LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Chris Jones loves his hometown. Memphis made him tough and street smart and strong. His identity as a person and his reputation as a basketball player stem from the city's roots -- fearlessness and resiliency borne out of survival in the tough parts of town; skill developed on Memphis' playgrounds and courts. But the city never quite loved him back, at least not enough for his own satisfaction. It was teasing with its heart, downright stingy with its respect.
That's because it all belonged to another. Memphis already had a poster boy and his name was Joe Jackson. The city was his oyster, he Memphis' beloved pearl.
The heir apparent to Penny Hardaway, the kid who would score more than 3,000 points in high school, the McDonald's All-American, national player of the year candidate, and, most importantly, the homegrown product who would stay home to play at the University of Memphis, Jackson inked an audacious tattoo on his arm as a 10th-grader.
It read "King of Memphis." Even in the King's hometown, no one blinked.
Certainly not Chris Jones.
"For me to get my own, I had to go through Joe because there was no one bigger than him," Jones said.
Jones is three long, hard years removed from all of that, on his own road, his own journey as Louisville's starting point guard.
Except sometimes no matter where the road leads, it's hard to forget where it started. When Jones faces his hometown team for the first time on Thursday night in Louisville, when his No. 12 Cardinals battle Jackson and the 24th-ranked Tigers, it won't just be a pivotal contest in the American Athletic Conference. It will be Jones' past colliding headlong with his present, who he was intersecting with who he's become. It's never supposed to be about individual matchups, but sometimes, this time, it just is.
"He's still got a chip on his shoulder," said Jones' high school coach, Jermaine Johnson, who is now on staff at Georgia Southern. "Trying to beat Joe, that right there is the story of his basketball career."
To be clear, there is no personal animosity between Jones and Jackson. Jones respects his adversary immensely and appreciates his talents. Jackson returns the compliments -- "he's a great player," he said simply Wednesday night.
It's just that Jackson always has been a personal growth chart for Jones, the bar he could never quite reach.
They played the first time when no one was looking.
Johnson dragged Jones for a meeting and a helping of humble pie. Johnson had spied Jones in a church league, liked his spunk and his game. He brought him to Melrose High School, envisioning an inside-out game featuring Jones and the already enrolled Adonis Thomas.
But Jones was like a lot of kids from the tough Orange Mound section of the city -- scrappy, but also undisciplined and unpredictable. He lived with his mother and sisters, scraping by as families there do, sleeping next to a pit bull in a back room at night for company and security.
"I wasn't a troublemaker, but I did what everybody else did because they were my friends," he said. "I didn't know no one else but them, so I did what they did. I thought it was cool."