One is a self-described “hick from the sticks” of southern Louisiana.
The other is a street-smart, quick-with-a-quip, city slicker from Philadelphia.
One was a bit of a bookworm as a kid who tried sports without much success.
The other was a gym rat who grew up to become one of the most successful high school basketball coaches in Southeastern Pennsylvania history.
Jeff Jones, a renowned graphic artist who has lived in Philadelphia for the last 10 years, and former Germantown Academy basketball coach Jim Fenerty have more in common than the rare blood cancer polycythemia vera (PV), one of a group of often-misdiagnosed disorders known as myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs).
Here’s their richest connection: Jones is the artist and Fenerty the subject, in one of the drawings in “Rare Reflections: MPNs Unmasked,” a campaign focused on raising awareness of MPNs and educating the public on symptoms and treatment options.
Rare Reflections features a series of illustrations by Jones, who has contributed covers and interior art for DC Comics and Marvel Comics, among other titles, and earned nominations for three Eisner Awards, given for creative achievement in American comic books.
But the self-depreciating Fenerty figures Jones never tackled a trickier task than trying to make a grizzled, 70-year-old ex-basketball coach look something like a superhero.
“I said, ‘You better be really talented, because you don’t have much to work with,’” Fenerty said. "He told me, ‘Jim, I don’t do cartoons. I’m a graphic guy.’
I said, ‘Well, when you try to draw me people are going to think it’s a cartoon.’"
“I kept noticing I would put my head down on my desk for a rest and wake up hours later,” Jones said. “I was fatigued, with strange symptoms, wasn’t able to focus clearly.”
Around the same time, Fenerty experienced different symptoms from the same disorder. The right side of his body went numb one day in history class at Germantown Academy, and a few days later during Mass at his church.
“All I knew was that for two years prior to my diagnosis, I had migraines and I was tired,” Fenerty said. "When they told me I had it, I had never heard of it.
“I’m an old history teacher and a basketball coach and I have no idea what I have.”
With treatment, Fenerty was able to coach for seven more years before the double whammy of a heart attack while battling pneumonia forced him to retire before the 2018-19 season. He finished his career with 626 victories, plus 17 Inter-Ac League titles, and a Pennsylvania independent schools state crown in 2013.
Fenerty said he’s in good health, walking 5-6 miles a day and working a few hours a week at Germantown Academy as a college counselor.
“I don’t think they got the memo that I was retired,” Fenerty joked.
Jones also has been able to resume his career despite the progressive nature of the disease.
“Everybody’s different — that’s why it’s so important to get specialists to tailor treatment,” Jones said. “You find ways to work around things and understand that certain days are going to be more of a struggle.”
Both men said they were inspired to help others because of their own success in managing the disease.
“I’m retired but I don’t want to be the guy who just sits in a rocking chair,” Fenerty said. “I had to learn a great deal about the disease. But I wanted to help people. I didn’t want anybody being stupid like I was, just ignoring the symptoms.”
Jones, who calls himself a “science nerd,” has spent countless hours researching the disease, and even attends a biyearly conference in New York to learn more.
“If I can even sway one person to go see their doctor if they are having any of these symptoms and get treatment,” Jones said. “There are treatments, things that can be done, they are life-enhancing, life-extending.”
Jones said he was contacted by representatives from Incyte, a global pharmaceutical company founded in 2002 in Wilmington, after disclosing his condition in an interview geared to fans of comic books. Incyte officials thought Jones could illustrate people experiencing full lives with MPNs as an awareness initiative.
“My wife said these were really rare diseases and a lot of people don’t understand them and they can be misdiagnosed,” said Jones, who lives in the Bella Vista section of Philadelphia. “She convinced me that doing education by showing other people’s stories was a good way to go. Basically, working in comics, we tell stories all day.”
Jones said he has done eight drawings for the “Rare Reflections” project, portraying people from around the country. He said he interviews subjects, trying to find “something that distills down that person’s story to a single image.”
It wasn’t tough with Fenerty, who also got involved with “Rare Reflections” through Incyte.
“Jim is such a great guy,” Jones said. “I knew immediately how I wanted to portray Jim. You have that intensity to draw him with his players, on the court doing what he loved to do and was really good at for a really long time.”
The image is striking, a portrait of Fenerty in a classic coaching crouch on the basketball court, surrounded by players during a break in the action.
“He’s a gifted artist and a great person,” Fenerty said of Jones.
The old basketball coach said his new friend pulled off the graphic-artist version of a game-winning, buzzer-beating, half-court shot.
“I told him that he did the impossible,” Fenerty said. “He actually made me look good.”