The journeyman is coming! Thank God.
They've been huddled like this for minutes, minutes that seem like hours, ever since the game ended. They have deadlines, all of them: the stone-faced beat writers, the rosy-cheeked sportscasters, the cheery-voiced radio guys. They have copy to file, updates to phone in, B-roll to edit. It's past 10 o'clock. They need quotes, damn it, sound bites, snippets. And fast!
But the Cavaliers just lost to the Knicks, so the pack is huddled in the middle of the locker room, looking scared and lost. After wins, it's different. After wins, it's Hey, what's up, nice game! Smile, shake! Quote, quote!
But after losses . . .
The journeyman is coming! Thank God.
They don't typically swarm to journeymen. They prefer stars, guys whose names sell papers, whose faces stop channel surfers mid-click. But this journeyman, he's different.
He came to Cleveland with hopes -- his and the city's -- of ditching the tag for good. Journeyman: He always hated that word. He wanted badly to be the guard who could shoot the Cavaliers to their first championship -- a sort of loudmouth Steve Kerr to LeBron's Michael Jordan.
But the shots haven't fallen, so the boos have -- especially tonight, when he finished with just three points, missed shots he's paid handsomely to make, and got torched by the Knicks' guards. In a few short months, the journeyman -- an ardent self-promoter who calls himself, among other things, the "world's greatest shooter" -- has become the town's best scapegoat. And the only thing the pack likes better than a star is a scapegoat.
But they also swarm to him because, well, he's pleasant. He compliments their outfits. He takes interest. And he doesn't give them that look, that scrunched-up face that asks, Who the hell are you, and why are you at my locker? That's the go-to face of the NBA, especially after losses to the Knicks. But this guy's face -- his toothy smile; his warm, droopy eyes -- says something different. Something like Stick with me, Reporter Guy, and you'll hit that deadline just fine.
"I'm gonna be the keynote speaker," he announces, weaving through the throng and sinking into his leather chair. Then, in case their recorders weren't rolling, he repeats himself: "I'm gonna be the keynote speaker. Everyone settle in."
The whole pack moves, a swarm of cartoon bees. They jockey for space, jabbing at his mouth with mics and recorders and cameras. They don't smile -- not after a loss -- but there is a certain calm in their eyes. Visions of pithy sound bites, nailed deadlines, and pleased editors fill their hurried heads.
"This is gonna happen once," the journeyman says, "and it's not gonna happen again." There is a pause for effect; if he's going to do this, he's going to get a laugh. "I'm officially in a slump."
Money! They're all grinning now. Roaring, in fact. The journeyman's been talking for weeks about how he wasn't in a slump, how he's never in a slump, doesn't even know what a slump is. Now he's "officially in a slump"? This is . . . money!
This the toughest slump you've been in?
"No. I had a tougher slump than this last year, and I like this slump better, because I don't have a 7-foot-3, 365-pound guy on my ass telling me if I don't make shots, he's gonna send me to Siberia."
He's talking about Shaquille O'Neal, his old teammate in Miami. Pure gold!
What's going on? Bad karma?
"I don't know, but I'm gonna start my voodooism tonight by not taking a shower. Hopefully, that helps. Hopefully, going on the road, I'll make more shots because I'm funky."
They love it! They're still grinning as the pack disbands. They're still grinning while the journeyman, for anyone who may still be recording, keeps talking. "I'm livin' bad right now," he says. "I gotta get married. Anybody got a girl for me?"
They're still grinning, but they're not writing this down, because they're done with him. They're ready to go, to tally all his misses and tell the people what they want to hear: that Damon Jones needs to shut up and make some shots.
Flat on his back, basketballs vibrating the floor around him, Damon Jones lets out a soulful "Fu-uck!" The word ricochets off the padded walls of the small upstairs practice court where, three weeks after his State of the Slump Address, Jones and the Cavs are finishing a Saturday-morning workout.
In his last nine games, Jones has averaged just five points and lost his starting job, which was granted only by an injury to Larry Hughes. Whatever voodooism he's tried, it hasn't worked. The boos have gotten louder. A Texas newspaper has ranked him the league's top free-agent bust. WKNR's drive-time host, Kenny Roda, has taken to calling him "'Amon 'Ones" -- no D and no J. And with the trade deadline looming, callers are wondering if there's any way -- Isn't there anything we can do?! -- to get rid of him.
Just a year ago, Jones was a key figure on a championship-caliber team. He lived a short drive from Miami's South Beach and was palling around town with Shaq. For the first time since college, people were talking about Damon Jones.
At 29, Jones is middle-aged by NBA standards. He spent his first six seasons bouncing from city to city, with little success. But in Miami, he struck shooter's gold. With defenses double- and triple-teaming Shaq, and spending the rest of their energy on budding star Dwyane Wade, Jones was left alone. He always was one of the league's better stand-still shooters; suddenly, he was always standing still, open, ball in hand. He knocked down shot after shot, averaging 11.6 points a game and finishing among the league's best three-point gunners.
As Miami streaked to within a game of the NBA Finals, Jones unleashed the joyful egomaniac that had been festering under his warm-ups for years. A starter for the first time, he suddenly was announcing his status as "the best-looking man on the team" and "every woman's dream." He also was the "best shooter in the world," and "the funniest person in the NBA -- and the world."
With credibility on the floor, Jones could finally be "Damon Jones to the fullest. And I never had to worry about anything," he reminisces. "It was the ultimate."
But it didn't come with the ultimate payday, and this is what Jones pines for. He'd play anywhere, he says, "as long as I had a great contract." It's the contract that lets him send cash home to Houston for his three kids and their two moms. It's the contract that lets him drape his slight, 6-foot-3 frame with the finest Italian fabrics and the heaviest diamond wrist-wear he can find.
So last summer, he activated a clause allowing him to look for more money. The Cavaliers needed to upgrade their three-point shooting. They saw Jones as a perfect fit.
Jones saw a chance to start alongside all-stars LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. A chance, once again, to spend the season wide open in the corner, arms flailing, calling for the ball.
The Cavs offered a four-year, $16 million deal. Jones signed in September, delighting the local media. Roger Brown, the tough-to-please Plain Dealer columnist, called the Cavs "wise" for signing Jones, dubbing him "a bona fide talent." The radio guys applauded the move.
Now, just five months later, Jones is on his back, staring at the ceiling while his teammates diligently knock down free throws. But, here, away from the pack of reporters, he doesn't look so concerned about his alleged slump. For the last few minutes, he's been shuffling around the court, offering wagers on a variety of long-distance jumpers. He was up $1,600 just a minute ago -- Suckers! -- but he just missed a half-court shot, costing him $800. That dropped him to even -- and dropped him to the floor in exaggerated awe.
As usual, his teammates shake their heads, chuckle, and keep shooting. It's tough to tell what they're thinking, just as it's tough to tell what head coach Mike Brown is thinking when Jones gets up from the floor.
"Damon," Brown says calmly. "You finish your free throws?"
"You talkin' about free throws?" Jones fires back, mouth agape in faux amazement. "I'm tryin' to get this cash!"
In 1993, the Houston Rockets held their training camp at a high school in Galveston, a working-class town off the Texas coast. Other than hosting the Rockets, Galveston was known for its Mardi Gras blowouts, warm waters, and little else.
The Rockets were a loaded bunch that, starting that season, would win two straight NBA championships. But years later, it's a scrawny, mouthy little high-schooler whom the old Rockets recall best.
"Do you ever go to class?" Sam Cassell, a rookie guard at the time, remembers asking the kid.
"I got a pass," Damon Jones would lob back. "The teachers know I'm gonna be in the NBA."
Jones had grown up 50 miles north, in Houston. He was raised by his mom, a saleswoman who helped her oldest boy develop a star swagger well before he earned it. Mention her son's "world's best" nicknames, and Renee Jones-Lee, in a deadly serious tone, will say: "He is all of that. That's what he's been told."
But by 1993, Jones' mom had transferred him to Galveston's Ball High, a more stable environment than Houston. He lived on the island with his grandma, traveling back to Mom's when he could.
So when the Rockets showed up for training camp, Jones, who'd long since decided he was NBA material, made sure to shag balls for the team. He also made sure the Rockets knew that one day, he'd be in the league; he even challenged them to shooting contests -- and held his own.
"He talked a lot of trash as a high school kid," recalls Robert Horry, a young Rockets forward at the time. "It was amazing. I'm like, 'This kid thinks he can play with us now.'"
Jones already had caught the attention of the University of Houston. The coaches liked his shot, liked his quickness. But mostly, they liked him. They liked how, when they passed a note through his high school coach that read, "UH loves Damon Jones," Jones scribbled back: "Damon Jones loves UH!" They liked how Jones did as much talking on the bench as he did on the floor.
And like all great shooters, Jones seemed to consider himself always open. Says Robert Kirby, the former Houston assistant who recruited him: "He could go 0-for-30, and he thinks he's the best thing since fried rice."
Jones started as a freshman, averaging 10 points a game and quickly emerging as the team's mascot-in-uniform. He was always turning off the hot water or tying up the freshmen -- always doing something. He once tried to wear two different-colored shoes during a game. "It bothered some other people," remembers Alvin Brooks, Houston's head coach at the time. "But I didn't mind. That was just Damon being Damon. If you tried to contain or curb him, or keep him from that, he couldn't play."
After his junior season, in 1997, Jones thought he was ready to go pro. His coaches, his mom, NBA scouts -- everyone told him to finish college, to work on his defense, his passing, his ball-handling. But Jones was expecting his first daughter and "had to come out and make some money."
Of the 58 players drafted, he wasn't one. Nor was he invited to a single training camp. He got a tryout with the CBA's Yakima Sun Kings, but promptly got cut.
The International Basketball Association called, and Jones started his career with the Black Hills Posse of Rapid City, South Dakota. It was a season of 19-hour bus trips to Winnipeg and $277.05 a week after taxes. But it was a paycheck. "I was able to send money home," he says.
His play earned him a promotion to the Idaho Stampede of the CBA -- and a raise to $1,200 a week. More important, it earned him exposure. By February of 1999, the New Jersey Nets wanted Jones' help. He played there for a month, then got cut. Over the next six years, he would do time with Boston, Golden State, Dallas, Vancouver, Detroit, Sacramento, Milwaukee -- never lasting more than a year.
But if he hadn't proved it to anyone else, he'd proved it to himself: Damon Jones was worth some coin.
So when the Bucks offered him a million bucks in 2004, he said no. He'd watched free agents sign big deals, and he knew he could play with those guys. He waited for that contract.
It eventually came from the Miami Heat. They needed a shooter to keep defenses from collapsing on O'Neal, so they offered Jones $2.5 million a year.
"We're winning games, I'm able to contribute," he'd tell reporters later that season. "What more could you ask for?"
Oh, this should be good.
The press is huddling, this time outside the Cavs' locker room. The team just finished a brief morning shoot-around. Jones is still slumping, but for the moment, they've put that aside. They want Jones speaking Chinese. Now that's television.
Jones has just finished explaining his new endorsement deal with Chinese shoe-and-apparel giant Li-Ning. The company first called last season, when he was emerging as the Heat's goofy sidekick, the Alfred to Shaq's Batman and Wade's Robin. Jones remembers exactly what they told him: "We like your three-point shooting. And we like your personality."
Over the years, he had carefully noted the way stars like Shaq and Jordan used their personalities to maximize their marketability -- and their paychecks. When Jones was finally getting recognized -- albeit barely -- he seized the opportunity.
"He knows that his 15 minutes of fame may run out at any time, and he's gonna maximize every single second of them," says Ira Winderman, who covers the Heat for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Whenever Shaq would walk into the arena, that shot ABC or TNT or ESPN would show of getting ready for the game, Damon was always next to him. Shaq's the last guy off the bus? Damon's with him. That's not accidental."
The way he holds three fingers over his palm after draining a three, the way he kicks up his leg when a defender guards him closely, the way he lingers in the stands after chasing a loose ball: It's all him. But it's also his way of making ESPN pay attention.
"Damon could probably walk into a building and tell you the seven camera positions," Winderman says. "That's what he does. Give him credit. He works it. He's endured the system so long, he knows how to work it."
"I try to set myself up for the future," Jones explains. "That's why I do the radio shows and do a lot of things with ESPN or TNT -- to create that relationship for when the air finally goes out of the basketball."
And it's working. Jones is a regular on Kenny Smith's satellite radio show -- a gig Jones secured because he's known Smith for years, and because he speaks his mind and can deliver a punch line.
When a North Olmsted Benz dealer needed a spokesman, they picked Jones. And when Li-Ning needed a pitchman, they picked him too. In January, Jones became the first NBA player to endorse the company's gear, signing a two-year deal he calls "very lucrative."
"And I'm not dealing with U.S. dollars," says Jones, whose journeyman mug is now on billboards in China. "I'm dealing with yen. And you know yen is stronger than the dollar? All right now. Now you're starting to put it all into focus. This Damon Jones kid is smarter than you guys think."
But all the promoting, accompanied by all the missing, is what has everyone booing. Announcing that he is "going global," and is now "just behind Yao [Ming]," the messiah of Chinese hoops, magnifies every missed shot and errant pass. Other Cavs -- Sasha Pavlovic, Donyell Marshall, Drew Gooden -- can disappear for a half without the fans even noticing. But not Jones.
"Everyone recognizes the fact that he's a solid reserve role player," says Steve Kerr, the former guard for the Cavs and Bulls. "But he likes to pretend like he's a superstar . . . He has to live with that when things don't go well."
So at every turn, the press swoops, and today is no different. But before they ask him about all those misses, they need some happy footage -- something that will make him look the part of a shameless self-promoter. Something people can boo.
So, Damon, know any Chinese?
He smiles into the camera and lets it go, a slow, deliberate run of obviously much-practiced Chinese: "Ee-che-doe-ker-nun." Anything is possible.
Money! The next day's stories will practically write themselves.
For home games, the Cavaliers ask players to arrive 90 minutes before tip-off. But by the time Jones pulls his Mercedes into the players' parking lot, he's usually 35 minutes late. He doesn't shoot much before games, and let's be honest: When you look this good, it doesn't hurt to make a grand entrance.
The walk to the locker room should take just a minute or so. But as Jones casually strolls through the arena's bowels, he stops to share a sincere hello and handshake with everyone he sees: security guards, reporters, support staff. Especially opposing players. After 10 teams in eight years, he knows most. Ask him who his NBA friends are, and he'll tell you, "Shit -- half the league!"
Jones likens himself to Terrell Owens -- the NFL's maligned wide receiver and a friend since they both played in California. They're both "misunderstood," he says. He even lifts one of Owens' favorite quotes: "I love me some me!" But while NFL players routinely badmouth Owens, finding an NBA player to bash Jones is a tougher proposition.
Journeyman? Sure. Shameless self-promoter? Of course. But the personality fans boo is what makes him widely considered one of the league's best teammates.
"People take life too serious, and he's enjoying it," says Horry, the former Rocket now playing for San Antonio. "I think every guy around the league knows him and knows he just likes to enjoy life."
Former teammates and coaches credit Jones with keeping locker rooms loose, serving as a vocal leader, and providing consistent comic relief in an otherwise tense work environment. The things fans see are just Damon having fun, they say; the things fans don't see are what make him a cherished teammate.
By the time Jones arrived at Golden State in 1999, Donyell Marshall had been trapped in the miserable Warriors organization for four years. Jones played there for only a few weeks, but he brought levity to the locker room, Marshall says. "In Golden State I didn't have too many fond, good memories of certain people," Marshall says. "But I've always remembered him."
Chris Webber, the 76ers forward often cast as a scapegoat himself, played with Jones in Sacramento. Though Jones played just 49 games, Webber was miffed when the Kings let him go. "He always kept me upbeat, but at the same time he was real focused on the game, and he was very serious about the game," Webber says. "When I played with Damon, I really loved him.
"I think the bad rap comes from his putting his leg up when a guy's checking him, or putting the three sign. But that's from . . . people who aren't playing ball or don't play with him, and just have an idea of what the game should be like."
And he's always prided himself on possessing the class clown's all-important off switch. "When it was time to get serious, he got serious," says Terry Porter, who coached Jones in Milwaukee. "He's a jokester, but not when it was time to do work."
On game nights, as Jones makes his way toward the locker room, most of his teammates are already dressed, taped, and shiny with sweat. Ask them about Jones, and they quickly go into NBA Interview Mode.
Yes, forward Drew Gooden says, Jones' antics are "not a distraction," and "he's our family." Says Zydrunas Ilgauskas: "Damon has our support 100 percent." And LeBron James swears that "we love Damon for who he is, and we don't want him to change for nobody."
But what else would they say? If camaraderie is the most important thing in an NBA locker room, the appearance of camaraderie is a close second. That's what keeps the pack at bay. These are men skilled in the art of the generic quote, and their faces rarely change. Whether they're talking about a teammate, an opponent, or what they had for dinner, it's the same: You've just asked the World's Dumbest Question, and sure, they'll answer, but only because the suits say they have to.
But something different happens on the face of Donyell Marshall. A beefy, 6-9 forward, Marshall signed with the Cavs just a month before Jones did. He also was asked to help shoot Cleveland to the playoffs, to take pressure off James and Ilgauskas. He's struggled, just like Jones. But Marshall keeps to himself. So the fans leave him alone.
Perhaps it's that. Or perhaps it's the fact that Marshall, who's played for seven NBA teams, knows what it's like to zigzag around the NBA. Whatever it is, when you ask Marshall about Jones, something different comes across his round, fleshy face. Something strange for an NBA locker room. Something . . . real.
"He's a guy who struggled to get into this league," Marshall says, his voice rising above standard-issue monotone. "Because he clowns around a lot, people think he's just a clown. But that's a guy who, he struggled so much, he's like, 'Let me have fun with it, because I know what you can go through.' You can't sit up here and be serious every day of your life. You can't. He clowns around a lot, but he has just as much passion as anyone I've seen in this game . . . What's wrong with having a little fun? What's wrong with being a comedian?"
Jones would love to hear this, but there's an hour until game time, so he's not around. He's somewhere in the tunnel, slowly smiling his way to the locker room, making the day of some unsuspecting food-service girl.
On a dreary, wet Saturday, Jones opens the door to his Westlake home, his eyes droopy, his smile lost in weariness.
The two-story house is 4,000 square feet, a 10-room cavern filled with his favorite purchases from a Houston furniture store. Jones bought the place from Bobby Sura, the former Cavs guard, for almost $600,000. It's in a quiet Westlake development not far from the freeway. There's a hoop in the driveway. He hasn't shot at it once.
Jones has agreed to spend the afternoon discussing himself. But even this, his favorite topic, doesn't seem to muster much enthusiasm. "I can't sit here and fabricate that everything is all hunky-dory," he says.
Perhaps it's the clouds and the rain; Jones misses the Miami sun desperately. Or maybe it's the recent road trip. The Cavs just returned from Miami, where they got trounced by the Heat. Jones found himself sitting on the bench, considering what could have been. "It brought back a lot of memories," he says. "I had a lot of time to think about 'Wow. How did I get to this point?'"
But more likely it's that tonight, when the Cavs tip off against the Sixers, he knows he'll be on the bench. He knows that the announcers will talk about how he has to start hitting those shots, and that somewhere in the stands, a fan will mutter something about the Cavs needing a real goddamned point guard. He knows that afterward, as he walks to his car, someone will holler something, in a voice dripping sarcasm and Miller Lite. Keep shooting! They'll have to go in eventually! Something like that.
Jones swears that he's "high on life" and that life for him is "just awesome." But for the moment, he looks baffled. Baffled that a guy who climbed all this way, whose teammates and coaches have always loved him, is the one guy Cleveland won't warm up to. Baffled that the media keeps coming by his locker to chat, then reporting that he needs to shut the hell up.
"You have to understand who I am," he says. "Nobody knows about the 277 dollars a week I made eight years ago. No one was on that bus with me, 19 hours to Winnipeg, Canada, or 15 hours to Fargo, North Dakota. And the product of that is the way that I act now. I'm happy."
Somewhere in the house, there is a binder. It holds clippings, quotes, snippets -- all the negative things that have been written over the years. Though he swears he doesn't care "what the fans think or the media thinks," he's been steadfastly archiving it all.
He considers getting the thing out, but there isn't time. Lunch, a nap, and in a few hours, the Sixers. There just isn't time.
A few hours later, the dreary day gives way to a night of cold, dense mist. Long after the rest of his teammates, Jones slips into his ready-for-the-runway suit, climbs into his Mercedes and drives downtown, Jay-Z blaring.
When the game finally starts, he's on the bench. A buzzer rings sometime near the end of the first quarter, and he takes the floor to a reception of quiet boos.
Then, as the first-quarter clock falls toward zero, LeBron pounds toward the basket. The crowd rises, praying for a dunk. The Sixers' defense collapses, praying for anything but. James flips the ball to the corner.
Damon Jones. Standing still. Hands up. Open.
As the ball pours through the net and the quarter ends, Jones stands frozen, three fingers spread wide. His teammates leap from the bench, watching and waiting for Jones to join them. But for the moment, he just stands there, smiling big.
It's a sellout tonight. For the moment, the whole place is smiling big with him.