[During the 20th century, pro basketball included many stories of borderline prospects heading overseas after college for seasoning and returning a year or two later to compete for NBA roster spots. In the 1960s, Red Auerbach even railed briefly about the Europe option. He worried that the “Spanish teams” were stealing too much NBA talent and leaving his Celtic bench bare.
But, with no real leverage in the matter, the NBA never put its foot down on the European option. Players kept coming and going, and this article catches up with one of them, Popeye Jones, during the early 1990s. Jones graduated from Murray State, spent time in Italy, and then came back to win a spot on the troubled Dallas Mavericks, Newspaper reporter Dan Morris picks up the narrative from there in this March 9, 1994 profile published in the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun.
Jones would spend 11 seasons in the league, averaging 7.0 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Since 2010, he’s been an NBA assistant coach, currently with Denver, and his latest claim to fame is his hockey-playing sons. Seth Jones is a defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks, and so is younger son Caleb.]
One glance at the Dallas Mavericks’ parking lot tells you plenty about Ronald “Popeye” Jones. Jamal Mashburn, the Mavericks’ first-round draft pick from Kentucky drives a $100,000 Mercedes. Five-year veteran Randy White owns a $70,000 BMW. Popeye parks a 1993 Jeep Cherokee. Comfortable and sharp, it is a practical choice by a practical man.
“I’ll never pay $100,000 for a car, no matter how much money I make,” Popeye said. “Maybe growing up in a small town has something to do with it, but I just wouldn’t feel right about it.”
It felt fine this year to build his mother a four-bedroom house next to his childhood home in Dresden, Tenn., population 2,500. But that’s the extent of Popeye’s big spending since he signed a one-year, $300,000 contract with Dallas last August. He is the leading rebounder for the woeful Mavericks and was named to the NBA’s Rookie All-Star team this year.
But the Mavericks are still negotiating a second-year option on his contract. “You have a better chance of winning the lottery than playing in the NBA,” said Popeye, a 6-foot-8 forward. “The average NBA career is four years. Sure, I’m 23 and making six figures. But I’m not going to make that all my life. I know some guys don’t think like I do, but I’m always thinking about my future.
“This is a fairy-tale land,” said Popeye, who rents a two-bedroom apartment in North Dallas near the Mavericks’ practice gym. There is a couch, a big-screen TV, no pictures on the wall. “It’s strictly a bachelor’s apartment,” Popeye said. “It’s not meant to be all neat . . . I’m not out in the real world, yet. When that day comes, I’ve got to be prepared for it.”
But for now, fairy-tale land will do just fine for the former Dresden High star. It has been quite journey since his Dresden High years when he and Peanut Winn led a unique group of athletes to the state playoffs in football, basketball, and baseball. Popeye was a 6-foot-8 pitcher and shortstop.
Sitting in a North Dallas shopping mall, Popeye is paid $1,500 for a one-hour autograph session in a department store. The line of fans remains 25 deep, and Popeye soon runs out of photos. A store manager hustles to make reproductions on a copy machine, and those in line don’t seem to mind.
“My boyfriend will just die when I give him this,” a teenager tells Popeye. “Would you mind signing one for my cousin, too?”
“Sure,” Popeye says. “What’s the name?”
With Popeye’s marketable nickname, there are other logical endorsements on the table. Popeye’s Chicken is interested for next year. But any spinach endorsements will probably have to wait. “I am not,” he says with a laugh, “a big fan of spinach.”
As the line begins to shorten, two sales clerks debate if they should get an autograph. Popeye’s not a Dallas Cowboy, in fact the Mavericks have the worst record in the league. Still . . .
“Just watch,” says one of the clerks. “We won’t get one, and he’ll end up some huge star.”
When Popeye arrived in Dallas last summer, he weighed 265 pounds and had a body fat count of 19. From August to November, he worked with the Mavericks’ conditioning coach six days a week, never missing a session. He shed 15 pounds and lowered his body fat count to 12.5.
“I understood that, ‘Hey, this is the NBA, the greatest players in the world.’ I didn’t know how to prepare for it except to work hard. I went to camp and was in great shape . . . From that point on, Coach knew I was serious about playing.”
Popeye is the ultimate role player who understands coach Quinn Buckner’s intentions. He is to rebound, set picks, and get the ball to Mashburn or the Mavs’ other star, former Ohio State standout Jim Jackson.
“Popeye,” Mashburn says with a smile, “doesn’t want to shoot. He likes to rebound. So, I like him a whole lot.”
It is a different role than Popeye played last year in Italy, where he averaged 21 points and 13 boards a game. He had to carry the burden of Americans playing basketball in Europe—making sure the team won.
“I figured this is easy compared to my job last year,” he said. “Now I don’t have to do everything for the club to be successful.”
Still, the Mavericks’ 8-51 record weighs heavy. Popeye has never played on a losing team. “At first, it was a lot of stress,” Popeye said. “I was at my all-time low. I had gone out there and put so much into winning and still come up short.”
When losing began to take its toll, the pressure built in the Mavericks’ locker room. Mashburn and Jackson didn’t like their coach’s style, and the two stars made sure the Dallas newspapers knew it. “You’ve got to understand that each team has what you call superstars,” Popeye said. “Our superstars are Jamal and Jimmy; everybody knows that. Those guys are the franchise players.
“They can voice their opinion, and it’s okay. A guy like me, I voice my opinion, it’s like, ‘Hey, we can get rid of him, and get somebody else.’ That’s just how the world is. I’m not going to lose an opportunity by arguing with the coach.”
But staying out of the line of fire was more than just a career move by Popeye. “I was raised by my mom to give people respect,” he said. “I never talked about Quinn in the locker room or to the papers.”
Instead, Popeye heled ease tensions because he could relate to what Mashburn was experiencing. “I tried more than anything to try and smooth the problems out between those guys,” Popeye said. “Coach would have me talk to Jamal. This is a guy who just turned 21 in November, and he’s got to carry the team. The team is losing, and when you’re frustrated, you say things you really don’t mean.
“I’d been through all this pressure in Italy. I tried to make Jamal see that, ‘It’s not your fault and not Coach Buckner’s fault. We’ve just got to come together and fix this problem.’”
Although slow in coming, the antagonism eased.
It has not been a season of total frustration, despite the losing and the locker-room disputes. Popeye’s selection to the Rookie All-Star team was not only a personal bright spot, but helped him deal with the disappointments of a long NBA campaign.
“That just sums up to me what hard work will do for you,” Popeye said. “It’s still hard to swallow that I was actually there. It was the greatest experience of my life.”
But sharing time with the stars isn’t something you dwell on during competition. “What I had to overcome most this season was thinking about who I was playing against,” Popeye said. “I can’t get caught up in thinking, ‘Hey, this is Charles Barkley.’
“If you give them too much respect, they are going to try to bury you in the ground.”