Q&A: Spencer Jones shares how college hoops is bouncing back
By Savanna Stewart
Between Nov. 28, and Jan. 30, Stanford men’s basketball spent 57 days on the road, staying in nine cities across six states while COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County prevented the Cardinal from being able to practice and compete on the Farm. Kaiser Permanente in Santa Cruz, Calif., served as the team’s home away from home until Stanford was permitted to return to campus to play for a fanless Maples Pavilion, beginning with a matchup against USC on Feb. 2. Isolation from peers (aside from teammates), empty bleachers, multiple COVID-19 tests each week and the need to adaptable characterized the Cardinal’s 2020-21 season.
Nearly a year later, some degree of normalcy has returned to Stanford men’s hoops. The team resides among classmates and friends on the Farm. Cardinal supporters, albeit masked, filled the stands at home games during the fall quarter. Press conferences and interviews connect athletes, coaches and media face-to-face once again. The uncertainty of where and when — or if — Stanford would play its next game has largely disappeared. Some impacts of the pandemic, however, remain dominant features of the team’s experience: stringent COVID-19 testing still dictates the team’s ability to compete, and two whole grades — eight freshmen and sophomores — have never been a collegiate athlete without the COVID-19 pandemic looming overhead. Just eight players, including junior forward Spencer Jones, can remember what being a Cardinal basketball player was like before the coronavirus turned college sports upside down.
The Daily’s Savanna Stewart ’22 spoke with Jones about his three unique seasons on the Farm, how the balance between basketball and academics shapes his daily life and how COVID-19 has influenced his future plans.
The Stanford Daily [TSD]: I believe your freshman year was the year that the COVID-19 pandemic began, so you essentially had the beginning of a normal Stanford career before the final third of the academic year was drastically altered. In March 2020, Stanford students, like most college students across the country, were sent home, classes were moved online and college sports came to an abrupt halt. Before the sudden shutdown, what did an average day as a Stanford men’s basketball player entail?
Spencer Jones [SJ]: During a normal year, usually it’s early lift in the morning, like 7 a.m., and then you go to breakfast straight after that. And usually, your first class — I have maybe two classes a day, on average, or three, if it’s a busy day — but usually, I’d knock out one to two of my classes from 9:30 a.m. to around noon. Then, there’s practice after that. Practice is usually about, oh, two and a half hours, so we’ll probably get out of there around 3:30 or 4 p.m. And after practice, maybe you’d have one more class after that, so probably until 4:30 or 5:30 p.m. Then, I’m straight to dinner. And I’m probably not back to my room until about 7 or 7:30. From there, it’s homework, downtime, hanging out with friends, just whatever I want to do until 10:30 or 11, when I’d start getting ready for bed and then restart the whole process the next day.
TSD: Basketball is also one of the sports that typically return to campus for quite a long period of time during the summer for offseason training. How would your summer routine normally compare to your daily schedule in season?
SJ: In the summer, we still take a couple classes, maybe one or two, but you’re not really going to have more than one class a day usually, though it still depends on how you set it up. But you still have early morning lift or practice, so you know, I probably still get up around like 7 a.m. for lift or practice and team stuff until around noon. After that, you have your one class, and from then on, you’re pretty much free for the rest of the day. But for us, it’s usually, you know, the coaches kind of expect us — and most of us expect it from ourselves — to get back in the gym and do our own workouts in that late afternoon, nighttime. But for the most part, you have most of that time just to structure how you want. So summer is our best time to go do some stuff in San Francisco or go drive to Big Sur. To go see the state is kind of the best option.
TSD: So you had the summer before your first year at Stanford and the vast majority of your freshman season before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold right around the 2020 Pac-12 Tournament in March. What did your training look like in those first few months when everything shut down and everyone went home?
SJ: So COVID hit, actually, right during the PAC-12 tournament. We were one of the last games to play, so we went home right after that. The season pretty much just ended, and you played 30 games, so usually right when your season ends you give your body that break. For me, I spent most of the first three weeks just letting my body recover, just relaxed and enjoyed family because, you know, it was my first year in college — hadn’t seen anybody. So yeah, it was just relaxing for most of that time. And then after about the first month, all my workouts were either weights — I had a couple of weights, like a smaller weight set, in the garage at my home where I was doing my workouts — or just finding outdoor courts, which was also hard because a lot of local parks would take the rims off the goals. There’s this one local park I’d go to … but it was like a month before they put the rims back on the local parks. For months, it was just me on half of a concrete court and just doing weights in my dusty garage.
TSD: If I remember correctly, the team eventually returned to campus in September 2020, and you guys had quite an interesting journey from that point forward last season. You spent 50+ days on the road, much of that time in Santa Cruz. What was the biggest adjustment that you had to make that year, or the most shocking way you had to alter your life?
SJ: For me, it was just the isolation, because we were in a hotel, but we were in our rooms by ourselves. I mean, obviously, I tried to hang out with the guys after a long day of practice and everything — but outside of that, every kind of interaction with my teammates felt like a formal interaction, like practice or a meeting, or maybe we were going to pick up our dinners, but we would have to bring it back to the room. It wasn’t like we were interacting, as much as — or as normally as — we do in the normal season. So, it was very isolating. And plus, I always like to have aspects of my life that are apart from basketball and everything, and that was obviously virtually impossible, considering I was always around my teammates and away from campus. So that was different. I had to find another kind of little escape. I’d say honestly those were the biggest two adjustments for me.
TSD: This year has, at least in part, more closely resembled a typical academic and athletic year. What are some major points of comparison that you recognize between your junior season now versus your sophomore and freshman years? Whether that’s in terms of team chemistry, things such as extensive testing procedures like you underwent this year in Hawaii, or anything else — how does this season compare to last season and before?
SJ: It’s definitely a lot more normal. I’d say from a team standpoint, the chemistry is certainly a lot better, and that comes from just having been around each other for literally the entire season last year. You’re obviously forced to bond through the difficult times. And that has shown through in this year. We’re all hanging out with each other more, we all get along well — well up until now, because we have a lot of guys who tested positive, so we’re all kind of quarantining all over the place right now. But before this, it’s been predominantly a normal year, honestly, it’s been very similar to my freshman year. I’m much more settled into the routine and the role and how everything works, because, you know, it’s been two years, but it’s been very comparable to my first year.
TSD: Now, with just a portion of your third season remaining, what are your future goals or plans with the team? And has the pandemic influenced your path in any way? A lot of students at Stanford have decided to apply for coterminal programs in light of the last 18 months in hopes of having another year on campus while they pursue a master’s degree. How has your past experience with Stanford men’s basketball shaped your plans?
SJ: For me, not much has really changed. I mean, obviously, I’d love to take this game as far as I can go, but when you go to Stanford, you always consider the educational route too, of course. The only thing that really changed was the option for an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID year. So, I have thought about taking a coterm for MS&E, or something like that, but for me, it really hasn’t changed too much. I’ll probably know more in terms of that next year. Right now I’m trying to just focus on having a very strong season and just, you know, keeping academics going.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.