He dribbled down the middle of Grant Street, past the century-old 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 all the legends who walked this area before him. Not then. Bob Boozer! Oscar Robertson! Mildred Brown! Duke Ellington! But he’d already mapped out 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 backyard chores until he heard a shout from home two blocks east. His mother’s voice.

Joshua! Joshua! 

One more shot, he thought. He always took one more shot. Unless he heard a deeper voice. 

Joshua!!!

“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, the original visionaries for Bryant Center, asked Jones to re-ignite the community’s interest in youth programs. Especially the courts. It’s part of a broader push to reinvigorate Bryant Resource Center services. 

The basketball playground, constructed at the peak of Civil Rights tensions, once lured the biggest athletes in the city — and occasionally the nation. Maurtice Ivy, the 1984 Omaha Central grad who scored 2,000 points during her Husker career, says it was once Nebraska’s version of New York City’s famed Rucker Park. 

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 pangs of regret. The place is almost 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 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 after-hours loiterers 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. Like a scene from George Wallace’s Alabama.

At St. Benedict’s, the largely Black Catholic Church on Grant Street, Father John Killoren recognized a need for distraction. Recreation. So his church transformed an empty lot facing 24th Street into an outdoor basketball palace. They named it after George Bryant, local musician and St. Benedict’s parishioner. 

Two-thirds of an acre. Nine hoops. Four 1/2 courts. Bleachers. Lights. An electric scoreboard! 

The timing was perfect. This was the era of Russell vs. Chamberlain. Omahans had followed Bob Boozer’s career to the NBA. They’d cheered Tech High’s state championship team in ’63. Basketball blossomed in the neighborhood.

The George Bryant Basketball Center opening ceremonies attracted Boozer and other dignitaries, including Gov. Frank Morrison. “Let it be … a source of joy to our youth,” he proclaimed.

Immediately Bryant Center boomed. The best players and teams yearned to compete. And spectators — hundreds of them — squeezed into bleachers and lined up outside the fence.

“Your mothers would be looking at you strange because that's when we dressed up the cutest," future media mogul Cathy Hughes told The World-Herald in 2019. “We got our hair done to go stand out in that heat. On the fence. And watch the guys play. That was like watching the all-star game to us.”

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 honor probably belonged to Ron Boone, a late-blooming Tech High product who grew 4 inches after graduation and suddenly dominated his old heroes. 

“One day at Bryant Center,” Briscoe told The 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, presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy campaigned in the rain on 24th Street. Just 50 yards north of Bryant Center. 

Three weeks later, a gunman assassinated RFK in a California hotel kitchen. Hoops legend Oscar Robertson attended the funeral in New York City. The following day, the Big O flew to Omaha for Bryant Center’s summer kickoff party.

The images are eerie: Robertson, Boozer and football great Gale Sayers, in perfectly pressed suits, mourning the loss of another political leader as they celebrate another summer basketball season with hundreds of Omaha kids. 

The following 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. “For many of us, those memories will go forever. 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, including the summer of 2003, when his Jesuit Academy team — in long green T-shirts customized with their nicknames — posed with Ivy and their hardware.

There’s Josh on one end. And 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.”

***

The walk to Bryant Center was 300 yards from Jones’ three-story family home, the old Willis Hotel.

Built in the late 1800s, the white house operated for decades as a boarding house for Blacks who couldn’t stay downtown. It even made the famous Green Book for Black travelers.

Musicians, boxers and mob bosses stayed there. In 1929, police raided the place and arrested 17 people accused of gambling. If those walls could talk …

Jones’ father renovated the house for his wife’s day care business, “Little Foxes.” John Jones could fix anything. 

He moved from Mississippi in the 1970s with 25 cents in his pocket, an eighth-grade education and seven fingers — he lost three in an accident. 

Over the next 30 years, he worked countless jobs. Plowing snow. Hauling trash. Roofing. Fixing concrete. Chopping wood. That’s the skill Josh remembers most.

John Jones heated their old house with two wood-burning stoves. Josh and his older brother split logs and stacked them behind the house. 

“We never had a heating bill. I felt like I was a country boy.”

Josh’s teachers occasionally smelled his clothes and accused him of smoking. No, he said, it was the stoves.

One night, Josh was on his way out the door to play in a Central High basketball game when his dad stopped him. You're not going, he said. There’s wood to chop. Three teammates hurried to the house to help. Josh barely made it in time.

At every opportunity, he escaped babysitting and wood-chopping for jump-shooting at Bryant Center.

He grabbed a Kool-Aid pickle, his favorite snack, and dribbled to the southwest corner of the playground, beneath the massive sycamore tree. He emulated the moves from his VHS tapes — NBA Superstars II and Michael Jordan’s “Come Fly With Me.” 

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … shoot!

This place kept him out of trouble. It gave him the freedom to perfect his craft. The more time Josh invested, the more the community looked after him. Strangers encouraged him. Gangs left him alone. 

“My mom knew that if I was playing basketball, she wouldn’t have to worry about me.”

One day in 2002 or ’03, Creighton players and coaches visited Jesuit Academy. Kyle Korver. Dana Altman. A little assembly. Maybe 25 kids. Bluejays assistant Len Gordy said, “Who thinks they can come play for Creighton someday?”

Only Josh threw up his hand.

He couldn’t walk the talk. Not yet. Not like Ronnell Grixby. When Jones practiced at Bryant Center, 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 championships at Central High (2006-08). Grixby led the Eagles to a football title, too.

What made them successful wasn’t just their talent. It was their drive. “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 hearing from his mom about the history of Bryant Center. Oscar Robertson! 

“Yeah, right,” he said. Then he, too, discovered the story of his neighborhood. All the legends. All the landmarks.

He learned about the Dreamland Ballroom and its blaring bands. Duke Ellington. Count Basie. Louis Armstrong. He learned about Mildred Brown, the fearless publisher who activated a neighborhood for Civil Rights through her weekly Omaha Star.

Jones’ heart condition cut short his Creighton career — and any chance at pro basketball — but it 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 basketball. TFN, Jones calls it. 

“You know what that means? Tall For Nothing. You got these kids that have all this talent and they ain’t got nobody running clinics. The ‘hood don’t got enough gym space.”

Two years ago, Jones was directing the Salvation Army community center on North 24th, cleaning the gym before his adult basketball league. An old teammate called. Ronnell is gone. They found him in a house, unresponsive. He died of an verdose.

“It was almost like an April Fool’s,” Jones said. “I just hung up. 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 are far more personal than famous celebrities.

Jones can’t bring it all back. Not his dad or his childhood friend. Not his mom, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2018, or his three-story house on Willis Street, demolished in 2019 and replaced by dandelions. 

He can’t bring back 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 gate on Grant Street and fiddled his keychain. “I get flashbacks just opening this gate.”

He entered an asphalt canvas marred by cracks. And from those cracks? “This hasn’t been used in so long, look at this,” Jones said. “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 the city.

“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. Tuesday, his brother James pulled those weeds in the cracked asphalt. Wednesday, a volunteer re-painted those lines. This 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 leather Baden. 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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