The Ultimate Journeyman
Popeye Jones maintained a subtle but impressive career.
by Michael Romyn | @michael_romyn
Popeye Jones occupies a small and unessential space in NBA history. His resume boasts no championships, All-Star selections or awards; posting a Mavericks’ team record for most rebounds in a single game (28) was his pinnacle. Yet owing to a face that has become a predictable punch line, Jones still lingers in the fan’s common consciousness, despite retiring in ’04.
To remember Jones for hanging tough in a high-turnover League—rather than for his mug—would be a fairer and more fitting deal. He was successful enough to log 10 years in the NBA, a feat relatively few second-round picks can claim. The consummate journeyman, Popeye plugged holes and grinded out spot minutes wherever he was needed.
“I played hard every night,” Jones said. “I did all I could to make my career the best it could be. That’s how my peers know me, as one of the hardest working players that played during my era, and that’s always given me a special gratification. I’m really pleased with what I’ve accomplished, especially for a guy that played at a small school and is from a small town, kind of an unknown.”
Jones played his collegiate ball at Murray State University, where he led the nation in rebounding in the ‘90-91 season and wound up as the school’s all-time leading board man. He was selected with the 41st pick in the ’92 draft, but spent a season overseas before playing in his first NBA game, as a member of the Dallas Mavericks.
Despite four years at Murray State and a season of professional experience under his belt, it didn’t take long for the rookie power forward to realize NBA hoops was a different ballgame altogether.
“I had to learn quick,” he said. “In the NBA is there’s a different challenge every night. Sometimes when I was in in high school or college I could have a bad game and still come out okay, but in the NBA you know you’re going to be up against a great player so you have to bring your game every single night.”
Over the course of a decade, Jones matched up against an impressive list. There were the greats in Barkley, Malone and Wilkins; the perennial all-stars in Kemp, Webber and Vin Baker; the rising stars in Duncan and Garnett; and those who excelled in their own right, such as Oakley, Rodman, Horace Grant and Clifford Robinson.
All the top forwards were a handful, according to Jones, but when it came to naming his toughest assignments, there were no real surprises.
“It was obviously the Hall of Fame power forwards, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone,” he said. “And then some of the guys that aren’t in the Hall of Fame, like Charles Oakley, Buck Williams and Dennis Rodman, who I still believe belongs in the Hall of Fame. I’d say the top guys were Barkley, Malone, Oakley and Rodman.”
Jones never possessed much of an offensive repertoire, but, in his ability to rebound, he shared at least one elite skill with each of his “top guys.” For his career he averaged 7.5 rpg in 23 minutes, equating to 11.5 rebounds per 36. In the three years he played in Dallas—his most productive stretch—he twice averaged 10 or more rpg and, in ’94-95, led the league in offensive boards.
“Rebounding is not easy,” he said. “You’ve got to make a commitment to go to the backboard every time the ball is in the air and you’ve got to have the mindset that every missed shot is going to be yours. If you watch Kevin Love, that’s how he plays, every time the ball is in the air, he thinks it’s going to be his rebound.”
When Popeye talked rebounding, Kevin Love was a name that frequently came up. He sees a little of himself in the double-double machine, particularly when it comes to hustle and positioning, and even when it comes to the size of their respective rear-ends.
“I think if you look at body type when it comes to rebounding, the great rebounders are usually about Kevin Love’s size or my size, 6-7, 6-8, with a big lower half,” he said. “A lot of basketball players’ lower halves—their legs and their butts—are small. Only every now and then do you run into a guy that’s built like a Kevin Love or built like me and that understands angles and positioning. We don’t jump very high but we know how to get into position and use our bodies to get rebounds.”
Towards the tail end of his career, Popeye landed in Washington, where he played a part in the Michael Jordan comeback experiment. Like Oakley and Rodman before him, Jones was given the opportunity to play enforcer to MJ’s star, albeit a star that was on the wane. Unsurprisingly, Popeye talked about Jordan in the reverential tones commonly reserved for the greats.
“It was unbelievable to watch a guy just outsmart people as he got older,” he said. “He didn’t have the same athleticism he had when he was young, but he knew how to outsmart people. He knew how to play the game the right way, he knew how to get his shots and how get to the free throw line. As a scorer he said still had an aggressive mentality, he just went about it in a different way.”
Even as a seven-year NBA veteran, the then-30-year-old Jones had never witnessed the kind of dedication that Jordan displayed.
“I think the biggest thing I got from Mike was that he made a commitment everyday,” he said. “He was in the weight room everyday, even on game day. He’s in the weight room at 8 a.m. before shoot around, preparing himself for the game. He taught me that even if the game starts at night, game day starts when you wake up in the morning at 7am. All day you’re building yourself up for the game. All the great ones have that drive.”
Upon retirement, Popeye returned to Dallas, where he spent four years as a player development coach. Now a first-year assistant with the Nets, he is striving to impart some of the many lessons he took from Jordan, and the numerous other players and coaches he encountered during his playing days.
“Jordan, Doug Collins, Dick Motta, Don Nelson, the list goes on. I tried to take a little bit from every one of them and just keep adding to my own coaching philosophy. Now I’m learning a lot from Avery (Johnson) who’s a terrific young coach. I always wanted to coach and was kind of a coach on the floor as a player. As I got older I mentored the young guys and taught them how to be a professional. It was always a natural fit for me.”
In time, Jones sees himself as a head coach in the NBA (“It’s my goal, the only reason I do this”) But until that day comes, whether it’s in one year or ten, Popeye will continue to work hard and hang tough. It’s the only way he knows how.