The NC State women’s basketball team had just been denied a trip to the Final Four with a heartbreaking double-overtime loss to UConn, and Kayla Jones needed something to cheer her up.
It came, of all places, on social media in the form of a random direct message from a fan.
“He said, ‘It was put in my spirit to help you start a scholarship fund,” Jones said of the Wolfpack supporter who has asked to remain anonymous. “When he said that, I couldn’t say no. I said, ‘OK, let’s start it,’ and literally, we just ran with it from there. Just being in a position to give back is a blessing to everybody.”
The donor pledged the first $500 to get the Kayla Jones Scholarship off the ground and the young player, who was taken by Minnesota Lynx in the second round of last month’s WNBA Draft, plans “to continue to elevate it” through her own efforts.
The scholarship will be awarded annually to a senior female athlete at Jones’ alma mater, Riverside High School in Williamston.
Although athletic ability will be taken into account, factors such as academics and leadership will be equally important in choosing its recipients.
According to a notice announcing the scholarship, applicants are required to have a minimum grade point average of 3.0, be accepted to an accredited four-year college or two-year community college, show excellent character and sportsmanship, and be passionate about academics, teamwork, community service and volunteering.
Those are all qualities that helped make Jones one of the Wolfpack’s most inspirational and popular players during her recently completed five-year career.
A 6-foot-2 forward, Jones was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2020-21 and a second-team pick this season after choosing to return for the extra COVID year of eligibility. She said she has always tried to use her platform as a high-profile athlete to be a role model for young girls aspiring to follow in her footsteps.
The scholarship fund is an extension of that.
“I just try to be that hope and that inspiration,” said Jones, who finished her college career with 1,068 points and 734 rebounds while helping State to three straight conference tournament championships and its first NCAA Elite Eight trip since 1998.
“I know when I was a kid, if I was standing there staring at a player, I’d wish that they would speak to me. So when I saw some kids when we played the Washington Mystics (in a WNBA exhibition game) the other day, I went over there and talked to them. I just wanted to open myself up and let them know, ‘I see you.’ I tried to be that person that they can welcome and look up to.”
Jones’ attitude and her dedication to the community aren’t a surprise to those who know her.
Still, the announcement that someone so young has decided to endow a scholarship that benefits those at her high school left Riverside guidance counselor Jamila Riddick “absolutely floored.”
“We are super proud of Kayla and all of her accomplishments,” Riddick said. “This just speaks volumes because she could have done any number of things as a way to give back to the community. But because she values athletes and education, she wanted to do something that would recognize those students here in her home.”
While Jones plans to take an active role in raising money and promoting the scholarship that carries her name, she will leave its administration and the selection of its recipients to a group of others that includes Riddick and her cousin Kevin Nixon.
It’s a move designed to keep the process as fair as possible since Jones is still so connected to those at Riverside.
Jones is hoping to stay connected with basketball.
On Tuesday, she was among the final players cut by the Lynx as the team got down to its 11-player regular season roster. It was hardly an unexpected move, considering the limited number of teams and roster spots available.
But after getting a taste of the pro game and playing well in two exhibition games, Jones is optimistic that other opportunities — either in the U.S. or abroad — will present themselves.
“You have to be confident,” Jones said. “You have to hope that the best is yet to come.”