ‘I made a mistake, but my daughter was my blessing.”
Jones had several dozen of her players go on to play in college over the years.
“That was important because there was a feeling that if you went to Kenmore or Garfield, that was kind of it. And those places are tough to have people see beyond the borders of their neighborhood. But she could say, ‘I came from the neighborhood. I am still teaching and working in the neighborhood. I care about the people in the neighborhood.’”
Jones was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 2017, along with other health problems. She continued to coach.
“She didn’t quit when she was 18-years-old and her daughter was coming. And she didn’t quit when it was tough at Akron to be a new mother playing Division I basketball. I’m sure she didn’t quit when maybe one or two people in the church didn’t exactly welcome her with open arms when that period happened. And she didn’t quit early on. She paid her dues and she waited five or six years to become a varsity coach. She just stayed with it,” Pluto said.
And Pluto says Jones will be tough to replace.
“It was one of those stories that reflect the best of the heartbeat of the city.”
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