Yontami Jones is all about family, faith and basketball.
Jones juggles being a daughter, a mother, a grandmother, a minister, a physical education teacher, a basketball coach and a referee in volleyball and basketball.
Two high schools merging and an illness are not about to slow her down.
Not with leadership skills and a positive attitude that make her the 31st recipient of the Clem Caraboolad Memorial Coach of the Year award from the Akron Beacon Journal and the Touchdown Club of Greater Akron.
Jones will receive the award Monday at a banquet at Guys Party Center. Caraboolad was a highly respected teacher and coach at Walsh Jesuit and Archbishop Hoban who died from a heart attack in 1988 at age 43.
Jones is in her 23rd year teaching physical education in Akron Public Schools. She is in her second year working with eighth-grade students at Innes, and is the Kenmore-Garfield girls basketball coach after Kenmore and Garfield merged in 2017.
“Yontami is a great choice for this award,” said Joe Vassalotti, the Akron Public Schools athletic director. “She has done a fabulous job of blending the two communities together in terms of girls basketball.”
Jones started coaching junior varsity girls basketball at Kenmore in 1994 as an assistant to John Floyd, and then became varsity coach in 2000.
“I looked up to coach Jones as my mentor,” said Latisha Tucker, a 1997 Kenmore graduate who played basketball at Ball State University and is now a physical teacher at Youngstown Taft Elementary School.
“She doesn’t just focus on what happens on the court, she also focuses on you as a person. She helps to build you up to be the best person that you can be.”
Jones led Kenmore to a 22-3 record and to the Akron Division I district championship in girls basketball in 2008. The Cardinals beat Cuyahoga Falls, Hudson, Wadsworth and Green in the tournament at Ellet, and then lost to Boardman in a Canton regional semifinal.
“Coach Jones is always positive,” said Andola Dortch, a 2009 Kenmore graduate who played basketball at the University of Toledo and professionally in Belarus. “With her being real spiritual and a church lady, we pretty much put our faith into God and put faith into everything that we did.”
Dortch started on that team with Scharlawn Hubbard, Sha’Nay Bushner, Sirshawna Dowdy and Shanequa Williams, and Courtney Palmer was the top reserve. All six competed in college, including Williams in track and field at Kent State. Dortch now plays semi-pro for the Cleveland Crush and is an assistant coach at Northwest with Palmer.
Jones was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 2017. She had a blood clot in her right leg and a blood clot in her left lung, and dealt with pneumonia.
“I have had to overcome my sickness,” Jones said. “I had radiation about three or four weeks ago, and I let that heal up. That is why you see me with glasses on in a lot of pictures. There was a tumor behind my orbital socket, and now my left eye is opening up and everything is going well. God is healing me.”
Jones said she has maintained vision in both eyes during this difficult time.
“I take a chemo pill every day and I take a blood thinner, and I go about my business,” Jones said. “I make sure I pray every day. … Right now, my doctor [Esther H. Rehmus] is happy with where I am. I go back for a radiation checkup on the 19th of April. I am excited to get some great news.”
Jones resumed teaching and coaching full-time this school year, and refereeing and playing in volleyball and basketball games.
“Jones is always able to overcome any situation,” said Kristen Moore, a 2016 Kenmore graduate who attends the University of Akron.
“She always stays so positive. … Her attitude, smile and laugh are contagious. She is just so positive that she makes you want to better yourself as a person.”
Jones coached Kenmore to seven City Series regular-season championships between 2004 and 2016 (five outright, two shared with Firestone), and to five City Series postseason titles between 2008 and 2016. Kenmore also won 11 sectional titles between 2005 and 2015.
Ron Linger, the Akron Public Schools assistant athletic director, has known Jones since the early 1990s when he was a public address announcer at UA's Rhodes Arena. Linger also formerly worked at Central-Hower and East, and Jones was a student-teacher in his Central-Hower physical education classes in 1994.
“I got to know her when she was Yontami Bell at the University of Akron,” Linger said. “Yon and I have had a long friendship.
“Yon is a mentor to a lot of girls. She is very involved with church. … She is a spiritual person. That is very important to her life and I think the kids see that and I think the kids take note of that. A lot of the kids make it part of their lives because they see how important it is in her life. Her strength has been in her faith and the relationships that she builds with students and coaches and others around her.”
Jones coached her daughter, Paris Caldwell, and her niece, Essence Bell, at Kenmore. Caldwell graduated in 2007 and is now an assistant to her mom.
Three girls have been the City Series basketball player of the year under Jones — Dortch in 2007, 2008 and 2009; Porshae Hearn in 2012 and 2013 and Alexis Radcliff in 2019.
Jones has coached over three dozen girls who went on to compete in college, including Cordella Chaney, Tamarrah Gould, Shayla Jennings, Casey McCormick, Sarah Taylor, Alexis Lee, Charna’e Coleman, Q’deare Dix, Jasmin Hubbard and Selah Richardson.
Next season’s Kenmore-Garfield team is set to return I’anna Lopp and Quimari Shelton.
“Being there for my players means a whole lot more than the wins,” said Jones, a six-time City Series coach of the year. “I feel like we are family. I feel like I am more than just a coach. Sometimes kids have had to stay with me before. I feel like big sister, mom, auntie and counselor.”
Jones received support from her parents, Bertha Jean and Bishop Robert Bell. Jones regularly talks and sees her mother. Her father passed away 12 years ago.
Jones graduated from Kenmore in 1989 with four varsity letters apiece in volleyball, basketball and track and field. She was a Division I district finalist in basketball and a Division I state qualifier in shot put in 1988, and received guidance from high school coaches Daniel Prenn, Jeff Sloan, Michael Papp and Ron Vargo.
Jones played basketball at the University of Akron from 1990-1994 under coaches Lisa Fitch and Mary Ann Grimes. She earned a bachelor's degree in physical education in 1994 and a master's degree in coaching and sports science in 2001.
“Coach Jones is a very strong person,” said Amber Howell, a 2017 Kenmore graduate who attends Stark State. “She is very caring. She is an all-around great person, and I am glad I met her and she became my coach.”
Jones, who has one grandson in 8-year-old Dominique, led Kenmore-Garfield to the City Series postseason title in 2019 after Buchtel swept the league in the regular season.
“Yontami is a great role model and I am very impressed with the positive relationships that she builds,” Vassalotti said. “This year is a great example with the girls coming together and winning the City Series postseason championship game by upsetting Buchtel.”
Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.