Hoo-rizons: Former UVA Basketball Player Jontel Evans Finds New Calling
Jontel Evans wanted to race out of his family’s house, chase Tony Bennett down in the middle of the street and sign with the University of Virginia men’s basketball program right then and there.
That’s how much Bennett’s final words had hit home.
It was the spring of 2009 and Bennett had just taken over as coach.
Evans had given his verbal commitment to former coach Dave Leitao but was now thinking about going elsewhere.
Virginia Commonwealth University, Old Dominion University and the University of Alabama were just a few of schools on his radar.
But then Bennett and former assistant coaches Ron Sanchez and Ritchie McKay visited Evans’ home in Hampton.
“He said, ‘I heard you’re a defensive guy; I’m a defensive coach,’” said Evans, recalling his first-ever conversation with Bennett.
Bennett laid out his vision for the program and his guiding principles, which UVA fans have since come to know as “pillars.”
“He was just a good human being outside of basketball, and I could get that from that visit,” Evans said.
But the real clincher came just as Bennett was leaving.
“He said, ‘Live by faith and not by sight,’” Evans said. “He said it with a smile and then just walked gracefully out of the front door.
“I wanted to chase him down and say, ‘I’m staying!’ but I had to talk it over with my parents first.”
Evans said something about Bennett’s words just resonated.
“I perceived it back then like that it was a new program, a new coach and we’re at the bottom of the ACC,” Evans said, “but if you believe in what I’m trying to do, the rest will take care of itself. And I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of something that was much bigger than myself.”
Evans, who has gone by the nickname “Bub” since he was little, started 92 games for Virginia over his four-year career and ranks ninth on the all-time assists list.
Since Bennett was trying to implement a system that could achieve sustained success, there were a lot of ups and downs. That’s part of what made Virginia’s Senior Night game against Maryland at John Paul Jones Arena in 2013 so special.
The Cavaliers came back from a double-digit deficit to win in overtime, something Evans called, without a doubt, his career highlight.
“The way we played – I was saying goodbye to a conference that I had played in for years,” Evans said. “It was an amazing feeling. I was overwhelmed with emotion.”
In the moments after the final buzzer, Bennett made a beeline for Evans.
“I didn’t expect him to chase me down and come hug me,” said Evans, smiling at the memory. “When he did, I just broke down even more because I just appreciated everything that Coach Bennett had done for me as a player and as a student at UVA.
“Staying committed to UVA was the best decision of my life.”
Evans, who graduated with a degree in anthropology, was the first-ever player to play all four years for Bennett. Looking back, Bennett believes Evans’ contributions may not have gotten as much credit as they deserved.
“He was the best on-ball defender I’ve coached. When you talk about a player who could heat the ball up and just impose their will on a guy – Bub was it. We hadn’t had a guy like Bub until Kihei Clark – a guy who could just climb into a guy and drive a guy nuts with his quickness,” said Bennett, referring to UVA’s current second-year point guard. “He was so mentally tough that way.”
How apropos that Bennett’s first four-year player turned out to be, arguably, the best defensive player in the last 10 years of UVA basketball.
“You talk about building a foundation, those strong pillars, and who’s on the bottom of it – that’s Bub,” Bennett said.
A Long Wait
Still, when Evans graduated, no overseas professional teams were interested.
Forget that Evans had been an All-ACC defensive team member. That he was one of the Hoos’ main leaders. A bulldog with a mental and physical toughness that Bennett wanted all future players to possess.
The teams were looking for guards who could shoot the ball and check a host of other boxes that the 5-foot-11 Evans didn’t seem to check. Frustrated, Evans went home to train and wait for a phone call.
He had a long wait.
Fifteen months, to be exact. It was in August of 2014 when Evans finally landed a deal.
The good news was someone was willing to pay him to play basketball. The bad news – at least in Evans’ eyes at the time – was that it was in Slovakia.
“I was the only American on the team and nobody really spoke English,” Evans recalled. “It was just hard being all those miles away from home – especially being used to what you had at Virginia and in the ACC. I was definitely spoiled. Over there, I really had to get out of the mud, do things myself and experience things on my own and grow up as a man.”
As part of his contract, Evans was required to take a class so that he could learn Slovakian. Eventually, he picked up enough of the language to communicate with teammates and do small everyday things, like order food.
On the court, Evans proved he should have drawn far more interest from teams, leading his squad to the Slovakian league finals, where, coincidentally, he went up against former UVA guard T.J. Bannister (whose team won the championship).
But, despite a successful season, Evans knew about halfway through that the life – one in which you don’t know which country you’ll be in from one year to the next and teams aren’t very loyal – wasn’t for him.
A self-proclaimed “mama’s boy,” Evans missed home and his family.
“That one year,” Evans said, “was enough for me.”
Life After Hoops
When Evans returned to Virginia in 2015, he quickly realized the transition was going to be tougher than he thought.
“Ever since I was little, I always thought basketball and being an athlete was my purpose and that I would play until I couldn’t walk anymore,” said Evans, who had also been a star football player at Bethel High. “And when it ended earlier than I expected, it was like, ‘Wow, what am I going to do now?’”
At the same time, Evans was struggling with unresolved issues in his personal life, which included his parents’ divorce and a breakup with a girlfriend.
“I woke up one morning and was like, ‘Things have to change,’” Evans said.
Evans reached out to his older sister, Patrice, bursting into tears as soon as he started talking about all the things that had been bothering him.
That led to Evans having other honest conversations with people in his life. Before long, he felt like a completely different person.
“The barriers were broken down and I was able to see things from a different perspective,” Evans said.
Thinking back to that tough period, Evans realizes he had kept all of his emotions bottled up.
“I let it dictate my future and allowed it to hurt the people that wanted to be in my life and actually loved me,” he said. “I had to do some self-reflecting. I had to make some sacrifices and take ownership of my actions. Once I did that, it was just like a breakthrough for me.”
Around that time, Evans joined the basketball coaching staff at The Miller School in Charlottesville and started substitute teaching at the Charlottesville Day School.
He immediately loved both jobs and today is a full-time physical education teacher for kindergarteners through eighth-graders at CDS and an assistant basketball coach at Miller.
Most teachers at CDS – nearly two dozen of whom are graduates of UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development – have their master’s degrees, but CDS Executive Director Dave Bruns said Evans’ personality made him a perfect fit.
“He brings a playfulness that is a real part of our philosophy,” Bruns said. “We take play very seriously as a way of learning. There’s a natural curiosity and social and emotional development that comes from that.”
On a recent weekday at the school, Evans’ rapport with the kids was obvious as they raced around the gym, leaping to give Evans high-fives after every lap.
“When we play tag, we ask him to play with us and he always says yes,” said second-grader Madeline Williams.
First- and second-grade teacher Coro Cope said Evans – who just completed his fourth year at CDS – is special.
“Jontel is one of the kindest, big-hearted people that we’ve ever worked with,” Cope said. “The way that kids light up when they see him is pretty remarkable. They feel very seen and very heard by him. I think that just speaks to what a wonderful guy he is overall.”
Evans said the kids inspire him on a daily basis.
“They’re so innocent and don’t know what the real world is like,” he said. “I remember being that age and having dreams and aspirations.
“These kids motivate me to be a better teacher and a better man.”
Evans’ successful new career isn’t a surprise to Bennett, who still remembers the special touch he had as a counselor at his summer basketball camps.
“His work with the kids was wonderful,” Bennett said. “He was a guy who you could just see had a natural ability to communicate.”
Evans believes he’s found his calling.
“Just teaching kids, period, is something that I value a lot,” he said. “Why not shape the youth when they’re younger? I just find that to be very valuable.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be teaching and coaching, but whatever I decide to do after this is going to have something to do with influencing kids because I feel like that’s a gift of mine.”
Along the way, he’d like to share some of the experiences – both good and bad – that have shaped him.
“I’ve realized that there are so many people who think they are dealing with their issues alone, and that’s not the case,” Evans said. “I want to be an advocate for people to express whatever they’re going through and let it be known that they’re not by themselves.
“I want people to understand that you can dig yourself out of the hole and get back on track.”
It had been over six years since Evans laced up his sneakers for the Hoos, but that didn’t diminish his excitement one iota this past April as UVA won its first national championship.
Evans, who stays in regular touch with former teammates – including Mike Scott, Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon – and attends as many UVA basketball practices and games as his schedule permits, still feels like part of the team.
“I heard Ty Jerome say that none of this would be possible if it wasn’t for the guys before us,” said Evans, referring to comments the former UVA guard made during a press conference, “and I was just like, ‘Wow.’ For him to embrace the past like that…it just really meant a lot.”
Evans has experienced similar sentiment in the Charlottesville community.
“When I go out to eat or something on the Corner, people say, ‘Thank you, Jontel. Thank you for starting this,’” he said.
Evans’ fandom during March Madness was well-documented. When UVA played Texas Tech in the championship, Evans was at Brixx Wood Fired Pizza in Barracks Road Shopping Center.
At the final buzzer, Evans exited the restaurant and sprinted up and the down the street, hollering in delight.
“Cars were stopping and were like, ‘Is he OK?’” Evans said. “I was just so happy because I knew where this program was 10 years before the national championship. It was a great feeling. I was so proud of the team, the staff and Coach Bennett. There was nobody more deserving than him. He gave an opportunity to a lot of people like myself to grow outside of basketball into men. He has no idea how he’s shaped my life.”
Evans smiled as he recalled that first-ever meeting at his parents’ house.
“Look at us now,” he said, grinning. “National champs.”