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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Near-Death Experience Changed DeLisha Milton-Jones’ Life

By Harry Minium

DeLisha Milton-Jones had been under water for so long that she could no longer hold her breath. Her mouth opened involuntarily and chlorinated water quickly began to fill her stomach and lungs.

She could not swim, but that had not stopped the shy but precocious 11-year-old from goofing around with friends around a pool at a church outing. She slipped, hit her head on the side of the pool and fell into 12 feet of water.

She momentarily blacked out and awoke gasping for air.

"I remember fighting violently, trying to get back above water," she said.

Suddenly, she said, the pain and angst went away.

"Everything got peaceful and bright," she explained. "It was so bright it was like you were looking at the sun. It was bright but soft and peaceful feeling. I felt like someone was carrying me, and I just remember going to sleep."

She believes that, for a few minutes, she was dead.

A lifeguard finally saw her, jumped in, pulled her out, laid her beside the pool and began doing CPR. DeLisha did not respond for several minutes. People around her began to cry, including her sister, Charmaine.

But the lifeguard refused to quit.

Milton-Jones said she woke up and heard people saying, "Breathe, DeLisha, breathe."

"I turned over and puked," she said.

Still, it was not clear she was going to be OK. She had been without oxygen for quite a while. Doctors later said that she had had a seizure and some vital organs were struggling. She was passing in and out of consciousness.

Across town, her mother was at work when she got a phone call from DeLisha's sister. When Beverly Milton answered, someone grabbed the phone from her daughter and said, "DeLisha is dead. You need

When she arrived, dozens of friends dropped their heads and said nothing.

"I knew when I saw them that my baby was dead," she said.

But she wasn't. When Milton got inside, a nurse told her DeLisha was alive but in serious condition.

Milton was at her side for hours as DeLisha was unconscious in intensive care. Milton drifted off to sleep and dreamed that she ran up some stairs into heaven, where she met Jesus. He cradled her in his arms.

"Everything is going to be OK," she said he told her.

When she woke up, DeLisha was awake and smiling.

Milton-Jones has told this story many times in the 34 years since that July day, including one evening in April when she interviewed for the women's basketball head coaching position at Old Dominion.

The pandemic had just begun, so she told the story and how it changed her life via Zoom call. It she made a powerful impact.

"I've never been involved in an interview process where the person being interviewed brought tears to everyone around the table," said Athletic Director Wood Selig, who's spent more than three decades in college sports. "Her story was compelling and resonated with everyone on the committee. We knew this was the type of woman, the type of role model, the type of leader we want leading our student-athletes at ODU."

Milton-Jones got the job, of course, and her Monarchs are scheduled to play their home opener against William & Mary at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 3.

Beyond her brush with death, Milton-Jones has a compelling life story. She grew up in poverty in a single-parent home in rural Georgia, without access to the summer camps or AAU teams that turn average players into stars. Yet, she became a high school basketball star, then the nation's college Player of the Year.

She spent 17 seasons playing professionally, was a two-time Olympic gold medalist and quickly revived Pepperdine's program as head coach before heading to Syracuse last season as an assistant.

At age 45, she is a rising star.

But she said that miracle that occurred when she was 11 that changed the direction of her life and set her on a path toward excellence and deep religious faith.

Life was not easy for Beverly and her two daughters. They lived in Riceboro, Ga., a town of fewer than 1,000 people located 32 miles south of Savannah.

She has always worked, but when her kids were small, she didn't always make enough money to make ends meet. She had family around but did not ask for help.

"Trying to raise two children by yourself, especially back then, was hard," she said. "I would go to work crying and leave from work crying, not knowing how I would feed my girls. I had my mother and siblings around, but I felt like God gave me two girls and that I was supposed to take care of them.

"God always had that ram in the bush. I didn't always have to eat, but God always made a way for my daughters."

DeLisha was 3 when her parents split. "My mom made a courageous decision to grab my sister and me with our clothes on our backs," she said. "She never turned back from that moment on."

DeLisha was always tall for her age and a bit of a tomboy. She said being introduced to basketball "was a breath of fresh air."

She started as a freshman in high school and was one of the nation's most coveted players by the time she entered her senior year. Not only did she have great basketball skills, her work ethic on and off the court was off the charts.

Early on, she was nicknamed "Sunshine," and when you see her, there's no question as to why - she has a seductively, wonderful smile.

But eventually, she earned the nickname "D-Nasty" because, as former ODU All-American Nancy Lieberman said, she was so relentless and physical that no one wanted to defend her.

She and Charmaine ended up playing at the University of Florida, and they both flourished in Gainesville. DeLisha was a four-year starter and won the 1997 Wade Trophy as a senior. She finished with 1,858 career points.

Florida went to the NCAA tournament all four seasons. In her final game, Florida lost to ODU, then a national powerhouse 55-53 in a regional final.

It was a bitter defeat. Little did she know that 23 years later, she would be hired to help restore ODU to its place among the women's basketball elite.

DeLisha met her husband, Roland Jones, when she was a freshman at Florida. He was a hotshot junior college player from Texas whom Gators' coach Lon Kruger was recruiting.

She was on the court doing drills with her teammates when she saw him and could not take her eyes off him. When he looked at her, she looked away and he was also smitten.

He boldly walked across the court, introduced himself. "My name is Roland Jones and I want to know if I can take you out on a date," he said.

"I was so self-conscious," she said. "I had acne and a bad hairstyle. So, I lied and told him I've got a boyfriend."

Five years later, he was playing with the Dallas Mavericks' summer league team. He knew that DeLisha was playing for the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA and saw a woman wearing a Sparks shirt.

He asked her for Delisha's phone number, a request she understandably declined. But she gave him her card and said, "You can write to her at this address."

He did - a four-page, handwritten letter, both front and back, on large notebook paper, and included a photo. It wasn't until the end of the season that DeLisha opened her fan mail and read the letter.

"When I looked at it, I said, 'Yes, he's cute, but I don't remember him,' " she said.

She shared the letter with teammate Lisa Leslie but said she wasn't going to call him.

"Then I'll call him," said Leslie, who took DeLisha's phone and dialed his number.

"She asked me about 30 questions, about my family, my religion, what do I do," he said.

Finally, DeLisha took the phone.

"We hit it off right away," she said. "We talked every day for three months." After she returned from the 2000 Olympics in Australia, he invited her to come visit him in Dallas.

"Mom told me I should go for two days and if it doesn't work out, come on home," she said.

Two days turned into five and they quickly realized they really cared for each other. Soon thereafter, he moved to Los Angeles to spend more time with her.

"I'm glad he was so persistent because if it was up to me, we wouldn't be married," she said. "Neither of us are perfect people but we're perfect together. He's intelligent, charming and well put together. He's a tremendous ballplayer.

"He was the one who taught me how to be a pro. He taught me how to train, how to eat, how to set yourself apart. He helped me tap into resources I didn't know I had. I have him to thank for my longevity in the game."

For their first two years, they dated long distance because they both played in different cities

Eventually, Jones decided to sacrifice his career to help DeLisha. He found jobs wherever she played or coached - he is ODU's director of basketball operations. And while he worked, his main job has been to support his wife.

"He's made big sacrifices for me," DeLisha said. "For someone to put their life on hold to advance yours, I owe him so much. I really do."

DeLisha did not come to ODU at an ideal time. Because of the pandemic, the University shut down in-person classes during the spring and summer. She didn't meet many of her players until the summer.

She held Zoom meetings with them as a team and individually while she hired a staff.

She's made up for lost time since and her practices are different from what you will see with many coaches. She is upbeat and encouraging. Although she demands discipline, she lives up to her "Sunshine" nickname.

"I love the way she's coaching her players," Selig said. "You can tell those young ladies believe in her."

DeLisha said she wants to continue the task of previous coach Nikki McCray-Penson, who vowed to build ODU back into a national power but left for Mississippi State after three seasons.

"We can do that here,"DeLisha said. "I want to compete with ACC teams, like Virginia and Virginia Tech. I want to beat the team."

If she does great things, she will credit it all to that July day when she nearly perished.

"I knew from that day on that I was going to be different," she said. "When you lose something as precious as life, and you come back from it you have no choice but to look at things differently.

"I love life. I appreciate things that some other people may not appreciate. I'm almost clairvoyant in the things I can see.

"It was a religious experience for me. When I think about my time in the water, the struggle I was going through, it resembled life and death, that battle between life and death.

"I feel like God saw fit for me to have another chance at life because I fought so hard. I think he said, 'This little girl is relentless. I'm going to grant her another chance and she's going to be tasked with doing tremendous work.' "

Part of that work, she says, is telling her story.

"I feel like it's my responsibility to enlighten people, to have compassion, to emphasize to people to take every precious breath that we can breathe and not take it for granted.

"I know it was divine intervention that saved me. When I came out of that water and breathed once again, I felt like my life was starting over."

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