Iowa State Cyclones forward Robert Jones (12) and Eastern Illinois Panthers forward Rodolfo Bolis (23) battle for a rebound the ball during the first half of a NCAA college basketball at Hilton Coliseum on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — The meaningful image climbs up Robert Jones’ muscular right arm and summits at the top of his shoulder.
The tattoo depicts a mythical figure — an ancient god who reigned supreme amid stormy seas and rock-buckling earthquakes. It’s a relatively recent addition to the senior Iowa State forward’s carefully curated collection of body art and he answers a question about it with a gentle clarification.
“Not the Roman one, it’s the Greek one, Poseidon,” said Jones, a 6-10, 260-pound self-styled philosopher who’s molded himself into the most powerful leader in the Cyclones’ locker room. “I just got this in August. To me, it represents the progression I want to reach in my life. Living every day in order to be the best version of myself. I mean, this is a god. So if you could get to, like, god-like abilities, that’s just something that represents the steps I want to take in my life.”
In other words, set sky-high goals, so when you inevitably fall short, you’ve still scaled heights few expected you to even approach, let alone reach.
“You can’t ever get there,” Jones noted.
But you can’t stop trying.
Jones learned that from his parents, Ken and Laura. He’s personified that never-settle mentality ever since he first suited up in a baggy, oversized uniform for church league basketball games. He carried it through high school and a stint at Denver. And now Jones has emerged as the unquestionable standard-bearer for what ISU head coach T.J. Otzelberger demands from his players: Elite effort, maximum intensity, and a commitment to spurring massive team-wide growth.
“Rob, as much or more than anyone, has — on a daily basis — lived out the standards we have in our program in every aspect of his life,” said Otzelberger, whose Cyclones (10-2) will cap their nonconference slate at noon on New Year’s Eve against New Hampshire at Hilton Coliseum. “He sets the tone for younger guys. He provides leadership and sets an example. He challenges guys to be accountable. He stands for all the things our fans stand for in terms of toughness, work ethic, grit, blue-collar hard work. If I were a fan, Rob Jones is the type of guy I’d really get behind, because all those same things we teach our children and that we’re about in this part of the country, Rob Jones is every one of those things.”
He’s not mythical, he’s simply relentless.
And to think he almost ended up at Northern Iowa before fate took a hand and then-Panther assistant Kyle Green decided to join Otzelberger’s incoming staff for the 2021-22 season. “Big Rob Energy” could have resided in the McLeod Center and the Missouri Valley — not Hilton Coliseum and the Big 12.
“From there it’s history,” Jones said. “I came to Iowa State to play for T.J. and play for Kyle Green. They recruited me the hardest, so to come here and see that it’s a very family-based program, that’s exactly what I was looking for.”
“Big Rob Energy” sprang from humble beginnings. At the age of four or five, Jones played church league basketball, which, he recalled, epitomized controlled chaos.
“Nobody knows what they’re doing,” he said. “You’re just kind of running around being cute, but you always know there’s one or two people that, ok, you know they might be good at basketball.”
Jones was one of those people.
“Back then you wore this wristband and that’s who you guarded based on your skill level,” Ken Jones said. “But he was so frustrated that he would just steal the ball from everybody — and that was our favorite part of his game, which he doesn’t do much here. He would steal the ball, go down and do a layup. Steal the ball, go down and do a layup.”
Jones’ now much larger son relives those moments by running the floor for the Cyclones with grace and surprising speed. He scored six points in transition for ISU in its most recent win over Eastern Illinois and his teammates enjoy rewarding him for his full-throttle baseline-to-baseline sprints.
“I always dribble with my eyes up,” sophomore point guard Tamin Lipsey said. “I’m always looking for guys and Rob knows that. I think that’s one of the factors in why he runs so hard. He knows I’m looking for him. I tell that to him every time.”
Jones developed into a star at Prior Lake (Minn.) High School, where those steals, as his father noted, turned into dunks instead of layups. He was rated a three-star prospect after graduating and Denver seemed like the perfect place to grow his game. Wins, however, were hard to come by and Jones yearned to make a change. That’s where Green came in, along with Otzelberger, who liked Jones’ size but wasn’t yet sure what else he’d provide in that first season that came on the heels of going 2-22 in Steve Prohm’s final season at the helm.
“We were looking for bigger bodies,” said Otzelberger, who guided that 2021-22 team to the Sweet 16 to punctuate one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA history. “Somebody who could come in and give us some impact on the frontline. I don’t know if we knew the depths of that and I also don’t know that when he came in here right away that it was immediate — that he just came in and said, ‘I’m going to do those things.’”
Ups and downs ensued. Consistency proved to be elusive. But with time and thought, Jones found the grind to be a reward in itself. Whether running lines, or bounding up stairs, he resolved to win every time or exhaust himself trying. Often, he did both — and Otzelberger noticed. So did Jones’ teammates. And by his second season, he was being boisterously introduced as “Big Rob Energy” Robert Jones when he’d enter the game at the 17:30 mark of the first half at Hilton.
“T.J. was the right coach at the right time when Robert needed that coach,” Ken Jones said.
Laura Jones agreed.
“We’re forever grateful,” she said.
Fast forward to Jones’ third year in the Cyclones’ program. He’s averaging a career-high 9.7 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting a heady 71.6 percent from the field. Yet he’s not surprised. Nor is he impressed.
“If you do the hard work every day, it’s like growing taller,” Jones said. “Do you really feel older on your birthday, or do you feel taller the next day? You don’t, because it’s the same thing that you’ve been doing your whole life. So it’s hard for me to feel the hard work pay off because that’s just something I’ve done my whole life.”
ISU has risen toward the top of KenPom’s advanced statistical ratings as the nonconference season winds down, but Jones’ effect on the Cyclones continues to ramp up. He’s humble yet driven, but not to produce showy statistics. Jones doesn’t desire accolades or adulation. He merely commands respect that’s rooted in helping his teammates get better in advance of another grueling Big 12 slate that starts Jan. 6 at Oklahoma.
“His voice maybe, at times, may be more impactful than the coaches’ (voices), because guys know that he’s been through it,” Otzelberger said. “He’s done it. He’s lived it. So when he says something, they know it’s very substantive. He’s never looking to cut a corner. He’s always looking to do the hard work and take the stairs. That really pays off for everybody in our program across the board.”
And across other programs, too. ISU’s veteran women’s head coach Bill Fennelly attends plenty of men’s games and wishes more players played the game like Jones does.
“The fans are drawn to him because our fans understand hard work,” Fennelly said. “They appreciate hard work. They appreciate someone that — yeah, they love great players, but I think they have a unique sense of (how) that guy is really important to the team, and that guy’s a lot like me. I show up every day. I do my job. Maybe I’m not the guy that gets the headlines, but my job, my team, my family doesn’t succeed without someone like that.”
So the next time you hear “Big Rob Energy” bellowed over the PA before Jones takes the court, take heed of its deeper meaning. It’s based on his behind-the-scenes work. His peerless leadership. His commitment to helping others — both on the court and off of it, in the present and the past.
In the fifth grade, Jones was selected to serve as a student ambassador at a naturalization ceremony for Bangladeshi Americans. As they became U.S. citizens, Jones spoke to commemorate the landmark occasion.
“So he (was) kind of taking into account the whole community that he was in, not just himself,” Laura Jones said.
Robert Jones didn’t fully grasp the gravity of the event, but he does remember feeling deeply honored to be involved. To help. To be trusted to speak.
“It was really cool, because it taught me that my words have power,” Jones said. “It was really good, moving forward, knowing that what I say is going to mean a lot to certain people.”
Now, those people are Cyclones. His teammates. His friends. His responsibility. Jones doesn’t need a tattoo to tell him that. He’s reminded of it every moment of every day.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Rob Jones,” Otzelberger said presciently on media day. “I couldn’t be a bigger Rob Jones fan (or) more of a believer in him and how he elevates our program. People aren’t able to see every single day that impact. The only gauge is, well, this is what happens in a game, but so much of what we’ve accomplished to this point and what we’ll accomplish this year is a byproduct of how hard Rob works and what he demands of himself and his teammates.”